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Seattle Startups
05.06.11

 

Mark Suster has a posting on his blog today about Seattle startups that I think is really interesting [link]. (By the way, I'm a regular reader and big fan of Mark's blog so I really disagree with the utmost of respect.)
 
My first job out of college was as as product manager at amazon.com. I also briefly was at Microsoft before moving to Silicon Valley and working at Google. Both amazon.com and Microsoft are in Seattle (Microsoft is in Redmond but they are two of the main anchors, not just for tech, but for business in general in Seattle.)
 
When I was in college, I really wanted to work at a startup -- and, in particular, I really wanted to work in Silicon Valley. But I went to Princeton for undergrad -- probably one of the worst places when it comes to entrepreneurship. Princeton is an old school school. Long story short -- it seemed like the way to get a job at a startup would be to just move to Silicon Valley, meet people / apply for jobs, and interview. I did what I thought would be the next best thing and work for a company "almost like a startup" in amazon.com and they would also do all the great things a big company does like pay to fly me up, pay to move me, put me up in corp housing, etc. etc.!
 
Here's the problem with that thinking: amazon.com is not a startup. Startups don't have money for things like that. amazon.com is a BIG company. It wasn't massive back then, but it still was big. Oh, and one more thing, Seattle is not like Silicon Valley. Seattle is nothing like Silicon Valley. Seattle is a wonderful, sleepy little town in the Pacific Northwest where people like to hike. Silicon Valley is a place where one of my TaeKwonDo instructors was a venture capitalist (no joke.)
 
It's been almost 10 years since I lived in Seattle -- so things may have changed -- but a big life lesson for me was, "If you want to work in an industry, work in its epicenter." That's why I moved to Los Angeles from New York. I wanted to do film/TV stuff. New York is ok for it -- but there's probably more done on the Warner Brothers lot alone than in all of New York City. (and beyond Warner Brothers -- there's Sony, Fox, NBC/Universal, ABC/Disney, etc. etc.)
 
It's not just resources -- and Mark makes reasonable points about a lot of the resources Seattle has. However, I will say this about resources -- what Seattle has is fractional relative to Silicon Valley. Sure, it has Microsoft and amazon.com -- but do you know what tech people used to talk about beyond them? Sometimes they would even mention Nordstrom.com. I mean, that's nice and all -- but come on. There are many Microsofts / amazon.coms in the valley and many many mid-tier companies, and then orders of magnitude more startups. 
 
But beyond resources, it's a mentality thing. There is some startup mentality / community in Seattle -- just like there's some startup mentality / community in Los Angeles. But it's small and they think different. Some are really good and there have been some great exits. But again, it's an order of magnitude smaller. Getting back to the mentality -- in Silicon Valley -- just as an example, I basically worked in 6 offices during my time in Google. This is what these folks did post-Google.
 
Office/Cube #1: one startup founded by cube mate of mine sold to Facebook; other cube mate was early employee of startup sold to Google
 
Office/Cube #2: shared office with former cube mate who was early employee of startup sold to Google)
 
Office/Cube #3: shared office with one of the founders of AngelPad
 
Office/Cube #4: shared cube with senior exec at Etsy
 
Office/Cube #5: shared office with two individuals who co-founded a company that was funded by Mayfield
 
(By the way, in most of these work situations -- there were obviously others who I shared an office with who didn't found a startup, etc.)
 
Part of this is who was there, the value of working at Google, etc. But a much bigger part of this was just the mentality around startups. Entrepreneurship and tech was just something that was constantly flowing through the system. In Seattle, other things flow through the system. The think and talk about like vacation, and life problems, and other things. I don't say that in a derogatory sense -- I say it only in the sense that Seattle was not necessarily all that different than, say, places I knew on the east coast. Microsoft is gotta be one of the worst  places for entrepreneurship to come out of. I know that there has been companies like Expedia and Zillow that have come from ex-Microsoft people -- but there's not that much for a company with 50,000+ tech people. Why? Microsoft is a giant company! Entrepreneurial people are not drawn to places with massive layers of bureaucracy where you can make $100K+/year and still be 8 levels below Steve Ballmer. (this is not an exaggeration) Do you know who is drawn to places like that? People who like cushy jobs, where you get paid a lot, it's very difficult to get fired, and where your primary duty might be to go to meetings and push paper. 
 
So I'm not saying that Seattle can't build a burgeoning community. But I am saying that there are so many little components that need to come together and exist in order for the entire ecosystem to really thrive. One of the reasons that great L.A. tech companies I know exist is because they essentially have found all those related components themselves (or leveraged what is there for L.A.) In Silicon Valley, you could trip over a rock and find one of those related components. So for my money, if you want to do a startup, do it in Silicon Valley. It's just easier.

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