Festival of open houses taps San Francisco's tech startup allure

SAN FRANCISCO - New York-based entrepreneur Caleb Gandara came to San Francisco this week and managed a rare feat: he spent half a day roaming the offices of hot startups DropBox, Cloudera and Sidecar, chatting up executives at will.

Gandara was one of 3,700 people who signed up for "OpenCo", a festival of open houses held at scores of San Francisco startups, non-profits and corporations from Google Inc to local business and chocolatier TCHO over two hectic days.

Now in its second year, OpenCo is billed by its organizers as a novel twist on traditional staid business conferences, and an opportunity for investors, entrepreneurs and even job-seekers to get a close-up look at the San Francisco-area tech scene. Companies that throw open their doors, in turn, get a chance to meet potential talent, gather feedback and make connections.

"You don't have to be anybody special and in that spirit, OpenCo is just letting a community of people who are interested explore what is normally preserved for employees, professionals and business deals," Gandara said.

"You get to see what brings them to work everyday. It's rare and definitely more rare in mature companies. You don't get to go inside a Target and see how it works, right?"

San Francisco's thriving local tech scene has fascinated many aspiring entrepreneurs across the country. This year's OpenCo drew 135 participating companies, almost double that of the first, when Twitter - which will soon go public - and Zynga Inc took part. Those two were absent this year.

OpenCo put together a two-day schedule with back-to-back 45-minute sessions at firms across the city. Attendees got a free general admission pass or paid US$95 (S$118.37) to reserve spots early.

From startup Lit Motor's "super-secret vehicle lab" - where visitors checked out a prototype of their urban two-wheeled"C-1" vehicle - to audio platform SoundCloud, participants were given a close-up view of popular and lesser-known startups.

"It's a nice way to do it and bring people into (your) working environment rather than going to a big stuffy, air pumped building like the Moscone centre," said Dan Dupree, SoundCloud's public relations specialist. "People have been there, they've done it....This seems to break the mould."

Eighteen month-old ride-sharing startup SideCar opened its office in the financial district to the public for the first time. CEO Sunil Paul said participating helped "in material ways, like spreading the word about hiring."

Organizer and author John Battelle said OpenCo was inspired by the concept of open art studios, where the public can tour freely and appreciate works of art.

Perry Simpson, who runs an e-commerce sports site called Gryndo, spent his Thursday morning at SoundCloud and was struck by the startup's willingness to be transparent.

"When you think about tech companies, you think of them as being very private with proprietary technology that you don't share and be open because somebody might steal your idea, but this completely the opposite," Perry said.

"Here you get a visceral sense of their culture, you put a face on the technology company."