THE BLOG

Palo Alto Is the New Hollywood

10/18/2011 02:34 pm ET | Updated Dec 18, 2011
  • Chip Conley Founder, Joie de Vivre Hospitality + Fest300

Years ago, young Lana Turner skipped her typing class and bought a Coke at the Top Hat Café in Hollywood where she was discovered by the publisher of the Hollywood Reporter and soon became a celebrated movie star. A couple decades later in a hilarious episode of I Love Lucy, Lucille Ball hung out at Schwab's Pharmacy in Hollywood hoping to be discovered. Over the years, aspiring entertainers from Warren Beatty to Ben Affleck have dropped out of college to try their hand at acting in order to become a star and move to Hollywood.

The entertainment industry has been gravitating north for years as companies like Netflix, Apple, and Pandora in the San Francisco Bay area have been reshaping the film and music industry. Facebook, which was chronicled in the film The Social Network, has been talking with former MySpace co-oresident (and former MTV exec) Jason Hirschhorn about spearheading the company's outreach to Valley media companies. And, the entertainment industry's largest talent representation firm, CAA, has been mulling the opening of an office in Palo Alto.

A couple of weeks ago, I spent four days in a row in downtown Palo Alto right in the midst of the news that Steve Jobs had passed away. As I walked by his home just south of downtown with hundreds of candles and thousands of flowers lovingly placed there, a neighbor remarked that "this is the kind of reception America used to give to its film heroes." The next day, as I sat in a local café and overheard young entrepreneurs hawk business plans to angel investors like screenwriters might do the same to an agent, I was struck with by the electricity in the air. Young people -- many of them college dropouts like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg before them -- are streaming to Palo Alto hoping to be the next Steve Jobs (another dropout) with the desire to invent something incredible that might change the world. And, yes, they are looking to be "discovered," or at least, funded.

Palo Alto doesn't have a Schwab's or a Top Hat Café (both of which no longer exist), but it does have Palo Alto Creamery, a soda fountain full of aspiring entrepreneurs comparing notes on the Valley's powerful players just like struggling actors did in Hollywood years ago. Having spent a few days hanging out in the collegial environment of a few Palo Alto start-ups, it struck me that the optimism, curiosity, and vitality of this tech ecosystem is probably not nearly this pure or potent anywhere else in the world. Just eavesdropping on the heady conversations made me giddy! I'm sure a half-century ago, being in Hollywood must have felt quite similar as the entertainment industry gained a global foothold.

And, while Palo Alto is the celebrated place of the moment, there's a legacy of thinking big and different in this community. Taking a walking tour with a partner of the world-famous IDEO design firm (headquartered in downtown Palo Alto), I saw that the roots of this entrepreneurial gold rush have a storied legacy. There were the first offices of Google and Intuit on University Avenue. And, next door to where my company aspires to create a luxury boutique hotel is where Facebook got started (across the street from the Creamery). But, no tour of Palo Alto could be complete without a visit to mecca, the famous garage (now a historical landmark) where Hewlett and Packard got started just a five-minute walk from where Mark Zuckerberg first started paying office rent for Facebook. There is no star Walk of Fame in Palo Alto (yet), but there's an unmistakable spirit that the world is counting on this little community to chart a path of hope and renaissance for the world, just like Hollywood did in our darkest days of the past.