Entrepreneur Khai Tran issued an invitation last spring to a program for start-ups, not sure how many would come. The event was in Camden. After hours.
His primary goal was to answer one question: "Is there a start-up crowd here?"
The answer was a decisive, albeit sweaty, "Yes."
"We had 280 people," Tran recalled. "One hundred-fifty fit into the room legally."
The air conditioning was on the fritz, not that it mattered. The over-capacity gathering that Wednesday evening spilled out of the meeting room and into the hallway and lobby of the Waterfront Technology Center on Federal Street. Those attending persevered through personal discomfort to take in a panel discussion, a pitch competition, and lots of schmoozing.
Just like that, the seed was planted for an initiative to turn one of the nation's most beleaguered cities into a mecca for start-ups. The first phase begins April 18 with the official opening of Waterfront Lab, a coworking space inside the former National State Bank at 121 Market St. If Tran's plans are realized, two more will follow this year to help fulfill his aim of attracting 100 or more start-ups to a city that has long talked of a revival.
It's too early to know whether Tran's long view for Camden will become reality. But he's not the only believer.
"I think it's a better time than ever to make a concerted effort to build a technology economy in Camden," said Robert Moore, who moved his business-data analytics software start-up, RJ Metrics, from his attic in Collingswood to Camden in summer 2009, staying there until recruiting needs – mostly for engineers – necessitated a move to Center City Philadelphia in 2011. He and partner Jake Stein sold the company to California-based Magento Analytics in August for an undisclosed price.
"As the Philadelphia [start-up] economy gets stronger, it empowers Camden to have a higher chance of success of doing the same," Moore said. "The size of the radius of the economy and the community around start-ups grows when there's a higher density at the center."
Brock Weatherup, a serial entrepreneur and president of support group Philly Startup Leaders, shares in the optimism about Camden's potential.
"Given the great growth momentum of Philadelphia in growing start-ups and early-stage businesses, it only seems natural to think that Camden can be an attractive point to expand the community," Weatherup said. "Not taking away from Philly proper, but adding to it."
Adding to the bullishness about Camden's start-up appeal is a belief that business opportunities will flow from some of the big companies moving to Camden's waterfront, largely lured by hundreds of millions of dollars in tax breaks. Those include Holtec International, which plans to make nuclear reactors, and a new office tower that will house Conner Strong & Buckelew, an insurance company run by New Jersey Democratic powerhouse George Norcross.
Waterfront Lab is a collaborative effort by a nonprofit Tran founded, Waterfront Ventures, and City Invincible Architecture, a firm that owns the building that houses the coworking space. Renovation costs were $1.2 million, said Tran, 28, who also is a founder of Ownersmagazine.com, an online publisher that primarily writes about technology start-ups and is one of the lab's occupants.
"Waterfront Lab and our company, City Invincible Architecture, share a similar vision for both our desired workplace and for the rebirth of Camden City," said Angelo Alberto, a principal at City Invincible. "Both companies actively host events which are geared toward community redevelopment and attracting businesses and residents to the city of Camden."
To be sure the robust turnout for Waterfront Venture's May event was not a fluke, Tran held another in January, on a weekend day, "to see how committed folks are. We had even more success than the first time."
That was affirmation enough. Camden County had recently purchased the Waterfront Technology Center, previously run by Rutgers University, and was ending the Camden Co-Lab coworking space there, where Ownersmagazine.com and 20 or so more start-ups were based. Led by Freeholder Bill Moen, the county helped in the subsequent effort to create and/or find alternative coworking spaces for the Co-Lab's occupants.
"Everyone was going to move to Philly because there was no other space to work in Camden," Tran said. "We had to do something. We rushed to put together the Waterfront Lab to keep everyone here."
A block from the Camden Co-Lab, Waterfront Lab had a soft opening on March 1. It currently has 17 companies, with room for three or four more, Tran said. All 12 offices are booked, at $850 a month. Dedicated desks cost $350 a month, open desks $225.
The two other co-working spaces he envisions would be within walking distance of Waterfront Lab to encourage a sense of community among the start-ups they serve and generate more foot traffic in a city where crime and decay do not instill pedestrian confidence.
Tran's ultimate hope is that those who set up shop in the coworking spaces also will make their home in Camden, as he has.
"Housing is something that's going to take some time to develop," said Tran, who lives a block from Waterfront Lab at the Victor apartment complex. "First, we're bringing the interest and business to Camden."
The Cherry Hill native's passion for Camden came while he was a student at Rutgers University. Tran moved Ownersmagazine.com into the Camden Co-Lab in August 2015 to grow his online magazine. It now has a staff of 14 and 25,000 to 30,000 views a month.
Also at Camden Co-Lab was Johnathan Grzybowski, 28, founder of Waterfront Media, formerly Dino. The move, after a year or two spent at a coworking space in Philadelphia, was intended partly to distinguish the company from a crowd of start-ups specializing in web design, digital marketing, and app development.
"Philadelphia is a great city; it's a great place to be," the Juniata Park native said. "But at this point, in a lot of ways, it's somewhat saturated with just the amount of start-ups there."
As is common with coworking spaces, Waterfront Media got some business from other occupants of the Camden Co-Lab, including Waterfront Ventures, enabling it to grow from four to 17 employees.
Also taking up residence in Waterfront Lab is Linked Noodle LLC, a start-up that CEO Katrina Naidas, 27, originated in Brooklyn, where the Marlton native and Rutgers Camden graduate lives. The company is building a platform to connect freelance teachers with anyone wanting to learn new skills, such as playing the piano or drawing.
"It's a really great place for young early companies to be able to get a good foothold in a community that has a lot more resources than it looks like it has," Naidas said, noting the university presence in Camden. "I think it's a good area to test out our concept and get ourselves some proof of concept."
What Camden lacks is Philadelphia's vast after-hours networking options, Grzybowski said.