A Silicon Valley Prescription for Boston and Other Startup Hubs: Throw More Parties

A few friends have asked me how my life has changed since I moved from Boston to San Francisco to open Xconomy’s Bay Area bureau. Do you want to know the real answer? I drink more.

A lot more.

In the Silicon Valley technology startup world that I cover, there’s at least one cocktail party, private dinner, coder beerfest, pre-conference gathering, post-conference gathering, movie screening, gallery opening, or other excuse for the alcohol to flow every freaking night of the week. Usually more than one. (If you don’t believe me, just subscribe to the Silicon Valley edition of StartupDigest, a guide to startup events curated by a cool guy here named Chris McCann.)

It’s like living in an infinite Mad Men episode. Raymond Carver, the American short story writer and poet, once wrote that wine is the worst drink to get drunk on—“hangovers you don’t forget”—and I’m learning that he’s right. I should probably switch to beer. San Francisco, after all, is home to at least 11 breweries and innumerable brewpubs. But when you live so close to Napa…

All kidding aside, I think there’s a real lesson here about the differences between Silicon Valley and other major hubs of technology innovation. In a column a few weeks ago headlined The Real City of Innovation is Everywhere, I argued that the Internet and the outsourcing revolution make it possible to build a startup just about anywhere these days. And it’s true. But when you look at where the startup founders really congregate, and where the angel and venture dollars are flowing to, Northern California still dominates. There’s obviously something in the water here. And I think that something is alcohol—or, more to the point, the schmoozing that alcohol facilitates.

Laura Fitton, aka @pistachio, the founder of the Cambridge, MA-based Twitter app store Oneforty, sent me an interesting note recently. She’d just visited the Bay Area, where several of Oneforty’s investors and advisors are based, and I had commented to her that I was overwhelmed by the number of startup stories that are begging to be written here (as this peek inside my story pipeline illustrates).

“I struggle so hard with how to bring that ‘steeped in startups’ feeling back home with me every time I fly back from SF,” Fitton commented from Cambridge. “We’re just too siloed here as startup teams—makes it even lonelier and prevents a hell of a lot of product innovation…We HAVE to overcome that isolation and siloing if we’re going to be inspired and energetic and passionate, not just in our founders but our entire teams.”

I’ve heard the same lament from other Boston-area entrepreneurs. I don’t have as much data from Xconomy’s other home cities of San Diego and Detroit, but I’m guessing that the siloing feels just as bad, if not worse.

Well, here in Silicon Valley and San Francisco they have this cool invention for overcoming isolation. It’s called getting together for drinks after work. From what I hear, this invention has spread to some circles in New York City, especially the Wall Street crowd. But it has yet to catch on in Boston’s startup community, where it seems that every weeknight is still a school night.

The thing is, you don’t necessarily have to leave work to drink. The beer flows freely at Google’s TGIF, the Friday afternoon gathering where even the lowliest employee is encouraged to lob questions at Sergey Brin, Larry Page, and Eric Schmidt. And apparently this is not a new idea. A couple of weeks ago, at Y Combinator’s Startup School event at Stanford (which was followed, of course, by a huge after-party), renowned angel investor Ron Conway talked about the early days at Altos Computer Systems, the San Jose, CA-based maker of multi-user computer systems that he co-founded in 1979. “We might have been one of the companies that invented TGI Fridays,” Conway said. “But we did it every day. Our chief financial officer, at 5:00 p.m., would wheel a cart with wine and beer to every desk. We’d all drink and fraternize for an hour, and then everyone went back to work. That set the culture…We all worked hard and played hard.” (Altos got acquired by Acer in 1990, which allowed Conway to start playing around a bit as an angel.)

I think the nub of the issue is that in SoMa, Mountain View, Palo Alto, and the Bay Area’s other startup ghettoes, there’s almost an expectation that the work day will include some semi-recreational socializing—and there’s no better disinhibitor for this purpose than a drink or two. What might appear, at first glance, to be a randomly nattering 6:30 p.m. crowd at San Francisco’s Zero Zero or The 21st Amendment or Gordon Biersch would, under an ethnographic lens, turn out to an exquisitely choreographed dance, with everyone striving to collect the latest industry gossip, get advice on a business or technical problem, pitch a product or startup idea, or quiz a potential employee or investor. In fact, I’d bet that more Silicon Valley deals are spawned in the two hours between 5:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. than in the eight hours between 9:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m.

Here at Xconomy San Francisco, we’re doing our best to tap into this tradition. One Friday afternoon about a month after I arrived in San Francisco, my Seattle colleague Luke Timmerman and I threw an informal open house here at my Potrero Hill loft/office. About a week beforehand, we sent out a few tweets and personalized e-mail invitations, and we put a story on the blog with a picture of some wine and cheese. Seventy-five people showed up. Back in Boston, it would have taken me a month of pleading to round up that many guests.

Laura Fitton reports that ever since she got back from San Francisco, she’s been “on a tear about how we need to drink more together. And it’s working. But yeah, we can do it much more.” She says Oneforty plans to start having small, informal open houses more frequently. As do I. As more startups should. Bottoms up, Boston!

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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