Until a well-known member of Silicon Valley compared the bus protesters to Nazi Germany, the issue of tech commuter buses had flown below radar. But after those explosive statements, which Tom Perkins has since retracted, media sat up and paid attention.
There's been a growing Tale of Two Cities narrative in Silicon Valley, as highly paid computer workers shuttle from their homes to tech campuses, with their catered meals, free dry cleaning, and generous salaries.
And, as New York's new mayor begins to act on his campaign pledge to address income inequity, it would be easy to look west and make a tech comparison. But that would be very much the wrong thing to do.
For the past two years, I have had the honor to serve as New York's first entrepreneur at large -- a role that was created when leadership at New York's Economic Development Corp. determined that they didn't have a clear handle on what it would take to attract and retain tech startups in the city.
My responsibility in this role was to reach out to the startup community, meet with founders and business hopefuls, and get out of city offices and journey to incubators and shared work spaces across the city. We Work, General Assembly, BMW Ventures, Hive at 55, The Varick St. Incubator,The DUMBO Incubator, and more. I met with hundreds of startups, listened to their businesses ideas and dreams, and helped connect them with resources and support services.
What I learned has convinced me that New York isn't Silicon Valley -- in many ways not evident to the naked eye.
Here are five things to know about startups in NYC:
1. Who is a NY Founder?
There's a temptation to think of all startup founders as being young, engineering-focused entrepreneurs just out of school and launching the company they invented in their dorm rooms. While there certainly are some of those -- far and away the founders I met were experienced, seasoned, smart innovators, who had decided to move from industries where they'd been successful to invent and launch startups that would either serve or eclipse those industries. Founders from media, fashion, finance, energy, hospitality, education, not for profits, and government, had turned their attention to building a business.
2. Why Did They Pick New York?
While technologists 20 years ago flocked to Silicon Valley, and the promise of working with the best and the brightest engineers, NY founders are putting down roots here to facilitate the digital evolution of core industries. Fashion has grown an entire community of fashion entrepreneurs, many of whom gather at FashionVest -- a conference where fashion founders and investors meet. Time and time again I asked Tech entrepreneurs why there were here, and not in the Valley, and each time I was told, "This is where the heart and sole of my industry is." They're here, and they're staying.
3. What About Educational Institutions?
Certainly there's a feeder system of engineers and sharp students coming out of Columbia, NYU, and CUNY -- but not at a scale that meets the needs of NY's startup founders. Founders told me they were thinking of either using offshore engineers, or moving at least part of their business to where engineers could staff a growing operation. While the cost of living in NYC was a concern, it wasn't the thing that scared founders. They could pay a living wage for NY engineers, if they could find them. But that's not clearly on the horizon.
4. What About Roosevelt Island? Can Cornell Work?
Publicly, all tech founders are fans of the growing tech campus. But privately, many of them told me that they're concerned that the tech campus will be more of a tech oasis, with the East River serving a moat. That it won't be open, or welcoming, or form an inviting heart and soul to the city's tech community. Can the city embrace a thriving tech campus that fosters collaboration, shared resources, and a sense of mission? If so, NY would have a powerful new tool in the battle to foster a thriving tech community. But that's hardly a forgone conclusion.
5. What Startups Want From Mayor de Blasio
Interesting, it's less about resources and more about appreciation. There's a fear that the new administration hasn't made a clear distinction between "Big Tech," with deep pockets and resources, and the striving tech community that is looking to build brand new companies - often first-generation founders with passions and dreams. Can the Mayor see them as on the underserved side of his Tale of Two Cities? Living hand to mouth, borrowing from friends, struggling to get the "traction" that VC's, and even Angels, say they need to see before they'll fund growth. NY's startup community wants to be included in the de Blasio story of achievers and believers. They want love. Of course, they want more than that. They want better fiber from Verizon, and lower-cost housing. But really, they want to be part of New York's story of achievement.
As a tech founder, filmmaker, author, and lifelong New Yorker, I made my choice long ago. I thrive on New York's passion for innovation. And in meeting after meeting with startups, I saw stories that reminded me of just how much we, as a city, share the same drives and dreams. NY founders want to make a difference. They want to use technology to reduce energy consumption and help reduce greenhouse gasses. They want to innovate free online education. They want to use web technology to improve access to affordable health care. These aren't people out to win the startup lottery and get rich. Instead, they want to build companies and products that are important, sustainable, and forward thinking. Simply put: They want to change the world. And that's something I am very proud that I helped nurture.
Startups can be a bridge between the two cities that de Blasio aims to bring closer together. And that is a bridge that my founder friends and I are excited to help construct.
Follow Steve Rosenbaum on Twitter: www.twitter.com/waaywire