Jeff Goronkin’s vision is coming together in Schenectady
Jeff Goronkin’s path after high school included serving in the Navy, starting a business in college in which he made lamps out of saguaro cactuses, working as a salesman at a company that manufactured synthetic DNA, and working at a nanotech startup in Troy. He was accustomed to moving around from a childhood in which his family lived in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Arizona.
What was it like for you moving around so much? I like to call myself an optimistic pessimist. I don’t know if that’s a realist, but personally I’ve always looked at moving from one place to the next as excitement and full of new opportunities. I always embraced the process. Especially Arizona, it was so exciting.
Why? It was so different from what I was used to. I heard about it, but couldn’t really grasp the idea. I was in 6th grade in the late 1970s. During that time period, Mexican food on the East Coast was not a thing. I remember my friends going out to a friend’s house to have a Mexican dinner and it was a really big deal. It was almost exotic at the time because there wasn’t that much influence on the East Coast.
Why did you join the Navy after high school? There were a lot of personal things going on in my life. I wanted to experience the world. I knew I wanted to go to college. I knew emotionally and mentally I wasn’t there. It was a great experience because I got to experience new cultures, new places and new friends.
Did you study biology in college with the thought of going into medicine? I was really interested in animal behavior. During that time when I was in school, I realized while I was in the lab that I was really interested in business and entrepreneurship. Coming up with ideas for potential businesses was something that was always with me. I couldn’t shake it.
How would you characterize the Albany region startup scene when you moved here in 2005? It was really nonexistent in terms of the establishment it has today. At that time, RPI was messing around with the idea of an incubator that had a lot of starts and stops. There just wasn’t a consolidation or a cohesive entrepreneurship community like there is today. The investment groups hadn’t formed at that time. There were some angel investors that had done well.
You started iZoca around 2007. What was it? A social network for groups and communities. Facebook was just getting started. MySpace was in existence.
You were an early adopter. Yeah. It was a powerful way for people to connect both privately and as publicly as they want. It was an ambitious project for sure, and I believe that everything is in the execution and the timing. There was a certain approach that we took that really didn’t work the way we wanted it to work but I do believe people inherently want to use the internet to connect as privately and as openly as they want to their families and their neighborhoods. I enjoyed the process, but it was a very challenging venture. I learned a lot about entrepreneurship. A lot about humility. I learned how to let go.
What about Buzz Media? We started in 2009. Things were getting challenging with iZoca. We started Buzz Media to offset the burn rate, and Buzz Media turned into a pretty nice venture. Susan [Bardack] is the CEO of Buzz Media, and I’m the CEO of Urban CoWorks, but also a partner at Buzz Media.
Have you accomplished what you thought you would by age 55 in terms of your career? There’s so many different ways of defining who you are. I just wanted to do something in life that I could earn a living. No. 2, have time to do what I wanted, to be with my family. I enjoy not working for a big company. I enjoy being creative. Being in Schenectady is one of the most exciting and rewarding and enjoyable things I’ve ever done. Why? It’s exciting to be part of the growth of the whole city and the region. We’ve seen so many changes over the last 15 years. When we decided to move from our house in Clifton Park to Schenectady, a big reason for doing that is because of [Mexican Radio] restaurant. ... I looked at that as a sign, when somebody is going to spend millions of dollars to open a restaurant in downtown Schenectady. We wanted to go someplace where we could establish ourselves. Schenectady seemed to be up-and-coming and we wanted to be part of that. Our first office was on State Street above Paul Mitchell.
What’s the most exciting part about moving from Center City into the new building at 430 Franklin St.? Being able to create a space that kind of lives up to the vision that I originally had for Urban CoWorks. I’ve been poring over our floor plans almost daily, rearranging things, making sure everything will be positioned well to accommodate our members. Coworking is a service business. This is going to give us a very strong foundation to grow Urban CoWorks.
Interview has been edited and condensed. Read more: here