The New York Times reports Friday that alone among all the cities hoping to be the next Silicon Valley, Seattle “is actually doing it.”
But the Times didn’t talk to iLike President Hadi Partovi, or Zillow.com CEO Rich Barton, both entrepreneurs who, like many of the folks at Redfin, shuttle between Seattle and Silicon Valley. None of us thinks Seattle is ever going to be much like Silicon Valley. We believe instead that what other cities can learn from Seattle is how to be different than the Valley, not the same.
In reality, most places don’t even want to try to be like the Valley. Seattle has become unrecognizably wealthier in the past decade, yet is oddly unhappy about it. Many Seattleites wish we were still a modest boreal town rather than a Microsoft-Amazon megapolis. The question I am most often asked here is where I went to high school — twenty years ago — not what I’m doing next.
The Valley by contrast is a heartless amnesiac. In my 16 years there I can’t recall anyone’s ever expressing nostalgia for how it used to be. This is probably because almost no one in Silicon Valley has any idea how it used to be. Internet guru Michael Arrington often opens conferences by asking audience-members from Silicon Valley to raise their hands and then, if they were born in the Valley, to keep their hands raised. Hands go up and down like The Wave.
And this is what Michael loves about the Valley: that it calls out at dog-whistle frequencies to nerds across America, Russia, India and China. The single-mindedness of their migration belongs in National Geographic. My first roommate spent four years building a company in San Francisco without ever buying furniture. When his startup went bust, he packed for the trip home to Toronto the same day.
Seattle is different. People live in Seattle because they love Seattle. When I was still looking for a reason to be here myself, I often asked Redfin recruits what brought them to town. The answer I always hoped for was “CONQUEST.” But what everyone talked about was something I still barely understand: the lifestyle and schools, the mountains and lakes. “Do you have any idea,” I finally told one candidate, “how bizarre it is to swim in a lake at the center of a city?”
Failure to appreciate a lake is viewed by many Seattleites as a sign of mental illness. But the Valley’s monomania is really just a kind of pubescence. What else could account for the Valley’s self-righteousness, its congregations of frustrated dudes, its all-nighters, idealism, delusions of grandeur, mood-swings, longings, dramas, hero-worship and pranks? Anywhere else by contrast seems all grown-up.
No one in the Valley can afford to grow up. Just as stressful environments delay the onset of sexual maturity in marsupials, a high cost of living – a two-bedroom house in Palo Alto typically costs more than $1.5 million — prevents people from buying homes and having children. In Silicon Valley, Seattle’s 28 year-old family man is still working his tail off for a hit.
The Hogwarts of Silicon Valley
The other source of Silicon Valley’s youthfulness is, in fact, places like Seattle. Seattle has some of America’s best high schools, but sends many of its best computer science students to California.
The founders of Apple, Google, Intel, Sun and Yahoo! all graduated from Berkeley or Stanford; an enormous graduating class seeks to follow in their footsteps every year. The whole state of Washington produces about 150 computer science graduates a year.
Stanford in particular is not just the source of Silicon Valley’s manpower but its magic. Guy Kawasaki says it is “the single biggest reason for Silicon Valley’s existence.” And as Hadi notes, “very few colleges spit out 21-year-olds who think they can be the next Jerry Yang or Larry Page.” It’s painful for those of us never admitted to Stanford to marvel at its sunny rejection of failure, its Hadron-sized Internet connections, its courses on venture capital and Facebook, its magnificent sense of entitlement.
Yet we all know that without Stanford the Valley would grow old and die. Native Seattleites hardly notice Seattle’s Stanfordlessness; Valley expats never get over it.
Rotarians and Pirates
This is not to say that Seattle is all bad for entrepreneurs, only that the ways in which it is good only show how different it is compared to Silicon Valley. Start with Seattle’s Rotary Club, the largest in the world. High-tech entrepreneurs are expected to be pillars of the business community here, not, as Silicon Valley’s establishment likes to think of itself, pirates of the Caribbean.
At one of the first conferences I attended in Seattle, I was shocked to hear a speaker talk about how to improve K-12 math education, not how to hack a Tivo. It took a while to realize that “K” stood for kindergarten, not kilobytes. But this mindset connects us to a set of civic virtues bigger than any one company. It’s why I’m optimistic about Seattle over the long haul.
And it has nurtured a rookie CEO like me. A Seattle journalist e-mailed me while I was still loading the tiny U-Haul that brought me here. A VC who should have eaten my gizzard for breakfast invited me to his lake house for dinner. A startup CEO who offered money-raising advice over lunch diverted us from Quiznos to Carmines. Redfin is better because of their help.
Far from the Madding Crowd
Few people would have had the time to help in Silicon Valley. The chaos of newcomers and the desperation of those who want to stay make the Valley seem like a capital about to fall in a coup. Dingbat ideas are scattered like pennies on a sidewalk. Overlooking last night’s website launch is like showing up at a party with last year’s purse.
The cult of the new may seem like madness but here’s the method to it: what’s often most difficult about developing a new idea is figuring out if it’s already an old idea. A business just like the one you’ve been dreaming of may already be forming within Google, or preparing to launch on its own.
When you and everyone you know spend 18 hours a day downloading, hacking, breaking, sharing, gossiping, criticizing and arguing about the Web, it’s easier to tell when an idea is truly new. And if you don’t, it’s almost impossible to catch up.
This is why Hadi says so many Seattle entrepreneurs develop ideas late. We aren’t slow; just out of the loop. Even Seattle’s greatest two start-ups, Amazon and Microsoft, were first conceived somewhere else.
But being apart from Silicon Valley can give entrepreneurs the latitude to think about what works, not what’s fashionable. It was, at first, hard for me to break out of the Valley mindset. My initial question in setting Redfin’s course wasn’t “Is there a business here?” but “Is it cool?”
Because Redfin’s business — real estate — isn’t cool. And taking on the messy business of serving customers directly definitely isn’t cool. But some of the best – and most meaningful — new ventures may be the ones that combine old and new business models, experience and youthful recklessness, perseverance and opportunism. And it is these ventures that really seem to belong in Seattle.
Loyal to a Fault
Because if it turns out that Zillow, iLike or Redfin are on to something good, it may be easier to build a long-term business in Seattle. Ten years on at Microsoft, engineers deep in Redmond’s rain forests are still writing the next version of Office. Meanwhile the engineers at Google are, as Zillow’s Rich Barton points out, plotting their next startup on the company dime.
I’m not sure which engineers one would rather have, but it is true that there is a blue-collar dedication in Seattle that you don’t find in the ADD-addled Valley. “You work hard here because it’s gray,” Rich writes. “Then you go hiking or fishing or skiing.”
I really like that advice. Unfazed by any heavy weather ahead, Rich keeps chugging along and having fun. And Seattle does, too.