Let’s say you’re an ambitious, creative professional or entrepreneur working in the United States. You’re interested in technology, you have the luxury of mobility, and you want to be close to the center of things. Which city should you choose as your home?
If you’re attracted to a specific sub-field, the answer may be obvious. For finance, advertising, traditional media, or fashion, it’s New York. For government, it’s Washington, DC. For entertainment, it’s Los Angeles.
But for almost any other area of technology or its related industries, Boston and San Francisco should be high on your list. Both are top-tier innovation hubs. How are you supposed to choose between them?
It’s the kind of question that sparks endless debate on forums like Quora or Reddit. Personally, I’m madly, unconditionally in love with San Francisco, to the point where I don’t feel completely comfortable living anywhere else. That’s mostly a matter of aesthetic taste: there’s something about the bracing air, the dramatic views, and the golden light in San Francisco that no other city can match. But I’ve spent enough time studying and working in each place—15 years in and around Boston, 13 years in the San Francisco Bay Area—to have a balanced sense of their pluses and minuses as entrepreneurial base camps.
My own take, based on observing the personalities and operating styles of hundreds of active entrepreneurs in each location, is that both Boston and San Francisco boast incredibly strong innovation cultures. But they’re not the same, of course. Broadly speaking, their entrepreneurs draw energy and inspiration from different sources, and prioritize different goals. It’s a case of contrasting preferences or tendencies, like left-handedness or right-handedness. Neither is better, and each has its advantages.
I’m stereotyping a bit here, but innovators in Boston look to tradition and the patterns of history. They’re good at identifying gaps in existing industries and filling them in. Meanwhile, innovators in San Francisco (which includes Silicon Valley, for purposes of this discussion) prefer to start fresh where possible. The pattern of “disruptive” innovation—in which younger, smaller firms steal business from established leaders by offering cheaper products based on new, initially inferior, but fast-evolving technologies—was first identified in Boston, by Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen. But it plays out far more often in San Francisco.
For an example of the contrast, just look at Zipcar and Uber. Both offer alternatives to the world of individual automobile ownership.
Boston-born Zipcar added something new to the traditional rental-car model by offering easy online and mobile scheduling, highly distributed fleets, and a sophisticated logistics backend that allows rentals by the hour. It’s not designed to replace the rental-car business (in fact, renting a Zipcar vehicle for a whole day would be more expensive than going to Hertz or Avis); rather, Zipcar offers very-short-term mobility to otherwise carless urban residents.
San Francisco-born Uber is far more radical. It’s out to disrupt the taxi industry by offering a new, cheaper product—a software-driven network—that gives passengers and drivers a new way to connect, bypassing traditional cab companies and dispatchers (not to mention traditional regulations and pricing schemes).
Or choose another sector: travel. TripAdvisor is a classic Boston company. It built an archive of consumer hotel and restaurant reviews that padded out an existing ecosystem of online travel search and reservations; arguably, it also popularized the whole notion of user reviews in the travel business. Airbnb, by contrast, is a classic San Francisco company. It’s upending the hotel industry by bringing an entirely new class of accommodations into being.
Turning to styles of thought and aspiration, I’d assert that creators in Boston are generally more enchanted by ideas, academic frameworks, and intellectual debates, while creators in San Francisco are more motivated by action, competition for competition’s sake, and the prospect of vast wealth for the winners.
That’s why it’s common to see ideas being conceived or incubated in Boston but then executed at scale in Silicon Valley—think Facebook, Dropbox, and Y Combinator. That’s why some of Boston’s largest and most successful venture firms have moved all or most of their operations to the Bay Area—think Greylock Partners and Charles River Ventures. And that’s why Harvard and MIT are the second- and third-largest suppliers of founders for Series-A-funded tech startups in Silicon Valley, after first-place Stanford, according to the findings of a 2013 Reuters survey.
There is no shame in this for Boston. Research is the region’s strong point: academic institutions in Cambridge, MA, spend $4 billion on R&D each year, compared to only $1.3 billion for the entire Bay Area, according to the National Science Foundation. You get to this level by being methodical—very much a Boston trait—not scattershot like San Francisco, trying 57 varieties of everything from Web-based grocery delivery to mobile photo-sharing.
And ideas are obviously the life’s blood of all innovation. If you’re a Boston-educated person living in San Francisco, pretty soon you start to miss the heady intellectual air of Boston and Cambridge—the constant seminars and symposiums and conferences and colloquia—and you realize that most of the ideas you hear in San Francisco tech circles are about how companies can earn more money. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that!)
To sum up: if I were playing the word association game, the table below shows how I’d boil down the attributes of Boston and San Francisco. Again, these are generalizations. It’s important not to take a list like this too seriously. It portrays the two cities in terms of polar extremes, while in reality, such attributes tend to spread out along a spectrum, with lots of overlap. But I think most people with experience in both places would agree with these high-level descriptions.
|Respectful of tradition||Transfixed by novelty|
|Looking east, toward Europe||Looking west, toward Asia|
|Prioritizes experience||Prioritizes youth|
|Prone to testing and debate||Prone to action and implementation|
|Cautious veneer, loyal interior||Friendly veneer, shallow interior|
My personal solution to the Boston vs. San Francisco dilemma has been to choose both. I’m authentically bicoastal, seemingly unable to settle in either place once and for all. From 1985 to 1997, I was going to school in Boston and getting my feet wet as a science and technology writer. From 1998 to 2006 I held various editorial posts in and around Silicon Valley. From 2007 to 2010 I was back in Boston again, helping to get Xconomy off the ground. Then I went west again to spend four years as the editor of Xconomy San Francisco. As I write this, I’m en route to Boston once again for a new job (more on that soon). While I hope to build something lasting in my new post, it wouldn’t be a huge shock if I find myself back in San Francisco at some point. I’m keeping my dual citizenship.
To be honest, I think bicoastal is best—at least when it comes to technology journalism. In Boston, I’ve cultivated a serious, skeptical turn of mind that has served me well as a reporter covering the sometimes frothy and shallow technology scene in San Francisco. In San Francisco, I’ve developed an appreciation for the power of aggressive risk-taking that gives me the confidence to fault Boston-based innovators when it seems they’re being too cautious. Whether their denizens like to admit it or not, the two regions serve as one another’s alter egos. Each would be diminished without the other.
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