Photo: Melanie BakerYou can run a company from anywhere, but local still matters Melanie Baker March 17, 2016 Columns, Featured, M-Theory Photo: The view from the house where Melanie Baker’s team has been working this week, in Taupo, New Zealand. Recently I was talking to one of my New Zealand-based co-workers who is really active in the local startup scene. By local I mean all over the country. I also read this article, and it got me pondering the impressions of tech centres around the world and the role of community within them. I grew up rurally, and community has been the backbone of my career, so this is relevant to my interests. Silicon Valley may be considered highly successful, and certainly there’s a tech scene, and networking, and groups of people with similar interests who spend a lot of time together. But with its socio-economic stratification; fancy corporate commuter shuttle buses; focus on making money for people you don’t really know; and the encouragement to work all the time; is community really being built? Not to mention the composition of Silicon Valley itself. Sure, it’s magnetic for the young, techie, and ambitious, but it’s not a hometown for most. (Including the 350K Canadians down there.) Is benefit to the people and place a strong building motivation down there? Far-flung tech communities involve people who’ve left – to move somewhere bigger, or travel, or other paths – and come back. Or who’ve done their time in major centres and have escaped the rat race. Or who want to avoid winters. Or who are from these far-flung areas and never left, but who have the itch to build regardless. So why does any of this matter? Well, in my chat with my co-worker, the differences in tech communities and startup scenes outside of major centres were marked. And I’d suspect that at least some of them help inoculate against the more ridiculous excesses to which tech cultures in major centres can fall victim. It was clear that people building startups in smaller areas have a lot of skin in the local game. They’re not just starting startups; they’re starting startups here. Whether opening a downtown coffee shop or an online business where geography is irrelevant, there is a local focus. Market fit, hiring, investment, mentorship, the business community, proximity to other startups – here matters. Skin in the game doesn’t just affect their own game, but everyone’s. Since resources of all kinds can be so much more limited, people can choose a “we’re all in this together” vibe, or a “dog eat dog” environment. Guess which one’s more likely to result in sustainable, growing companies and a healthy community? We’ve heard a lot more about challenges and drawbacks to entrepreneurship outside of big cities and major tech centres, particularly outside of the US or Silicon Valley. How many major VCs have visited Tauranga or Thunder Bay? How many potential mentors that you’d love to talk to are to be found in a country under 5 million people, like New Zealand? You might be surprised. Even abroad, connections remain. You’ll likely know at least one or two someones who have left for the bright lights, but a shared local connection can break the ice for a future introduction. On the flip side, entrepreneurs in smaller areas have never had to pay $3,000/month for rent (and more for office space). Without access to VCs to make it rain, they’ve bootstrapped, and so maintain control over their companies, their direction and growth, and aren’t shackled to achieving “shareholder value.” Yes, there are some broad generalizations here, and Silicon Valley isn’t some corporate version of Mad Max. But having been exposed to startup and tech culture in several countries, the functional and cultural differences can be extensive. People in smaller centres can’t help but interact with a broader variety of people. Whether it’s in doing business, attending events, commuting, or grabbing coffee or beers. This includes other entrepreneurs and tech or business people, but also more random and potentially serendipitous connections that you’d never have expected and never knew you needed. It’s hard to do that when you’re face down in your laptop screen on a shuttle bus. And just living in San Francisco will not automatically and osmotically impart some great secret wisdom for success. If your business is online, your customers are invisible and anywhere. If you’re playing with someone else’s money, responsibilities to the idea, company, team, etc. are coloured differently. If it’s all big “vision,” feeling a solid connection to what it is you’re really doing, fixing, or building can be hard to pin down. Disconnection from meaning and impact in your work is a near-guaranteed driver of disillusionment working in tech, and just in work. Whether it’s trying to fit your idea into where you are, founding a company, or working for a company, it needs to make sense and to mean something. Of course, it all begs the question: what do these observations mean for Waterloo Region? We’re an interesting microcosm. A small city, but growing. Rural in terms of proximity to big centres, but with strong ties to them. We’ve got a lot of startups and growing companies and are creating good jobs. But former trades or manufacturing employees who’ve seen that ecosystem disappear aren’t qualified for many of these jobs. The gentrification we’re seeing in various areas also often has a significant and negative impact on those who were already living there. But the new businesses that tech folks patronize are startups, too. They create jobs and diversity and connect people. These changes bring attention to our area and make it a more attractive place. Major centres draw a lot of attention, which makes it easy to forget that how they do things is only one way. Sure, U.S. comparisons are ingrained in Canadians. But the nice thing about the location-independent nature of tech is that we can have exposure to everywhere. That Thunder Bay startup can get to know the Tauranga one. And we can get ideas for the best ways for each community to grow. 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. Melle can be reached @melle or firstname.lastname@example.org.