I spent my college years at NC State, in Raleigh, NC. It is one of the three institutions at the heart of Research Triangle Park[ (RTP). RTP is known as a center for life science and software innovation. I spent my Masters year in Cambridge, in what the Brits sometimes refer to as Silicon Fen. They see Cambridge as their Stanford and nanotechnology as the new so-far-untapped source of innovation and business advantage. Now I am in Silicon Valley, and everything is different.
Go to any big city, and you will see incubators, mayors talking about new entrepreneurship initiatives, and universities aggressively trying to spin out technologies and negotiate big licensing deals for IP. They see Silicon Valley as something to be copied — a path to local economic success.
There are things here that can be replicated, no doubt. But there are features of this place that are amazing and unique (in no particular order, except number 6):
Beta testers. How many people know what Uber is? Lyft? Sidecar? How many people have used all 3? Almost everyone in SF has at least considered it. There is a huge culture here of hearing about new apps/sites/services/toys on Techcrunch or elsewhere and putting them to the test. It is a whole city of beta testers that can generate huge buzz.
Pitching ain’t easy. Whether they know it or not, people are constantly saying “wouldn’t it be cool if…” and very frequently, these people have the skills to do actually give them a shot. More important is practice. Since I have been working on my business, I have learned to be more creative and think about business ideas in a new way. By constantly pitching, people learn to vet these ideas. Even if they aren’t starting a company on them, the process is powerful. (Note to self: if I am leading a company, hold pitch days for my employees to get those creative juices flowing and understand better what is important to people. It is the ultimate suggestion box.)
Lots of talented people. I believe the best people anywhere are as good as the best people anywhere else. Everywhere I have been, smart people have totally blown me away. I think what differentiates this place is its position as a technical hub is that it has become such a destination for talented people with an entrepreneurial mindset. What’s more is that they are constantly talking about cool tech. Go to Boston, there are undoubtedly as many highly trained people (or NY, RTP, Austin, Seattle, to name a few others), but how many times have you heard a discussion on the T about why php is still a relevant language or the merits of Django v Ruby on Rails? These conversations were between total strangers. It is a powerful community that can dig in so deeply so quickly.
Starting a company is culturally riskless. Okay, this is not correct. There is tremendous personal and opportunity cost to starting a company. In Raleigh, within the startup community, failure isn’t frowned upon. I would guess in most startup communities, failure is learning. But here, with few exceptions, failing at starting a company is largely shrugged off. It is a good learning experience. I have no doubt that if I need to get a “real job”, I could do it because starting a company is not a blank spot on my resume, it is a highlight.
People get irrationally excited. There are crazy startup ideas here all the time that people are trying to launch. They might seem impossible, they might seem long term, the first product might seem like a very small first step. This area is an incredible echo chamber. People support each other and get insanely excited about other people’s ideas. Sometimes, it is good to have someone else remind you of how great and big your vision is, because sometimes it is easy to get lost in the weeds. This is some of the power of an incubator, you are accountable to someone else, but you also have an even tighter community of people to lift you up when you are down. My experience here is an entire community behaving like an incubator.
Investors. This explains itself, but it is last for a reason. I have many thoughts on investor dynamics, but from a growth standpoint, it is very good to have investors around. Some businesses need money, and having one place to go where there are a variety of openminded, smart investors with billions at their disposal is a very powerful thing.
Silicon Valley has a number of things going against it, too: a ridiculous cost of living (roughly offset by salaries, but it makes startups hard), some interesting social dynamics, and a focus on solving “problems” that questionably have any impact on the world at all (“We wanted flying cars, but we got 140 characters” — Peter Thiel).
Note that none of these features, good or bad, is government incentives or policy. These things are culture. Culture takes time. I really like Durham’s approach. Create space for people and give it time. Trying to force a new culture or kick innovation into high gear with a $25 million over 5 years doesn’t even work in Silicon Valley, it isn’t going to work elsewhere either. Let people be themselves and break rules. Most importantly, sign up to actually use the product that people in your community are building. Then get to know the builder. Give them feedback, then if you are sold, become a walking advertisement. The positive effects from this on the team, on the product, on the community, and even on you are hard to overstate.