Carine Carmy: Orbital Offers Space for Independent Creators to Explore Unknown
On the value of uncertainty in the creative process, and why the startup business model is not for everyone
“This one I’m the most excited about because it’s the most unclear to me,” Gary Chou pauses, before outlining a business idea that’s been simmering for the last few months. This is the fifth or sixth idea Gary walks through. By the speed of his pitch, it appears that there are dozens more.
Gary is the self-titled “fun guy” behind Orbital, a company he founded this past May that’s part coworking space, part incubator, and part modern trade school. Or, as he calls it, “a space to do awesome stuff.”
The building has good genes — it formerly served as the Kickstarter headquarters in the Lower East Side. And while Gary is definitely a fun guy, he speaks with the insight and pause of an old soul who has hustled for over 15 years in tech startups.
Gary spent the majority of his career designing for the web, from CISCO to Tribe.net, one of the first the social networking sites. He later joined the venture capital firm Union Square Ventures (USV) in 2010 as General Manager. Throughout his time building virtual spaces, he remained grounded in the physical world, from hosting living room concerts to gathering the USV portfolio for happy hours and “un-conferences.”
Physical space is also where he found himself to be the most honest.
“When you have bits and pixels to flip around, you get lulled into this sense of omnipotence that you can control outcomes, that I will design this flow and make you click on this button…In the physical world, you can’t hide in that delusion. If something is not working, it’s apparent to you and apparent to everybody.”
There’s no hiding at Orbital, where creaky floors announce visitors at first step and wide-open spaces spark connections among members. Gary funds the three-story space with coworking fees and event space rentals. To supplement that, he also created Orbital Bootcamp to help independent creators develop and launch their ideas.
Orbital, both the building and the Bootcamp, is an experiment for Gary to “figure out what [he’s] made of” and for other independent creators to do the same. It’s an experiment in thriving in the uncertainty of new ideas, new businesses, and creative living.
THE “ZIG ZAG”
Finding the Orbital building in the Lower East Side of Manhattan is a bit of a challenge. It’s sandwiched between a punk rock bar and an upscale Mexican taqueria. Across the street is the Streit Matzo Company headquarters, which has been making unleavened bread and other boxed and canned Jewish delights since 1925. Orbital sits between old and new, a microcosm of reinvention. It’s an apt metaphor for the uncertainty and flux in which Gary thrives.
Graffiti covers the entrance, a black door with arrows and instructions handwritten on recycled printer paper. “KICKSTARTER” appears in block letters on the green intercom screen, a nod to the former tenant who defined for many what it means to be an “independent creator.”
The notion of the independent creator is relatively new. It’s predated by “artist” and “artisan” and carries with it the vestiges of “founder” and “creative.” It’s a medium-agnostic term, brought to life by filmmakers and designers, musicians and animators, engineers and game developers. There’s no standard path to success for the independent creator, though companies like Kickstarter, Patreon, Shapeways and Etsy are creating digital spaces for hundreds of thousands of them.
The uncertain path of the independent creator is a “zig zag,” as Gary puts it. The path often diverges from that of the prototypical tech startup, with charts pointing up and to the right in dramatic growth curves.
He explains, “The tech startup has become the predominant form for the expression of ideas. It’s a great, well-understood form. People know how to finance it. People know how to operate in it. Strangers know how to look at it and say, ‘I can go join this thing.’ But it’s flawed in that it comes with certain sets of expectations, and a narrowing set of outcomes as you proceed.”
For Gary and many more, the construct and economics of the tech startup don’t always work. Tell an artist that the white canvas they’re staring at needs to be museum-ready in 10 weeks, and they may never touch paint to canvas.
GETTING INTO ORBIT
Gary founded Orbital as a space to explore the unknown paths of creative ideas. To support this journey (and support the business), he developed Orbital Bootcamp, a 12-week intensive in-public experimentation and iteration. The course evolved from one he co-taught at the School of Visual Arts with USV veteran Christina Cacioppo. Today, Orbital members are also Bootcamp teachers. Past projects have ranged from podcasts to documentaries, businesses to e-books. The last day of class is not a demo day but rather a final talk by each student on lessons learned.
One student from the summer 2014 Orbital Bootcamp, Tina Ye described her lessons in managing the discomfort of leaving a corporate job as “leaving behind a reassuring sense of identity.”
Gary wants Orbital’s educational programs to enable personal and professional reinvention. He explains that with social networks like Facebook and Twitter, “We’ve never been more aware of other people’s narratives than we are today. Rather than just moving up the hierarchy as the only way we navigate our career, we are now interested in how we become the protagonist in our own lives in a much more meaningful way.”
This ability to navigate uncertainty and chart your own path is increasingly critical in a roller coaster economy supercharged by technological change, when jobs and industries appear and disappear in a matter of decades. No longer is there certainty in the corporate ladder, nor has there ever been a clear pathway to success in the startup rocketship. “Much of what most people think of as ‘known’ is actually unknown, unstable, and shifting under our feet imperceptibly,” explains Orbital advisor Christina Xu of Gary’s philosophy.
Getting into orbit requires a tremendous amount of energy and risk. Business models and spaces like Orbital will be increasingly important as more and more people face uncertainty and ask themselves how they hope to live their lives.
For Gary, he’ll continue to chart his path into the unknown, and that’s the only place he wants to be.
Apart from dreaming in three-dimensions, Carine Carmy is the Head of Marketing at Shapeways.
Lead image: Nikki Sylianteng