For every article you see touting how there’s just no place like Silicon Valley for the startup/entrepreneurially inclined, you’ll see a counter one. From New York, London, Tel Aviv, Beijing, Bali. And, of course, Waterloo Region. “You don’t need to go to the Valley to have a successful startup! You can do it here, and it’s cheaper, more community-minded, more scenic, more…”
This piece gives a good quickie breakdown of some pros and cons of starting your startup in the Valley. If you’re reading this, especially on Communitech’s site, I probably don’t have to tell you what Waterloo Region has to offer tech companies or entrepreneurs. And there are plenty of lists and tales of our success stories, world-changing tech, fertile ecosystem, etc.
And yet there are something like 350,000 Canadians in the Valley. Startups and starry-eyed types keep heading west (and south). Within the last month I’ve heard of folks from Wellington, NZ heading there, as well as some local guys.
Absolutely, there are business advantages to being there, and, hell, as we emerge from another Canadian winter, it’s pretty hard to argue against the awesomeness of their weather. But you don’t need to be there.
Let’s face it: the main reason to head to Silicon Valley to work in tech or be an entrepreneur is because you want to. Because it’s cool. Because people you want to be like have done it, and it’s full of other people like you, who think like you do and like the stuff you like and wear hoodies and overdose on energy drinks. It’s business Disney.
However. You can start a company anywhere. If it’s a bricks-and-mortar business, obviously it needs to cater to the local community and culture and whatnot. If it’s an Internet-based business, then you just need a connection and something people anywhere can find and will pay for.
There are tech hubs all over the world, and talent of various kinds to be found in all of them. But no, none of the others are quite Silicon Valley. To some degree they have 1 Infinite Loop and we still have orange groves (or, more locally, hay fields). But when you want to become a techie or entrepreneur, the important questions you have to ask yourself need to be divided into business and lifestyle.
Kitchener-Waterloo is still a medium-sized Canadian city. Its German Mennonite origins linger. I don’t know if you can get great Thai food at 2 a.m. (unlikely). We’re getting better on the fancy coffee front, and doing pretty well at craft beer. Increased multiculturalism is a work in progress. There are more Teslas on the streets, if those are markers of note.
It can be harder to get VC money, and you have to scale Mount Risk Aversion for a shot at it. In some ways this is the smallest town in the world, so if you screw up, socially or business-wise, People Will Know. Will that be a barrier to future success? For some, perhaps, but it hasn’t been for everyone.
There are plenty of ideas and creativity flowing here. Look at the universities and the tech startups. But it’s STEM creativity, if that makes any sense. It’s more often rigorous and practical. I think you’re less likely to get support and traction for some insane app idea here (at least as part of a serious business model) because there isn’t quite the same over-the-top optimism.
At the same time, we have fewer people who’ve been wildly successful or crashed and burned spectacularly. There are lessons to be learned and shared from both ends.
But there’s something to be said for growing up in an ecosystem where you are trained in the hard science of STEM, business, and entrepreneurship before you’re handed the keys to a billion-dollar valuation. For tinkering while you’re learning when the stakes are lower.
Where $3,000 a month will rent you a lot more than a shoebox apartment. But you have time to experiment and grow on a manageable scale before being pushed to take on the entire world. And where knowing a guy or pivoting or running out of runway aren’t the go-to options when things look bleak.
Now, I think the trend over the last decade or so of University of Waterloo co-op students going further abroad for work terms is great. I think they should get as wide a range of experience as possible. And why not play in tech’s champagne room for a while? These people are like 19 years old.
See how grand-scale career networking and infrastructure and deals are done. Meet awesome people from all over the place. Enjoy the amazing weather. Stay up for 48 hours pounding Red Bull and pizza and building something from scratch with your buddies. Wear nothing but T-shirts you got for free. Geek out as hard as you may ever geek out.
But be careful about getting that glitter in your eyes, and starting to think the rest of the world lives and works that way. The good life in the Valley is still largely predicated on privilege: being wealthy, well-educated, white and male. I never quite got over the discomfort of being a Googler at the mothership and being acutely aware of the gulf between us and the operations staff.
At some point, getting the job done comes down to hard work, a good support system and enough money to function but not to get sloppy. Do you want to be cool? Do you want a lifestyle as much as you want a startup?
That’s OK. Just be clear about it, and about what it will take to get it and keep it. Also, check in with yourself from time to time on how long you actually want it for.
And hey, just wanting to get away from the weather here is OK, too.
Photo: Sunny California Homes among the Fruits and Flowers Souvenir Folder by Jasperdo is licensed under CC BY 2.0.
M-Theory is an opinion column by Melanie Baker. Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Communitech.