The most coveted accessory in New York’s tech scene isn’t a new iPad app or an invitation to a private beta. It’s a status symbol that comes from the city’s analog age — something that evokes the days of egg creams and subway tokens, not Silicon Alley: a 212 area code.
Take Foursquare co-founder Naveen Selvadurai, one of the two minds behind the trendy online check-in service. The 28-year-old entrepreneur seemingly has all a young techie in New York might want: buzz and a growing brand valued at $95 million in its most recent round of venture funding. Everything, that is, except a 212 cellphone number.
“I had been thinking about it for a long time,” Selvadurai said. After moving to New York from Connecticut, he had to get a new phone and carrier. “I swapped my number to something new — 646 — to match my New York billing address but I really secretly wanted a 212,” he says. “But I never really went after it.”
That is, until Selvadurai noticed that one of his Foursquare employees had a 212 number. When fellow Foursquare co-founder and CEO Dennis Crowley pointed out that Twitter co-founder (and Foursquare angel investor) Jack Dorsey, a California resident, “rolls 212,” Selvadurai had heard enough. (Crowley admits to coveting a 212 himself. “Sure, I’d upgrade. All the cool kids are doing it,” he says.)
“A 212 can also make it seem like you are an early adopter — like you had a cell before they even devoted area codes to them. They are a conversation piece,” says Allison Mooney, a media and marketing theorist at Omnicom’s MobileBehavior. She adds: “Since your phone number is quite literally your calling card, those numbers can say a lot about you and connote a certain savvy,”
Ashley Granata, 29, the chief marketing officer at start-up Fashism, a fashion advice site, puts it succinctly: “212 numbers are the new rent-controlled apartments.”
Some tech business people believe it confers a certain edge. Doug Jaeger, president of the Art Directors Club and founder and former CEO of digital agency thehappycorp/LVHRD, has had a 212 cell for years. “For me, that’s just a number that works,” he says. “I find today when you meet new people and they are encoding numbers into their database, it’s important.”
Plus, some say, 212 has an authority when it shows up on a mobile screen or Caller ID -– crucial for tech entrepreneurs trying to get startups off the ground.
Granata, who got hers between jobs from a friend who was moving, says when people see a 212 number, “they always pick up the phone. I don’t pick up 917, 646, and definitely not 347. I think it’s not business-related…When I see a 212 I think it’s established and legit.”
On the tech scene, retro connotes authenticity,” says web content strategist Peter Feld. “And 212 means you’re an authentic, old-school New Yorker. The irony is that 212 cell phones are a little phony, like fake vintage T-shirts. Real Manhattanites use 917 for their cell phones and 212 for their land lines.”
Getting the number is the tough part. Says AT&T spokesman Mark Siegel, “Currently we have no available numbers in the 212 area code.”
Typically, when a customer cancels a 212 number, it’s taken out of rotation for 60 days, per FCC regulations. Then it goes back on the market for new phone customers.
Companies do not allow customers to reserve phone numbers in advance, so the chances are slim that a 212 number will become available when you’re setting up a new phone line. Getting a 212 number by any other means, says Siegel, is “outside the normal process,” though the phone company won’t say it’s illegal.
Selvedurai won’t say how he got his 212 line, but his Foursquare colleague, systems engineer Nathan Folkman, has this 212 story: A friend pointed him to a phone store on the Upper East Side, where he dropped off his cell, which had a Cleveland number. When he went back to retrieve the phone, it had a 212 number.
“I didn’t ask questions…Who knows? It was probably some mafia-run thing,” Folkman says.
EBay also does a brisk business selling 212 numbers. One seller, David Day of 212 Area Code, says business is booming. His rates start at $45 if you’re not picky. Easy-to-remember numbers, such as those ending in two or more zeroes, can cost $500-$1,200 and up.
Rameet Chawla, 28, a developer at ColaApps.com, bought his number from 212 Area Code. He paid between “$600 and $800” for his 212 phone number, which ends in all fours. After a few minutes dealing with AT&T to create his account, he was set. “I don’t tell anyone how I did it. I’m just like ‘I’m special, deal with it.’”
Does an area code even matter when most of us make calls by selecting names from a contact list, and not dialing digits? “I find that I’m using the phone less and less,” says Art Directors Club’s Jaeger. “Physical talking on the phone is something old people do.