2016-02-01

The Other "Silicon" Places

Somebody recently pointed me to an MIT Technology Review article written by Vivek Wadwha asserting that "Silicon Valley can't be copied".

I have been thinking about this topic a lot lately, because I frequently wonder if I really am getting enough added value from living in Silicon Valley to justify the cost, and if I'm honest, I no longer can say that I am.

I too used to believe Silicon Valley couldn't be copied, and have repeated the same assertions about critical mass many times before. However, I have become increasingly disillusioned with SV, both with the shortsightedness and bureaucracy within "big tech", and (maybe I'm getting old, but) also with how millenials are running the startup scene.

"Silicon Valley" has moved further north over time, from the actual valley of San Jose / Santa Clara, to Palo Alto / Mountain View, to SF itself. Now even if a company isn't based in SF, almost all of the single employees live in SF and commute out to work. (Almost all the single Googlers I know take the bus down from SF to Mountain View, which adds 3 hours of commute to their day.) It's an oxymoron to call San Francisco "Silicon Valley", but that's where all the young startups are all setting up shop these days, because kids want to live where the other kids live.

The Great Compensator is of course the cost of housing, and this may ultimately break the SV monopoly. The cost of housing in SF has gone from laughable to well past the pain threshold. And once you're no longer 22, and you're no longer willing to live in a closet or survive off of ramen, you might start to care about lifestyle. (Apologies for the BuzzFeed link.)

A lot of Wannabe Silicon Valleys, with much better quality of living than SF at lower cost, seem to be finally gaining traction. You need enough people acutely interested in making an area a tech hub for a long enough period of time, and then you need some sort of development incentives and/or re-branding to kick off what will hopefully turn into a runaway process of tech creativity and investment confidence. The clever re-branding of NYC as "Silicon Alley" and Wellington as "Silicon Welly" seems to have had an effect on the burgeoning of tech in those areas. A lot of new startups reportedly moved to Kansas City and Provo when Google Fiber was announced in those cities. etc.

One of the many new tech hubs is "Silicon Slopes" (centered around Lehi UT), which has an unusually high number of CS and EE grads, and a large amount of new investment money. The mortgage payment on a brand new 5 bedroom house with a large yard in UT is less than my rent payment for a studio apartment in a garage attic in Palo Alto. Gas, groceries and restaurant meals are just over half the price in UT compared to CA, and some of the best skiing, hiking and rock climbing in the world falls within 30-60 minute radius of any urban center in UT.

Ultimately I think a lot of people in these wannabe tech hubs are quietly ignoring the assertion that you can't duplicate SV, and just getting on with it. In some cases, maybe they're building something different and better.


Boston (the city that I called home for seven years) still has a lot of unrealized potential, especially in biotech -- and Boston/Cambridge has a lot more soul than SF. But Boston will always face an uphill battle due to weather and old, cramped housing, which gives rise to the transience of the non-local "population overlay" (people that are just there for school or jobs).

But in the end, maybe location doesn't matter at all: there's always the "digital nomad" lifestyle, where you can actually save money by traveling the world while working from your laptop.

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