TECHNOLOGY

Rock Star Treatment: Meet the Agency That Reps Programmers

Booking shows for artists such as John Mayer was big business--last decade. This agency has found what could be a new path to a bright future.
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Before Will.I.Am said coders are the new rock stars, before The Social Network glorified late-night-dorm-room-style hacking, and long, long before 13 guys in a little San Francisco office sold a scrappy photo-filter app to Facebook for a billion dollars, there was a group of prescient people biting their fingernails.

They are the people who make money only when actual rock stars are the "rock stars." They are the people who got burned behind the scenes when file-sharing started cutting into record sales, and again when super-simple streaming services like Pandora and Spotify became mainstream and cut them even further.

They are the agents. And while some of us may chuckle at adding the real-life Ari Golds of the world to the always-growing and ever-cliched list of Things That Have Been Disrupted, this isn't strictly the case. But it is true that even booking a major album's concert tour ain't what it used to be

The founders of New York City-based Brick Wall Management were a couple of the early nailbiters at the dawn of the latest dot-com boom. Michael Solomon and Rishon Blumberg manage acts such as Vanessa Carlton, and in the company's heyday in the early aughts, they booked major tours for John Mayer. That was lucrative business. The years that followed--not so much.

Blumberg and Solomon told me they'd been acting a little bit entrepreneurial inside their own company for much of its 18 years of existence. They founded a handful of non-profits mostly to connect their musicians with causes, and built three apps--with the help of a couple freelance developers--that are still available for purchase in the iTunes app store.

A funny thing happened on the way to the apps, though. Working with the freelance programmers was new for Blumberg and Solomon. But, they say, was that it wasn't so very different from working with musicians. Blumberg says: "In working with programmers, our feeling was they are so unique in the way their minds work, they're very much like artists. But in the same ways, they might have trouble dealing with communicating the business aspects, deadline, scope of a project, and money."

That's where their agency could come in. They'd be the negotiators, the schedulers, and the bookers for this new breed of rock star.

They dubbed the new arm of their agency 10x Management, "10x" being a term that's become programmer colloquial for a highly productive coder. Then they set out to find some of those 10x engineers to represent.

Enter Altay Guvench, a Harvard-educated, San Francisco-based serial entrepreneur who's a two-time alum of the elite start-up bootcamp Y Combinator. Guvench is also a seasoned Ruby and Javascript programmer who happens to play electric bass and cello. That triptych of talents--entrepreneurialism, programming knowlege, and musicianship--made him a perfect guinea pig for 10x. 

"For me, it was clear that having a professional negotiator on your side never hurts," Guvench says. "Even more important than the money was the freedom." Guvench says he made so much more money on freelance gigs booked by 10x for him, and had so much more free time, that his programmer friends started asking to get on board. Blumberg and Solomon, though, lacked the skills to analyze applicants' tech talents. In code, they might not know a feature from a bug. 

"We have been thinking about this for many many years, and the real impediment for us coming from the music business is that we didn't necessarily know how we would address the technical issues," Blumberg says. The duo asked Guvench to join 10x as a partner.

Suddenly, a two-decades-old New York agency was starting to look a lot like a start-up--complete with the scaling pressures of starting up in what by many estimates is a potentially fast-growing industry.

Out of the office of Brick Wall Management in New York City comes an agency for in-demand programmers: 10x Management. From left, Altay Guvench, Rishon Blumberg, and Michael Solomon.

Early press for the company drew a lot of attention from freelance programmers, and 10x has been working over the past 18 months to hone its qualification standards for clients and projects it takes on. Interest outweighs bandwidth, currently. The entire agency has just seven employees, including Guvench, who is based in San Francisco, but has grown from 15 clients last summer to 80 today. Solomon says it has a waiting list of 500.

"It's become very clear that everyone else in that space in between tech professionals and the people who hire them work for the hirers," Solomon says. "That's counter their interests."

Aside from scaling, the other massive challenge for 10x in coming months will be defining itself--and the breadth of talent it represents--to customers. One way it's differentiating itself is that it's not a recruiter; its new-era rock stars are strictly freelancers.

I asked Guvench about the stand-out talent at 10x so far. He mentioned a couple of interesting programmers: one who is an expert at taking old PHP code--a fairly antiquated server-side scripting language--and cleaning it up so that it's readable, documented, and accessible to a company's tech team; and other who comes with his own guarantee of success: If he can't make your database run more than 50 percent faster, his work is free. The agency has dubbed him "the database whisperer." 

It's pretty good marketing. For now, 10x operates out of the Brick Wall Management office in New York's Koreatown neighborhood. Gold records and albums line the walls. And while it's scrappy, this isn't a wanna-be Silicon Valley company, Blumberg says. It's staying in Manhattan, keeping the gold records on the walls, and hasn't adopted a start-up dress code. At least not yet.

"No hoodies for me," he says. "I'm too old for a hoodie."

 

IMAGE: Getty
Last updated: Jul 22, 2013

CHRISTINE LAGORIO-CHAFKIN | Staff Writer | Senior Writer

Christine Lagorio-Chafkin is a writer, editor, and reporter whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Village Voice, and The Believer, among other publications. She is a senior writer at Inc.




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