Seattle’s Not Silicon Valley (and that’s a good thing)

I just came across this interesting piece by John Markoff in today’s New York Times titled “Seattle Taps Its Inner Silicon Valley”. I grew up in Seattle but lived and worked in the Bay Area through the first Internet boom-bust cycle, and the idea of Seattle becoming more like Silicon Valley strikes me both as somewhat improbable, and (to the extent that it’s true) a very mixed blessing.

Since moving back to Seattle in 2001 I’ve co-founded two companies (Judy’s Book and Cooler Planet), and invested in, consulted to and/or served as an advisor to several others. And while the local startup climate has definitely loosened up in that period, the technology entrepreneurs I talk to here still feel like members of an underground subculture, operating on the periphery of a business environment dominated by bigcos (e.g., Microsoft and Amazon). By contrast, starting a company seems like an obvious career move to many in the Bay Area, and a much larger chunk of the tech workforce there has cycled through one or more startups, even if their current gig is at a public company.

On the plus side, the “indie” feeling prevalent in Seattle’s current startup culture creates a more open community for those on the inside; it’s a small group, everyone is connected to everyone else and there’s an us-against-the-world mentality that encourages people in different companies to help each other out in ways large and small. This is a welcome contrast to the Bay Area (at least as I remember it), where mine-is-bigger competitive posturing and paranoid secrecy obsessions were more the norm.

On the downside, first-time entrepreneurs (or those who move here from elsewhere) have a hard time penetrating Seattle’s relatively clubby startup community. (Remember that Seattle Times piece called “Seattle Nice / Seattle Ice“? According to some out-of-towners I’ve talked to, that’s how it feels to come here as an entrepreneur as well). While in Silicon Valley, it’s hard to go for coffee or drinks and not bump into an entrepreneur (or several), and working for or starting a new company is almost the default choice for ambitious young professionals.

If the trends Markoff observes are true, my expectation is not that Seattle’s startup culture will eventually look just like Silicon Valley’s. If we’re thoughtful about it (and the people I talk to about definitely are), we should be able to create a startup culture here that approaches the transparency and accessibility of the Bay Area (with kudos to folks like Marcelo Calbucci, Chuck Groom and Gaurav Oberoi for showing the way forward), while preserving the openness and collegiality of the current “underground” culture. Seattle won’t ever be Silicon Valley, and (except for the great weather and the terrific cycling), that’s a very good thing.