The voice of Generation Y
The first time I met Adams was about two weeks prior. We were both attending a press conference in 2 Gateway Center to announce the launch of Newark Fiber, a new initiative meant to position the city as a promising tech company destination on the strength of its hyperfast and competitively priced internet connectivity.
When Adams introduced himself as the founder of Fownders, the name immediately rung a bell: I’d started receiving notifications about their events from personal acquaintances and local tech groups in mid-July of this year, and had marveled that Fownders came seemingly from out of nowhere in July, only to hold a $10,000 pitch competition at Red Bull Stadium in early August.
Now that I was face-to-face with Adams, with his hair slicked back and sharply clad in a grey suit and purple tie, Fownders’ quick ascent made sense. Adams was the cofounder of Elite Daily, the Millennial-focused website which he and his parters sold to The Daily Mail in 2015 for $48 million dollars. Adams was a successful young entrepreneur who had lived the “startup comeup” story, and he had the means, experience, access to expertise and knowhow to come to Newark, his father’s hometown, and attempt to create the conditions for other entrepreneurs to achieve success on a similar scale.
Fownders held a pitch competition at Red Bull Stadium on August 8th. Newark native Jade Jordan one the $10,000 for her Arize Alarm app. Source: Eventbrite (Click or tap to enlarge)
Two weeks after meeting Adams, I visited the Fownders offices to check it out for myself. The building, which Adams had built from the ground up, sits at the corner of Norfolk Street and Sussex Avenue, in a residential neighborhood at the crossroads of young Newarkers’ walking commute to school.
Fownders’ floor-to-ceiling windows let passersby see right inside from the street, into what could easily be mistaken for an art gallery. What they’ll find on closer inspection is a classic tech accelerator scene: casually clad young people meeting in groups of twos in threes, or huddled over their computers in intense concentration, hard at work trying to build the next successful tech startup. Looking down on them are gigantic and colorful paintings of Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and Shaquille O’Neal.
When Adams bounded downstairs to meet me for our interview, full of energy despite just having taken a red-eye back from Los Angeles, it took me a split second to recognize him. Gone were the suit and slick hair, in its place jeans, sneakers, a t-shirt and a Thrasher hat turned backwards. He’d seemed perfectly comfortable in the suit; he seemed downright at home in the skater gear.
I had read during my pre-interview research that Adams is not a fan of small talk. True to that description, he dove right in.
“I wanted to create a place where people could build, innovate, and learn from each other. As you can see, there’s one door in, one door out,” he told me, motioning towards the building’s entrance.
Adams said he modeled the space on Building 20, a storied edifice at Massachusetts Institute of Technology that birthed a diverse set of innovations, including high-speed photography, modern linguistics, the first Bose speaker, single-antenna radar and the physics behind microwaves. Some owe the number of innovations created there to the serendipitous, interdisciplinary brainstorming that took place at Building 20. Fownders was architected, Adams said, so that “everyone bumps into each other,” fostering the kind of random, unplanned debate that helps innovators make the most out of being in close quarters.
He gestured toward an adjoining space–a cafe I could see through a glass door. “I wanted to create a space where our entrepreneurs can have everything they need,” he said. The cafe, which is open to the public, will be part of that formula. So will the entrepreneur housing he plans to build on the block. Adams cited the “coliving” space WeLive, an offshoot of WeWork, the successful chain of coworking spaces, as an inspiration. Currently some of Fownders’ entrepreneurs live in a residential home a few doors down from the building. Fans of HBO’s comedy Silicon Valley, about startup culture in California, might imagine something on the order of character Erlich Bachman’s “hacker house.”
Fownders was built from the ground up at the corner of Norfolk Street and Sussex Avenue. Above, use the slider to compare the block before and after.
But unlike the fictional Bachman, Adams is no obnoxious “tech bro.” He’s sincere and relentlessly positive, his conversation often bordering on motivational speech, both in tone and in content. He talks often of sharing, of action, of greatness, inspiration and possibility. Don’t be surprised to leave a conversation with him feeling charged.
Part of that is clearly personality driven, but his real life startup story pushes his pronouncements beyond the realm of platitude.
Adams grew up next door to Newark in Belleville, and described the younger version of himself as just an average kid.
“I wasn’t the smartest kid,” he said in recent TEDx talk at NJIT. In fact, he said, he was often “looked at as a troublemaker” who went against the grain. That tendency animated the decision during his first semester of college to drop out and learn how business works by joining the working world. “I wanted extraordinary success,” he said, and college “didn’t feel right” as the path to achieve it for him.
So while his peers attended their college courses, Adams went to work in public relations for a small-cap investment firm, and then struck out on his own to offer similar services for more of those types of companies through his own agency.
By age 24, Adams had become a millionaire, but those spoils were short-lived: the stock market crash of 2008 wiped out much of his newfound fortune. In a bid to pick up the pieces and create something useful from his own misfortune, Adams started creating content to educate his peers about the economy. One of his interns at the time proposed the idea for Elite Daily, and he and a small team built it into a Millenial-targeted digital property that grew to draw tens of millions of unique visitors each month.
But when Adams sold Elite Daily to The Daily Mail, he admitted feeling some angst over letting go of his creation and fearing that he might have sold the site for less than it could have commanded. The idea to build a startup ecosystem in Newark helped him to shake off that funk.
Adams, who by that point had been named to Business Insider’s list of New York-area founders “Under 35 and Crushing It,” had been steeping himself in the world of startup incubators and was being invited to give talks all over Silicon Valley, said he wanted “to get out there and show people that an average kid from Jersey can do this.” Fownders would offer aspiring entrepreneurs the lessons, frameworks and mindset Adams said he wished he’d had access to when he was starting out more than a decade ago.