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Organizers of Startup Soiree in front of the Baltimore skyline: From left are Jessica Gignac, co-owner of Intrinsic Events; Nicolas China, partner in Pixilated Photobooth, Rachel Robinson, co-owner of Intrinsic Events; and Patrick Rife, partner in Pixilated Photobooth. (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

New networking group hopes to create a unique space for startups

Patrick Rife started Baltimore-based company Pixilated with Nic China three years ago with the idea of creating an open-air photo booth package for weddings, bar mitzvahs, birthdays, galas – anywhere party people might want to mug for a camera, perhaps with props, and without the exclusivity of a box.

Pixilated served 700 events last year and is on track to work more than a thousand this year. They’re preparing to manufacture the booths for sale internationally “for the enterprise space,” Rife said – think social media marketing, even clothing-store dressing rooms. They’re also designing an enterprise software suite.

In other words, they’re growing.

“We started to have much different conversations for the next level of our business,” he said.

And all the while, Rife took care of the networking and friend-making portion of the company. He started to notice a pattern arise at these events — repeat offenses of what he calls “getting men-in-blacked” by a business-minded interloper.

“You find that person and you really start to hit it off, and your conversation is the easiest conversation you could have hoped for,” he said. “And then all of a sudden you get tapped on the shoulder and a lawyer or a designer or somebody comes in and they business-card the whole group.”

The once-fluid flow of conversation stalls. And when you turn back around to pick up where you left off, he said, you can’t remember what you were talking about.

“There’s that forlorn look in both of your eyes, like – ‘Oh, it was so good!’” he said. “And now we can’t recover it.”

So for their next venture, Rife, China, and fellow Baltimoreans Jes Gignac and Rachel Robinson of event management company Intrinsic Events, are closing the box back up. Together, they’ve launched Startup Soiree – a networking experience for company founders only.

“There are things that we struggle with,” Rife said. “There are questions, there are challenges that are very specific to people who have started companies.”

The goal is to create a space in which founders – and founders only – are able to be greater resources to each other, he said. And the results can be immediate: When a collaboration pitch is done founder to founder, there are no other hoops to jump through, no other legwork to complete.

“They know they’ll be talking with people who are on their exact level,” Rife said. “There’s a very interesting dialogue that exists there.”

The foursome will host the first Soiree this Thursday – future ones are planned for the last Thursday of every month – at Pixilated headquarters in Baltimore’s Morrell Park. After that, the event will travel – to breweries, to local restaurants, each one a fully catered affair.

Tickets go for $30 a pop or $250 for a yearlong membership, and each event will be capped at about 100. (As of Monday, Rife said about 70 had already signed up for the inaugural meet-up.) Founders who request an invitation can expect to get social-media vetted for their credentials.

Beyond the exclusivity, Rife said one other aspect will make his networking events stand out. In the middle hour of each three-hour Soiree, instead of a more traditional lecture by an expert, the lecture will become a town hall-style forum, and the expert more like a moderator. Community feedback will determine the theme for each forum – common struggles, frequent questions.

The first moderator will be Ethan Giffin, whom Rife calls a mentor, founder and CEO of local media marketing firm Groove Commerce.

“Our idea is that the real insight and value in the room is going to be in the attendees that are there,” Rife said.

The once-a-month events won’t stand on their own. The plan is for their website, www.startup-soiree.com, to feature original content and media, including blogs and once-weekly podcasts featuring one-on-one interviews with company founders. It will all amount to a community resource for the startup-minded, curated by the startup-minded.

But in the spirit of Pixilated’s outside-the-box premise, the broader goal of Startup Soiree is more external: to show off Baltimore entrepreneurship to the world.

“It’ll help us to start to really present a unified face for the rest of the world to see kind of all the great stuff that’s happening here, and where we’re going and what can be expected,” Rife said.