There’s something I’ve noticed when I’m networking with startup founders and leaders of tech organizations across the country: Instead of working to create something new and unique, everyone wants to be the next Silicon Valley. New York claims Silicon Alley, Texas has Silicon Hills, and the Midwest boasts Silicon Prairie. The nicknames are cute but absolutely meaningless. In the tech world, a copycat approach is a complete waste of time.
Tech is no longer an industry unto itself. Anyone can start a tech company from anywhere. In fact, we now have the largest gap ever between venture capital dollars flowing outside San Francisco and inside the city. Just as people now make cars in cities other than Detroit, founders of tech companies don’t need to head to the coasts to find success.
With that in mind, other cities should stop trying to be something they aren’t. Communities must instead leverage their strengths to shape their own distinctive tech ecosystems and identities. By focusing on what makes an area special — culture, industries, and resources — any city can create its own unique tech brand.
The power of local flavor
I grew up in Bellevue, Ohio, where I started my first online business in high school. I later moved to Columbus, Ohio, where I enjoyed participating in a vibrant local tech scene.
Ohio is special in part thanks to its distinctly Midwestern approach to business. In that tech community, your word was your bond — anyone who reneged on a handshake promise was shunned. Successful people helped others learn and grow. Entrepreneurs from surrounding areas felt like part of one big family, and tangential industries (like insurance, banking, medicine, and agriculture) intersected naturally with the tech community. Thanks to the low cost of living, we were able to flourish in apartments that were larger than shoeboxes.
After my formative days in Ohio, I decided to move to Phoenix, Arizona. The tech community was starkly different from the one I had grown to love, but that wasn’t a bad thing.
Thanks to great weather and easy access to entertainment, Arizona is an easy place to live. It’s also one of the most generous communities for entrepreneurs. Similar to Ohio, founders give help and expect nothing in return.
The key difference between Arizona and Ohio is the industries that shape the marketplace. Instead of agriculture and insurance, I got to know people working in aerospace, manufacturing, and real estate. The Phoenix area also benefits from its proximity to everywhere, with short flights to California, Texas, and Colorado. All these factors have helped Phoenix become one of the fastest-growing metros in the U.S.
The best thing about both Ohio and Arizona? Neither tries to act like it’s somewhere else. These thriving tech communities have their own unique DNA that drives regional innovation.
How aspiring tech hubs can be themselves
Just as Columbus and Phoenix leverage their unique DNA to foster entrepreneurial ecosystems, any city with an eye toward tech can find ways to host a local tech sector. To truly embrace what makes your community special, follow three simple steps.
1. Take stock of your region’s historical and political landscape
Start by determining which industries enabled your region’s growth in the first place. Examine industries where existing tech companies cluster. In Phoenix, that’s real estate, microchips, and tourism (especially for golfers). This information should tell local leaders what makes their city special and help them understand why tech talent might want to move there.
In Arizona, where small businesses account for about 97 percent of companies, grassroots organizations like StartupAZ have been successful in both promoting startups to the community at large and recruiting established businesses to support the entrepreneurial ecosystem.
Arizona Governor Doug Ducey (R) helped the state become the first “regulatory sandbox” state, where startups in emerging industries get regulatory relief in order to bring new businesses to the state faster.
2. Identify your region’s unique values
Silicon Valley entrepreneurs don’t move to Arizona just to save 35 percent on operating costs. They move to Arizona for the relaxed culture, the innovative spirit, and the companionship of creative minds. Do some research to discover (or define) your region’s characteristic values. For instance, both Ohio and Arizona boast collaborative spirits that help provide safety nets for aspiring entrepreneurs.
Talk with local business leaders, and listen closely for similar themes — creativity, generosity, ambition, etc. — that are at the core of your regional business world. While you’re talking, try to gain insight into the ways people work locally and why businesses move to the region. People like to work alongside people who share their values, so cities should work to attract people who fit the mold of current residents.
3. Look beyond the business sector
Once you’ve sized up the business climate, try to look at the region on a broader basis. Figure out why tourists come to visit and what people do for fun (other than work). Local flavor is important because it gives would-be residents something to consider beyond their careers.
Determine what makes people want to stay in your area after graduation. Ask families what caused them to put down local roots. Solid infrastructure, decent schools, and other factors that encourage residency attract techies for the long haul. For instance, many companies choose Boulder for not only its thriving business scene, but also its stunning natural beauty.
Silicon Valley is great, but it’s not the only place for startups to thrive. Cities should leverage their existing strengths to build their tech scenes at a faster clip. Once you have determined the DNA of your community, it’s simply a matter of spreading the word about your unique benefits and resources.
Tech leaders need to stop trying to be like everyone else. We were taught not to fall for this whole “peer pressure” trip in grade school, remember? If more cities stop trying to copy the tech meccas that came before them, the next generation of startups will soon have homes all over the world.
Zach Ferres is the CEO of Coplex, a startup accelerator that works with noncoding industry experts to start successful tech companies. He is also a founding partner at Coplex Ventures, the VC arm of Coplex.