For those following along, my week-long road trip from California to KC afforded me and 8 friends a unique viewpoint of America. We picked up Google Glass in downtown San Francisco, and took a leisurely 2,500 mile trip back home through the bay area, LA, Las Vegas, Boulder and back to KC.
I spent time in Part One of this story talking about what it was like to have access to a piece of technology on the “Bleeding Edge.” Today I’ll spend a little time talking about some of the communities we passed through, visiting a few of America’s most vibrant entrepreneurial metropolitan areas.
Part Two: Tech Communities Across America
As we travelled across the western half of the US, we had the opportunity to connect with each local entrepreneurial community; America’s enterprising spirit was alive and well with each stop. LA has adopted the “Silicon Beach” name where creative incubation labs like Science have popped up, Tony Hsieh is funding a massive project blending his Zappos corporation with entrepreneurial minds in downtown Las Vegas and a well nurtured entrepreneurial community in Boulder continues to flourish.
In each of these communities you ran into the same kind of people. Entrepreneurial minds who want to solve meaningful problems, displaying a youthful ambition regardless of age. Conservatism isn’t a trait that you commonly see as every single one of these people are diving head first into their work with the expectation that they’ll figure it out and make it big, or fail trying before moving on to the next thing.
Downtown San Francisco was the same place I always remember it being. The birthplace of the hippie and the hipster still continues to define cool with architecture, art, food and music un-matched by any of the cities we visited. Every corner you turned was bustling with activity, each neighborhood bringing a different vibe than the last. Walking the streets you’ll run into familiar brands like Zynga, Pinterest, IDEO and many more. Tech royalty like David Williams roam the streets, waiting for an appointment to lead the hottest new start-up to success.
All of that culture comes at a price with median home prices topping $1M, the average startup entrepreneur just trying to get by is generally sharing a small rental with a few other people. San Francisco can also be down right cold…isn’t this supposed to be California?
The suburbs of Palo Alto, Mountain View, San Jose, Cupertino and others make up what is the undisputed tech hub of the world. Internet and Tech giants like Apple, Google, Facebook, Intel, and Ebay call this home with large office parks and wide open space for development making it appealing for companies in rapid growth stages. Small startups seek refuge in the shadows of these giants hoping to find an office to share, colliding with other talented people, seeking funding from one of the big venture capital firms and hoping for a large exit.
Big box stores, chain restaurants and office parks all right next to large highways make it feel like an American suburb. If you didn’t see LinkedIn, McAffee or PayPal logos on buildings when you drove around you wouldn’t be able to tell it apart from any other over populated metro area. Many of the younger entrepreneurs we spoke to lamented this fact stating that they moved to California for the culture…Silicon Valley wasn’t the promised land they hoped for and were ready to move after getting what they needed from the mentors in the area.
Dude….it’s southern California. Beach community after beach community, the warm sun, soft sands and crashing waves never get old. A walk down the board walk will make you realize that you’re out of shape and not nearly as interesting as you thought you were. While not front and center, there’s entrepreneurial activity happening here. We reached out on Twitter to a few people, but because it was Sunday I think most of the entrepreneurs we wanted to connect with were surfing.
If you think metro centers like KC are spread out, try multiplying that by 9. Getting around in LA is a real pain in the ass, making it that much easier to plant yourself on the beach, wasting warm and sunny day after warm and sunny day. I’m sure that gets old eventually if you need to make things happen…right?
Of all the cities we were visiting, Las Vegas was the one I was most excited about due to the entrepreneurial explosion downtown. The Vegas tech scene has a lot to over come with a deeply rooted identity in legal gambling (among other things). I would have loved to been in the room when Tony Hsieh first told the city he was going to spend $350M of his own money and none of it was going to gaming. I’m guessing the old guard city hall had no idea what to do with this insane proposal. He’s starting to make a difference, carving out a large chunk of the downtown area, dedicating it to building new businesses through the collisions of amazing people. Small companies are starting to build themselves in co-working spaces and over the next year they’ll be surrounded by dog parks, adult playgrounds, a TED stage and even the Zappo’s headquarters.
While it definitely wasn’t humid, 117 degrees still feels really freakin’ hot (it’s a dry heat….). There were bike lanes all over the city streets but I would probably opt for one of 50 Tesla S (the sporty EV) Tony purchased for entrepreneurs to zip around town in. New families have some big hurdles to overcome with the Vegas school district coming in as one of the lowest rated in the country and housing difficult to find in the downtown area.
Boulder is about as beautiful as an outdoor city can get. I had lunch on a patio overlooking a gigantic mountain with a beer selection that impressed this beer snob. Pearl Street is a pedestrian friendly district with a lot of startup companies nearby creating a density typically not seen in towns of this size. Brad Feld literally wrote the book on what a good Startup Community looks like and you can see what he loves about this place.
I find it hard to complain about anything going on here…Boulder clearly has their stuff together but maybe it’s the Cornhusker in me who can’t come to grips with openly endorsing the entire city.
Talking to people like Dylan Bathurst and his iPhone app Rumgr or Claus Moberg and his 3D printed transaction authenticator “SnowShoe” showed all of us that tech entrepreneurship isn’t unique to the Bay Area.
The lesson learned in seeing all of these communities in a short amount of time is the recognition that none of them are Silicon Valley…and they shouldn’t be. Silicon Valley in all of its glory is a place that has built an identity over decades and continues to define itself to this day. LA, Las Vegas, Boulder and Kansas City are very different markets with very different personalities and very different assets. Kansas City doesn’t have Tony Hsieh or mountains or the Googleplex sitting in its back yard. We also don’t have blistering desert heat, smog, unaffordable housing or crushing traffic jams.
What we do have is a bustling eco-system of doers, a top notch infrastructure including the fastest internet in the country, supporters like the local universities, The Kauffman Foundation, corporations like Sprint and Hallmark. I might be biased, but I didn’t see that kind of collaboration in any other market we visited. Every entrepreneurial expat we spoke to still referred to the midwest as “home” and what we’re building in KC is becoming a destination that they’re looking forward to coming back to soon.
If this trip did one thing for me, it solidified my conviction in this city…making me as proud as ever to call KC home (a gigantic leap for this Nebraskan).