NYC Vs. SF Tech: Above And Beyond The “Company Town”

It didn’t start with a monkey, or a tiger. Or even a million-dollar blowout with Snoop performing in a hazy fog. For me, it started with schwag. Lots and lots of schwag. So much, in fact, that in 2006 a group of enterprising tech folks at RubyRed Labs started a side company named Valleyschwag, selling leftover tech schwag for $15. You read that correctly; people would willingly pay a $15 monthly subscription to get poorly-sized, Hanes Beefy T’s with now-defunct tech logos on them. And it was positioned as an opportunity; to quote Michael Arrington on this very site, “sometimes it’s easy to forget that a lot of people out there don’t have the opportunity to get schwag from their favorite startups.” Times, how they have changed (though I still do cherish my Dodgeball shirt).

The Valleyschwag Hoedown was the first ‘tech party’ that I experienced in San Francisco. It wasn’t lavish, it lacked pretension, and I believe it may have been BYOB. There wasn’t an agenda; it was like-minded people getting together for a fun evening. In six short years, we’ve gone from a place where a cardboard rocking horse and unwanted mousepads helped create & launch a business – and one with a revenue plan, at that! – to a place where entire New York Times articles are written about the party scene in Silicon Valley. Bubble or not, the tech scene in San Francisco is a very different place than it was even a few years ago, which was a one of the many reasons why ten months ago, I left it behind and moved to NYC.

Since making this move, people often ask me what I see as the main difference between the two cities. To me, it is a question of positioning. In Silicon Valley/San Francisco, Technology *IS* the industry. To quote Nick Bilton, who I agree with on this statement, “This is a company town, like Los Angeles and the movies, or Washington and politics. Everything revolves around the tech industry; there is often nowhere to hide.” Contrast that with New York City; here, technology plays a major role in various industries including finance, fashion, media and more. It’s a component, and a major one at that, but not the only game in town.

Because of this, people — myself included — are finding the sheer size and diversity of New York an incentive to move here. I’m seeing more and more of my West Coast friends make the move East, joining startups, starting companies, even moving their companies back to New York, as Josh Miller from Branch recently did. Says Jonathan Basker, Head of People at Betaworks who moved from San Francisco two years ago, “There are a million wonderful things about the New York tech scene that I prefer to SF, but I think we forget sometimes that the biggest draw to New York is…New York.  I love my life here.  I love the diversity of experience, the people I’ve come to know and all the crazy random daily shit that seems normal to me now.  And professionally I love how those experiences balance against, broaden and enrich my work.”

And it’s this “diversity of experience” that helps us in the New York tech scene avoid the insularity felt in San Francisco, letting us step out of the reverberating sphere and listen to other voices and perspectives. It’s the exact opposite of the echo chamber that Silicon Valley is often accused of being.

It’s not just the entrepreneurs who are making this a great place to be. The local administration, powered much by Mayor Bloomberg, celebrates our local scene, both by creating favorable environments for startups and promoting the ones that are already here.

Yet in many ways, New York remains the underdog. (Miller agrees; justifies this by saying that “being second class keeps you humble and hungry.”) I would argue that we’re not necessarily second class, we’re just still getting started. Ron Goldin, founder of design firm AKKO, agrees: “Silicon Valley is like the oldest sibling that’s broken through a lot of the first’s. NYC is the younger sibling with something to prove. It feels like there’s a lot of growing that’s happening right now, which is really exciting if you’re the type that likes to be a part of something new.”

And it *is* exciting. The New York tech scene feels like San Francisco did six years ago, when I first moved there. Honeymoon period or not, I like how the energy of the city permeates into the feeling of our companies. There’s an inherent sense of community built in New York; as you’re sweating on the subway, stickily pressed up against other strangers trying to stay cool in near-100-degree temperatures, you know they’re just as miserable as you are. You’re both in this together, and I see this spirit prevailing in the startup culture as well. Us New York techies, we’re in it together, and I’d take the flip cup and beer pong tournaments over a monkey or a tiger, any day.

Aubrey Sabala heads up Marketing and Communications for Sailthru, a behavioural communications company proudly based – and founded! – in New York City.

[Image via the collections of the “Coal & Coke Heritage Center,” Penn State University Fayette Campus, Uniontown, PA.]