All tech startups need just a few ingredients to germinate: sophisticated money; first-rate technology universities; and a few template successes (a Google or a Facebook, and so on) to encourage founders to get off their duffs. Contrary to current wisdom, these ingredients exist in many communities outside of Silicon Valley –- in fact, they always have.
When you add a large and economically accessible employee base to our first three criteria, you have the recipe for successful startups. Tel Aviv is a good non-U.S. example. Israel has more PhD’s per capita than any place on Earth, plus a military that turns out gobs of advanced technology. The result: There are now more VC’s in Israel than there are rabbis.
Similarly, after World War II, oil companies in Texas needed to find new sources of petroleum, and they turned to geological survey companies for help. One of them had a little subsidiary, Texas Instruments, where the computer on the chip was eventually built. Some years later, Michael Dell arrived at a much-enhanced engineering school on the campus of the University of Texas, and the rest, as they say, is history.
I am what you might call a startup gray-beard and I’ve seen it all. Founders can sometimes get too fixed to the idea that they must be in a certain incubating environment to succeed, when really, getting out of the startup fishbowl is sometimes the best thing they could do. I often encourage startups I invest in or founders I counsel to be contrarian and start their firms outside of the Valley, or failing that, to move East while they still can.
If you want to stay stateside, I’m partial to Boston, my home town, but there are plenty of other cities to consider, too. My top non-Silicon Valley cities are: Boston; Pittsburgh; Philadelphia; Austin; Research Triangle, N.C.; Minneapolis; Tallahassee; Toronto; and Basking Ridge, N.J. Here’s why:
1. The weather sucks in some of these towns (not Tallahassee) so your people will actually work instead of bugging out at 5:15 to train for a marathon, triathlon or Ultimate Frisbee.
2. You can recruit better outside the fishbowl. Every technology company hits the wall — some multiple times. In the Valley your employees will bail at the first sign of trouble and jump to a better job in the next parking lot. That means you will have to spike salaries to rebuild your team. Other places in the world aren’t quite so spoiled – or they come to you already cynical and stay through the rough times.
3. You won’t get lost in the startup maze. In the Valley, every VC has a portfolio company in each flavor – their own LP’s can’t tell them apart.
4. In my experience, other startup communities aren’t as pre-occupied with the “exit” as Da Valley. SV VC’s have attention spans measured in picoseconds and will sell/merge your company at the first sign of trouble. I can say that in Boston, at least, we are used to gutting out long “winters.”
5. Academics make great board members. Each of these cities has a rich educational environment and are great places to recruit sartorial advisors. And unlike at Stanford, you wont have to give up 1 percent of your equity just to put the provost’s name on your board!
Howard Anderson is a founder of The Yankee Group, a cofounder of Battery Ventures, and a professor of business at the MIT Sloan School of Management.