Betaworks is a Strange Attractor

September 22nd, 2010 by Terry Jones. Filed under Essence.

I’ve just arrived back at Betaworks, who led the investment in Fluidinfo, after a 3-month absence. It’s an amazing environment, somehow buzzing with both intensity and diversity. A lot of people are trying to get an answer to the question “What is Betaworks?” The most obvious (and wrong) answer is that Betaworks is an incubator. I’ve spent time on and off thinking about the question, and I don’t think there’s a single good / conventional answer. Betaworks is something else. So here’s my informal answer, which I think works pretty well:

Betaworks is a Strange Attractor.

From that Wikipedia page: An attractor is a set towards which a dynamical system evolves over time. Of course I don’t mean Betaworks is literally a strange attractor, though their logo looks like an outward-facing version of the attractor on the right (more images). I’ll illustrate what I mean by describing who I ran into at Betaworks the last couple of times I arrived in New York and went into the office.

On June 17, 2010, I flew to NY from Vegas on a very early flight and got to Betaworks mid-morning. Just inside the door of the office I ran into Brady Forrest and Mike Loukides, both of whom work for O’Reilly. I went for coffee with Brady and spent at least an hour talking to Mike. Later in the afternoon Tim O’Reilly showed up. That’s a pretty interesting batch of folks to have run into at Betaworks. But it’s much more interesting than that. Get this: none of the three O’Reilly people knew that the others were going to Betaworks. At least one of the three didn’t know the others were even in town. Think about it. I find it quite extraordinary. NYC is a big place, and though there’s a ton of stuff going on here, there’s apparently only one place to be. Here was the first really tangible evidence for me that Betaworks have become a strange attractor of some kind, and a powerful one.

Second example: Yesterday when I arrived in the office, after several months away, I immediately ran into a bunch of people I know – none of whom works out of the Betaworks offices: Caterina Fake (Flickr, now Hunch), Jyri Engeström (Jaiku, now Google), Reshma Sohoni (Seedcamp), Iain Dodsworth (Tweetdeck), and Mika Salmi (many things). Like me, Mika also lives in Barcelona. But where do I unexpectedly run into him…? At Betaworks. How is that possible? Why were all these great people in the office today? Was there some event going on? No. So what’s going on here?

These are just a couple of days, chosen because they were both first days back in town. There are many similar days. Betaworks is an attractor in other senses too – my examples omit the companies and people who are in the office every day, creating the gravitational pull that’s attracting so many extraordinary visitors.

That’s it for now. I don’t think anyone can pin down exactly what Betaworks is, and it doesn’t really matter. But we can all be strangely attracted.

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