This article is one I intended to write almost two years ago when I spent a month living in San Francisco’s North Beach and observed firsthand what it’s like to live in the epicenter of the startup world. Now, as I am sitting on my Virgin America flight on my way back to the Bay area, I finally intend to publish my thoughts.
As a tech nerd who has lived in Michigan for all his life, my first trip to Silicon Valley was probably as awe-inspiring as a normal child’s first trip to Disney World (not Disney Land… I’m from Michigan). Guided tours of the Googleplex seem to never grow old! But what else is it about this part of California that makes it so special? I am especially interested in this topic as I witness Rick DeVos and the Start Garden team in Grand Rapids attempt to create a startup culture in my hometown. And so I wonder, what does it take and will it be successful?
During my month-long stay in San Francisco, I made a very conscious effort to immerse myself in the various tech and startup-focused events the Bay area has to offer. These included Ruby hack nights, digital advertising/publisher meetups, startup demo nights, ed-tech panels, local Skillshare classes, co-working Fridays, and a whole series of social media week talks (plus a visit to Google in Mountain View). In attending all these events, I met dozens of other startup founders like myself and listened to their stories of moving out to the area a few years ago to pursue their dreams and start a company. The amount of excitement and optimism around startups is something that I think really contributes to the startup culture of San Francisco and inspires people to leave their hometowns and move out west.
In order for this excitement to be more than just hype, however, it’s also important to have the success stories. For me, it serves as a constant reminder of the success that is possible in the tech world when I can walk down the street and pass the offices for companies like Twitter, Square, Adobe, and Zynga on the way back to my apartment. Unfortunately for cities like Grand Rapids, this sort of success is difficult to manufacture when you are beginning to build a startup ecosystem.
You can’t talk about Silicon Valley startups and success stories without talking about venture capital. Access to money is an important factor, although as a bootstrapped tech company, I believe it is still possible to build a successful and sustainable business without funding. That said, VCs and angel investors play a vital role on several levels in a successful startup ecosystem. Angels remove the initial risk in starting a company, leading to more would-be entrepreneurs taking a shot at it. Venture capital allows startups to scale more quickly and hopefully out-maneuver their competitors or take on a large incumbent. Additionally, choosing the right investors means access to their connections and wisdom, in addition to their money.
Something that really struck me as being unique about the San Francisco startup/tech scene is how willing people are to help one another and how approachable people are in this industry. Not only is it so much easier to strike up a conversation with someone who has the same set of skills and interests as yourself, but even the so-called superstars of the tech world are accessible to chat at a conference. There seems to be a genuine desire by those who have achieved some success to share their lessons with those who are still grinding it out. This spirit of openness is so much more beneficial for the entire community than being guarded and closed for fear that someone will steal your idea, or believing that someone else’s success somehow detracts from your own. It’s not a zero-sum game.
There are certainly other factors to a healthy startup culture – universities that promote entrepreneurship, an adequate supply of engineering talent, local government that is invested in fostering a startup community, investors who understand technology and are willing to take risks, an area of town with many startups in close proximity, among other factors. I have listened to Brad Feld speak on this topic, and he has much more insight and credibility than I do. These are just a few of my reflections on what I like about San Francisco’s startup culture from the perspective of a Grand Rapids entrepreneur. Rick DeVos and team are already making progress on many of these fronts and I am hopeful that we can build our own unique, startup-friendly community.