NewCo: An Antidote to Industry Conference Anemia

If you asked high achieving yet highly athletic twelve year olds who they’d rather be, Lebron James or Mark Zuckerberg, what do you think their answers would be? What do you think those answers would’ve been five years ago?

I can confidently bet that at least one of the children from the previous fictitious survey experiment, and probably very many more, would rather be the founder of Facebook than (arguably) the best basketball player to ever live. That’s astounding. It’s astounding because around the world and here at home, professional sporting athletes are who children quite often look up to. For better or worse, athletes become role models, which in turn shapes how their juvenile apostleship behaves and the lives they hope to achieve. 

The tides are clearly changing. That unforgettable first grasp of an iPhone is happening earlier and earlier on in life. The celebrity of one man behind it was recently told through a feverishly anticipated and masterfully casted eponymous blockbuster film that many of these adolescent adopters will beg their parents to see despite the electric fence of an R rating. Gale force winds of the Golden Age of Good Grades have washed us upon the shore of a new era of technological heroism and commercial acclaim. We’re living in the age of the NewCo.

What is a NewCo? Well, referentially one thing and technically another. A “NewCo” is an establishment, whether corporate, governmental, or charitable, that operates at or alongside the intersection of purpose and profit. NewCo is a (now) sixteen-city roadshow that’s part-conference, part festival, part-Inside-the-Actors-Studio, during which attendees get a rare opportunity to visit the organizations that instrument their daily lives and engage with their larger-than-life-yet-still-somehow-humble founders in intimate roundtable discussions. In the company’s parlance, “NewCo takes participants out of stodgy ballrooms and directly into the businesses changing the face of the modern working city.” This is a new breed of industry conference for a new breed of leader, just minus the lectern.

When you talk to John Battelle, NewCo’s highly credentialed founder in addition to a best-selling author, enviably successful entrepreneur, and trailblazer of tech journalism, his narrative predisposition quickly betrays him. He recounts his own life in the way he might approach constructing a brief for his next assignment, meta-reflecting that the NewCo story is the one he’s always been waiting to tell. For too long he led a life in service to the commercial elite and their “bare, bald approach to profit extraction,” building mass publications for telling their stories and leading revered conferences filled with their voices. Disenchanted and directionless, Battelle decided to go back to the drawing board. From this period of pensive contemplation, the concept for NewCo emerged—democratize inside access to connect, inspire, and evolve—and launched in San Francisco in 2012.

Before I had the chance to speak to John, I had the privilege of attending this year’s San Francisco event. My experience began with a visit to AltSchool’s airy headquarters, which houses not only the corporate offices, but a contiguous middle school as well. Yes, AltSchool is an education technology startup, but saying so in this era of that hackneyed “edtech” label completely cheapens what AltSchool is really doing. They are literally rebuilding early education: hiring their own “educators,” opening their own schools, and creating their own curricula. Technology augments the classroom, making the schooling experience more personalized to each child and opening what has traditionally been an opaque communicative triangle between student, teacher, and parent. 

The same goes for change.org, which you could write off as “just a platform for signing petitions” if you wanted to sound incredibly ignorant and didn’t care to avail yourself of the true impact this company has had. Their platform has helped bring down the barbaric, longstanding tradition of corrective rape in South Africa, tackle bigotry in the Boy Scouts, impose stricter food quality standards, and deliver justice to Trayvon Martin’s killer, among many other laudable victories. Change.org’s uncanny ability to mobilize shows it’s not just a place where people come to jump on a faceless bandwagon; it’s a grassroots platform for narrative empowerment and issue-based, region-agnostic connection. 

AltSchool, change.org, and a large majority of their NewCo cohorts are disruptors in the truest sense of the word. Still “disruptor” feels harsh, easily inviting of the often unwarranted and uninformed criticism today’s startups are subjected to. These NewCos are really healers whose mission is to fix the most broken segments of society, which are broken mostly because we’ve chosen to give them a revolving get out of jail free card despite their worsening apathy and intolerability.

NewCos are the companies changing the world, or at least trying to. The world may need another credit card just as much as it needs another app, but at least the latter, born of good intentions, can make our lives even a little bit better. The NewCos may be forging non-obvious paths, but the obvious ones are either undeserving of our attention or already well traveled. These NewCos think long, which creates friction, because our prevailing biological inclination is to think short. Did anybody think Facebook would eventually make it their mission to bring the rest of the world online? What about Google trying to extend human life? If you did, well bravo, and please be more public with your soothsaying abilities. Please give us a preview of how this generation of NewCos, and others after it, will make us happier and healthier and safer and smarter.

John, no matter how long you’ve been waiting to tell this story, I, for one, am ecstatic you’ve decided to do it now. The NewCo story is one that celebrates the progress we’re making within and because of technology rather than lamenting or lambasting it. It’s a story about the people changing in the world no matter how stubbornly some people refuse to believe it. What if AltSchool does completely revolutionize formative education? What if change.org continues to upturn oppressive regimes and strike down handcuffing corporate hooliganism? Won’t the world be a better place? Won’t it be the NewCos to thank?

the author

Jason Marder