MIT’s alumni directory contains a lot of interesting job titles, but Ron Schmelzer ’97’s stands out as unique: Chief Event Wrangler.
Nope, he’s not a cowboy. Schmelzer wrangles for TechBreakfast, a monthly morning meetup founded by Schmelzer that demos new technologies and has connected thousands of aspiring entrepreneurs in more than a dozen U.S. cities.
Before starting TechBreakfast, Schmelzer was a Course 6 major-turned-serial entrepreneur who started his first company with an MIT classmate, Dan Housman ’95, in their Alpha Epsilon Pi dorm room.
“Near the beginning of the dot-com boom, Dan and I started an internet software company,” he says. “We said, ‘Let’s try this e-commerce thing.’ So we built VirtuMall (later ChannelWave), one of the first e-commerce sites. We basically had to invent everything from scratch—shopping cart technology, credit card transactions—because none of it existed yet.”
By 1998, the internet’s popularity had exploded and ChannelWave had become a successful venture. After raising nearly $60 million in funding, Schmelzer and Housman sold the company to the larger Quick Commerce.
After ChannelWave’s sale, Schmelzer started the analyst firm ZapThink, among other ventures, which he sold in 2011 after he and his wife moved from Boston to Baltimore.
“When I got to Baltimore, I thought, ‘Well, I guess I need to start another software company,’” he says, “So I organized some small meet-ups in Baltimore to see what kind of startups people were working on. My only rule was no PowerPoint. That’s how TechBreakfast go started.”
The meetups quickly became popular and Schmelzer began expanding TechBreakfast out-of-state. Less than four years later, the monthly breakfasts have more than 12,000 active members in 13 U.S. cities. The meetup’s most recent event, “Ask a V.C.” in Boston on April 13, featured nearly 250 attendees who heard from two panels of more than 20 investors.
“TechBreakfast moved so fast that I actually put another software company I started, Bizelo, on hold,” he says. “I’m still in the startup industry. But instead of running a software company, I’m running TechBreakfast.”
Schmelzer spoke to Slice of MIT at the 2015 South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive, where he was one of more than 100 MIT alumni who presented at the festival. He organized the TechBreakfast Spectacular—“basically TechBreakfast on steroids”—which featured 25 demos and more than 1,400 attendees. He also hosted SXSW’s first-release hardware meetup, a showcase of new internet-related demos that he called a “show-and-tell from grownups.”
“MIT has a great overlap on technology advancement and entrepreneurial innovation,” he says, “It’s a very supportive place for people who are creative and innovative. SXSW attracts the same audience, and people who are successful innovators and creators—like MIT alumni—tend to come here.”