Silicon Valley vs. New York: an emerging battle for technology dominance?

This week I feel like I’m wading into controversial waters again, although this time it’s on a lighter note: I’ve been thinking about the rivalry between the west coast and the east coast when it comes to innovation.

Whether the arena is sports, lifestyle, music or business, the two coasts have enjoyed a good-natured rivalry for centuries. And now that competition is happening in the technology industry.

A recent article points to a growing influx of technology investment in New York City, which is now second only to Silicon Valley in terms of venture capital raised by startups. And it appears representatives of the east coast technology community are actively recruiting the best and brightest from Silicon Valley. According to the article, Andrew Rasiej – founder of New York-based community organization Civic Hall – purchased a billboard on US 101, the main thoroughfare connecting San Francisco with Silicon Valley. Styled as a pair of text messages, the billboard reads, “I’m frustrated as #%*&! in Silicon Valley”. “WeWantYouIn.NYC,” is the response.

While clearly a publicity stunt, this story caught my eye for many reasons. I am a west coast native who has lived in Seattle, San Francisco and LA for extensive periods of time. I also have had the good fortune to spend substantial professional and personal time in New York. This experience has given me some insight into the strengths and weaknesses of each of these cities, especially around technology innovation.

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Let’s start with Silicon Valley. As Rasiej suggests, the Valley is not without its faults. There are legitimate concerns that the technology industry has too much power, has encouraged a “live to work” mentality that is unhealthy and has skewed income inequality to new levels. However, it is also home to some of the most cutting-edge innovation the world has ever seen and many of the brightest minds of our time.

Perhaps it’s the western frontier mentality, but in my experience, the Valley is a place where anything and everything is considered possible. Rules are made to be broken. The only limits are those of your imagination. In this part of the world your network is everything, as is your ability to deliver. Reputation and authenticity matter. Charlatans are usually quickly detected and dismissed (of course a few exceptions have slipped through the cracks). And given that the Bay Area is not that large, everybody is connected. If you need a new contact, it usually only takes a little outreach.

I’m not looking to paint a completely perfect picture of the Valley by any means. This is a hub whose achievements are based on hard work and ambition, but it is also filled with inspiring people doing inspiring things.

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That innovation spirit has made its way up the coast, with Portland’s and Seattle’s innovation roots growing at an incredible rate – especially over the past couple of years. And we are seeing the same happening in other pockets of the country: Denver and Austin are two that spring to mind. While it is exciting to see the surge of fresh thinking and business growth expanding throughout the country, these cities differ from Silicon Valley largely in terms of speed of innovation.

The “live to work” ethos of Silicon Valley is a choice of those who live there, and it’s an important reason that the area is world-renowned as a technology hub. Ideas can go from concept to execution in record time. On the other hand, as a long-time resident of Seattle, I can testify to the appeal of the city as a place where people embrace a “live and work” mentality. Yes, Seattle and many of the other hubs mentioned above operate at a slightly slower speed – also a choice. The pace of life is a bit more relaxed and, depending on your style of work and life, a better fit for many.

To round out the west coast, LA is currently undergoing a radical transformation – at least in terms of its technology industry. As the home of the entertainment industry, this is a city that definitely fosters creative energy. However, it’s also a city where perception is often at least as important as reality. If every waitress is an actress in waiting, it seems like every entrepreneur claims to be the next Zuckerberg. While that is just part of the charm of LA, it can make it tougher to decipher who or what is the real deal.

So now let’s talk about New York. In some ways it is surprising that New York has not been a more forceful presence in the technology industry until recently. There is no shortage of brilliant minds and ambitious people. So, what has held New York back? In my experience, it may be a question of mindset and culture. New Yorkers are more pragmatic than us west coast types. When it comes to pitching new ideas, businesses with tangible products that clearly map to established, familiar industries such as financial services, fashion, law and consumer services are likely to do well in a place like New York. Bold new ideas that might require a bigger leap of faith (for example, companies like Databricks and Affirm) are more likely to find a receptive audience in Silicon Valley.

So where does that leave us on the east vs. west coast innovation debate? There are no clear winners. And that is actually a good thing. After all, people choose to live in cities for a multitude of reasons. They bring different perspectives and experiences. And if the spirit of technology and innovation can spread to other cities across the country, there can only be upside. As much as I enjoy all that Silicon Valley has to offer, it is better for the country as a whole to see the emergence of multiple hubs of innovation, and it is better for the technology industry to incorporate the unique perspectives that exist throughout the United States.

Valerie Chanindustry