start-ups belong in cities

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Last Saturday, I woke up and walked down to my favorite coffee shop in San Francisco, SightGlass coffee in SoMa.

I met up with a couple of entrepreneurs pitching an amazing idea, and while ordering some mind-buzzingly-good drip coffee, ran into a mentor of mine.

I write this because, while these interactions could have happened in the suburbs of Silicon Valley – whether the Coupa Cafe in Palo Alto or Red Rock in Mountain View – they are quintessentially enabled by four qualities of a city like San Francisco:

  •  neighborhoods that mix commerce and living, that “serve more than one primary function”
  •  blocks that are walkable, short and broken up with alleyways and side streets
  •  buildings which are a diversity of the old and new, luxury and low-rent
  •  people are prevalent and sufficiently concentrated

These four qualities enable the unique vibrancy of urban neighborhoods, and were laid out by Jane Jacobs in her magnum opus “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.”

I know that, for historical reasons  technology start-ups began in Silicon Valley.  But there is something tragic about watching 22-year-old software engineers waiting on city corners for buses to take them to work in the suburbs.

Especially when San Francisco is undergoing a renaissance of technology firms, driven by a few forces:

  1. anchor firms like Twitter, Splunk, DropBox, Zynga, and Square
  2. flourishing of start-up neighborhoods like SoMa, and now DogPatch
  3. early stage VC firms with a strong SF presence, like True Ventures and OATV

To that end, I’m a huge supporter of the sf.citi initiative which is helping strengthen the community of hackers, entrepreneurs, and firms who recognize the unique advantages that a city provides.

To the aspiring young engineers thinking of coming West, I say: don’t settle for a bagels and Wi-Fi ride to an office park or even a campus.  Come to a Great American City, we have amazing start-ups for you to join.

To the entrepreneurs and their investors: curse the overpriced rents in San Francisco but recognize that efficient markets sometimes express a valid point.  Where there is high value there is high cost, and as Richard Florida has observed, the world’s brightest and most talented people flock to cities.  So invest in them, their start-ups and the cities – San Francisco, New York, Chicago, London, Beijing – where they want to live.

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