Paul Graham’s Y Combinator leaves Boston, entrepreneurs dive under the bed

Last Friday, Paul Graham announced that his Y Combinator incubator was leaving Boston for Silicon Valley, prompted by the impending birth of his first child.  He didn’t lose any sleep over it though, and made his thoughts on Boston vs. Silicon Valley clear (yet again) in that announcement:

Boston just doesn’t have the startup culture that the Valley does. It has more startup culture than anywhere else, but the gap between number 1 and number 2 is huge; nothing makes that clearer than alternating between them.

This has been picked up in a variety of areas by Boston-local entrepreneurs and those that watch that space.  The reaction has been predictable, if you know just how much of an inferiority complex people have vis á vis Silicon Valley (emphasis below mine):

Scott Kirsner:

That’s not just his opinion… it’s reality… and we ought to be addressing it head-on.

Buzz in the HUB:

Paul Graham has long been a critic of the Boston Venture community and their reluctance to invest in his crops of nascent startups. He has now given in to the fact that the Valley is a better place for (web) startups.

Robert Buderi:

…the full-time departure of Graham and Y Combinator is a real loss for the New England innovation community

The most grating reaction I saw was this anonymous comment left on Scott Kirsner’s post:

For people like myself who are on the cusp of creating something new, Boston’s conservative culture translates directly to greater risk and scarcer opportunity. The question always boiles down to: if you have a family, how do you take the plunge, even if your business intention is indeed groundbreaking? Is the risk too great in this town?? And if it is, doesn’t that mean a move to the Valey must be considered.

At this point, I should remind my two readers that I chose to start a software company in Northampton, a town in Western Massachusetts, a solid 80 miles from Boston, thankyouverymuch.  This fact is always disorients my Bostonian acquaintences, who generally have one of three reactions:

  • “Heh, so you’re out past the tumbleweeds?”
  • “What’s it like, living in the country?”
  • “Wait, you mean Northampton Street in Cambridge, right?”

I fully realize that that’s just one way in which I’m outside of the mainstream of the “Boston startup scene” (the other ways include the fact that Snowtide is 100% bootstrapped, and that we’ve been profitable for years— also shocking, I know).  That said, all of the bellyaching about Paul Graham choosing where to spend his summers seems vaguely ridiculous.  It feels very similar in tone to the discussion I witnessed at the end of the 2008 MassTLC Unconference last October, where dozens of people in a room of perhaps 300 of the brightest entrepreneurial minds in the Boston area expressed varying degrees of concern, despair, and panic about how the “Boston scene” has fallen so far behind Silicon Valley.

Now, maybe there are fewer VCs in the Boston area; maybe the “startup culture” is more vibrant (for some?1) in Silicon Valley; maybe Bostonians are technically and financially more conservative than their west-coast cousins.  I have no way of evaluating the truthiness of those assertions, having never spent any time in Silicon Valley.  However, it’s entirely reasonable to say that all of these assertions are wholly irrelevant to an entrepreneur’s objective: building a sustainable business2 (or organization, if your aim is to innovate in the non-profit space).

A business is built out of innovation in a particular market, combining expertise and insight and networking and execution.  Nowhere in that formula is a requirement that some guys from Sand Hill Road need to come down and drop $20M in your lap so you can staff up.  Nowhere in that formula is a requirement that you need to have your offices down the street from 20 other entrepreneurs3.  And in today’s (or yesterday’s!) global economy, nearly all of your customers will be hundreds or thousands of miles away.  Innovative technology startups thrive in places as diverse as Chicago, New York, Austin, Seattle, Liverpool, and yes, even in smaller towns like Champaign, IL and Northampton, MA.

If I were to make a geographical recommendation, I’d say two things:

  1. If there is some compelling reason why a particular city or locale would provide a significant advantage to your company, go there.  (e.g. you’re working on tide power, so it makes sense to be near the ocean, or your largest potential customer and first beta site is in Bismark, so you should move in down the street)
  2. Otherwise, start your business where you’ll be happy and where you’ll find like-minded people.

If Silicon Valley is where you really want to be, godspeed; however, don’t move anywhere (or really, do anything) just because that’s where the crowd is or because some ostensibly-important person passes gas.  Innovation means thinking for yourself, doing what others think is strange, or foolish, or wrong, and being right in the long term.  Make sure you apply the same kind of independent thinking that will hopefully build your business over the coming years to where you choose to call “home” for that time.

Footnotes

  1. My impression of Silicon Valley “startup culture” isn’t particularly positive.  Seeing trendy ad-supported websites hit $15 billion paper valuations when they might not be trendy with next year’s incoming class doesn’t make me respect the culture that produces such organizations.  If that’s the sort of culture you’re interested in, fine, but please call it the lottery that it is.
  2. If you’re an “entrepreneur” in the sense that your business is raising some VC, building buzz about a website, and selling out to Yahoo/Google/Microsoft/etc before you’ve banked a single cent of profit, I’ve nothing to say to you.
  3. Although I will grant that such an environment does make for a more enjoyable after-work bar scene.  But, surely cocktail parties aren’t key ingredients in a technology startup?  If so, I’m going to become a carpenter.
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