An Outsider's Flawed View Of Silicon Valley

Redfin CEO Glenn Kelman wrote a blog post a couple of days ago comparing Silicon Valley unfavorably to the Seattle tech scene.

I spend a lot of time in both places, and I think some of his observations are correct (people here compete to the death, people there go hiking). But even though I occasionally criticize Silicon Valley myself, I think there are some things that are dead wrong in his analysis. If you want a well balanced life, Silicon Valley is not for you. But if you want to change the world and are willing to do absolutely anything to achieve your dreams, there is no better place to be than here.

Apart from a few arguable points, such as his opinion that it is easier to retain employees in Seattle because they aren’t always looking to start their own company, most of the post seems come down to Kelman convincing himself that Seattle’s shortcomings are well worth it because it’s a nice place to live. Sure, he admits, not being immersed in tech means you tend to be out of it a little, and it’s harder to come up with cutting edge ideas: “When you and everyone you know spend 18 hours a day downloading, hacking, breaking, sharing, gossiping, criticizing and arguing about the Web, it’s easier to tell when an idea is truly new. And if you don’t, it’s almost impossible to catch up.”

He explains all that away, though, by suggesting startups in Seattle are more about building a great business than simply being cutting edge, or “cool”. “But being apart from Silicon Valley can give entrepreneurs the latitude to think about what works, not what’s fashionable,” he says.

The problem, though, is Kelman doesn’t provide any supporting evidence for this thesis, and I can’t think of any for him. The truth is people come up with good ideas when they have the motivation and intelligence to do so, not when they’re surrounded by people who don’t know what they’re talking about. Having literally tens of thousands of bright tech minds around you to listen to and challenge those ideas, as you do in Silicon Valley, gives entrepreneurs a critical competitive advantage.

The truth about Silicon Valley is that ideas matter more than anything. A Stanford (or even the occasional Berkeley) student with an idea can turn it into a Yahoo. Or a Google. Or countless other success stories. They are surrounded by people who want them to succeed, who are willing to give them money to support their ideas, and then help them grow it. There is no where else in the world quite like this place.

Sure Seattle is beautiful (Kelman talks about lakes and outdoor stuff a lot in his post). And if you want to have a balanced, healthy lifestyle, that’s a great place to do it. If you don’t think you have what it takes to make it in Silicon Valley, maybe Seattle or other mini-tech hubs is the place for you. But the best of the best come to Silicon Valley to see if they’re as good as the legends that came before them. It’s a competitive advantage to be here. And if you aren’t willing to take advantage of every possible advantage to make your crazy startup idea work, perhaps you shouldn’t be an entrepreneur.

Sure, Silicon Valley is “a heartless amnesiac.” There is no nostalgia for the old days, because we are always looking to rip the old stuff up and throw it away for something better.

The fact is that all those great things about Seattle, or wherever, don’t have a damned thing to do with offsetting the business and cultural advantages of Silicon Valley. Making lifestyle choices is fine, but don’t delude yourself into thinking those choices are anything but a tradeoff. If staring at lakes and skiing after work are important to you, don’t pretend to be surprised when your startup doesn’t cut it.

You spent 16 years in Silicon Valley before fleeing to Seattle, Glenn. Come back, if you dare. I think you have what it takes to succeed. Even here.

Kelman responds.