Boston vs. NYC vs. Silicon Valley? Forget It—The Real City of Innovation Is Everywhere
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Sergey Brin and Larry Page had gone to graduate school at Columbia instead of Stanford? If New York is such a terrible place to build a tech startup, what are Foursquare and Hunch and Boxee and Bug Labs and Gawker and TechStars doing there?
Boston vs. New York vs. Silicon Valley is a fruitless debate rooted in fossilized provincialism of the same sort that drives the great sports rivalries. No one thinks that Philadelphia must be a great place to live simply because the Phillies have the best win-loss record in baseball this year, or that the Pirates’ dismal record means people should move out of Pittsburgh. Especially not in an era when free agency means the major-league lineups can be so thoroughly reshuffled from season to season. My argument is that the resources that drive innovation are like free agents, but are even more fluid.
Sure, if you’re a startup founder you should pick a location where you’ll have access to the resources you need. But from what I’ve seen, finding those resources is more a matter of who you know than where the people you know park their cars. By all means make the fundraising rounds on Menlo Park’s Sand Hill Road or Waltham’s Mount Money. But don’t put your company in Silicon Valley or Boston just because those places have the highest concentration of venture capital firms. After all, cash is the most liquid resource of all. Build your company wherever you’re happiest, and use technology to make it hang together. (Hint: once you’ve got your money, Skype makes it easy to have board meetings without having to fly everyone to the same place. And as I wrote last week, Anybots has another interesting solution to the telepresence problem.)
There’s a startup nominally based in San Francisco, Automattic, that presages where I think a lot of companies are going. Started by Matt Mullenweg, this is the company behind the WordPress platform used by Xconomy and thousands of other publishers and bloggers. It sublets some space on Pier 38 near the South Beach Marina, but the place is really more of a lounge than an office, and if you just stop by randomly, you’re likely to find it empty. Mullenweg goes there only once a week, and he lives just five minutes away. (“We leased it so we wouldn’t have to keep borrowing conference rooms from our VC partners” for board meetings, he told Inc. magazine last year.) Everyone at Automattic works from home, and only eight of the company’s 40 employees live in the Bay Area. The rest are scattered around the world, in places like Bulgaria and Ireland and Alabama. The company operates around the clock, and staffers stay in touch using P2, a Twitter-inspired group blogging tool that Automattic developed specifically for in-house communications.
Obviously, the Automattic model wouldn’t work for companies whose work demands labs, factory machinery, or warehouses. And I’m not trying to say that geography makes zero difference in the technology business. Here at Xconomy, for example, our small staff of journalists can’t be everywhere at once, so we’ve singled out Boston, Detroit, San Diego, San Francisco, and Seattle as the places we’re mostly like to find illuminating stories about companies bringing world-changing technologies to market. But we plan to keep expanding into new cities, because we know that no single place has a lock on innovation.
What should we call this sprawling city of innovation that I’m describing? Certainly not OBAMA, which is too partisan and leaves out the West. After playing with the Scrabble pieces for a while, the best I could come up with is BoBoSSCANDALS. That stands for Boston-Boulder-San Francisco-San Diego-Chicago-Austin-New York-Detroit-Atlanta-Los Angeles-Seattle. (Apologies to Cleveland, Dallas, Denver, Miami, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Phoenix, and Salt Lake City; I just couldn’t fit you in.) But seriously—let’s stop worrying so much about where innovation happens and just get behind the people who are doing it, wherever they may be.