Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Boston way versus the Bay Area way

While Boston is a hot-bed for innovation in the technology arena, it takes second place to the Bay Area of California.  I recently had a chance to see symbolic demonstrations of this while riding the BART.  Whether a public service announcement or a sales pitch from a store, many of the subway ads had QR codes that allow someone with a smart phone to view more detailed information about the services or products being offered.  Even billboard ads that you view from the platform across the train track have the codes.  (I hadn't realized that you could extract the data message from that far away.)  My unofficial survey indicates that this level of penetration has not yet reached Boston.

But, the evidence goes beyond that.  At the recent Health Foo conference of health care "techie" types, a preponderance of participants were from the West Coast.  Strikingly, many of them had started out at MIT or other Boston universities but had chosen to move west as their careers developed.  A story by Katie Johnson in today's Boston Globe documents this:

“The reality is that somebody graduating school in Massachusetts can basically double their salary by getting on a plane and going to San Francisco,’’ said Jones, chief executive of the Boston social media analytics firm Buzzient.

Maybe it is the weather, and maybe it is the salaries, but I think it is something else. I was recently talking to an angel investor/venture capitalist and he said that when a business concept is brought to his peers in Boston, the focus is on what could go wrong if one part of the business plan fails to come through.  In Silicon Valley, potential investors focus on what could go right if all the stars align.  It is basically the difference between prudence and risk-taking, between pessimism and optimism.

Now, this can raise unreasonable expectations for twenty-something year olds in California who are convinced that their idea is the next Google and spin away hours of time in that pursuit.  But Thomas Edison did the same thing a few years ago.  It is that indomitable spirit of innovation, of trials and errors and repeated failures, that eventually leads to approaches that change the world.  While he did not mean it in this context, Victo Hugo was correct when he said, "There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come."  Who can blame a young person for thinking that s/he has that idea?

In the overall picture, there is probably a place for both approaches, but I just have a feeling that the Bostonians are missing the boat here.


Laura said...

I'm not from Boston but I am from NY and I moved with my fiance to the Bay Area in December. It seems that we do have more ambition here than our friends back East who are plugging away and their everyday jobs while our friends our here are much more geared toward business ventures and independence. But I think that's always been the way. The settlers, the gold rush, everyone heads West for opportunity. Great post!!

Anonymous said...

East Coast superiority complex, from the view those elsewhere, is really defensive in posture. This is strongly evident in academics. While great ideas brew here in the East, there is a self-satisfaction and assumption of superiority that handicaps integration of fresh knowledge. The two coast solution does little to remedy this, considering the intermarriage of the two clans. But I do find that the West coast is happy to be in continuous rapid evolution, rather than defense and promotion of theoretical frames that are, really, dusty and limited in explanatory power. Bostonians seem to assume that everyone wants to be at Harvard (or MIT), but vibrant communities are pushing the envelope elsewhere with less burden of old thought. They are not looking East for validation.

True, the real money may lie on the coasts, but in my 25 years of experience, the leaps over academic entropy have been occurring in hotbeds all in between. Perhaps ideas are like people: both move in search of freedom.

Bill said...

From Facebook:

I think your comments about venture capitalism in CA misses an important point. They not only 'focus on what could go right if all the stars align' they they identify what could go wrong and find ways to corect these potential problems so as to achieve the best possible result.

Cecilia said...

From Facebook:

I heartily agree. Just as an observation of the cultural differences, Boston places high value on preservation of the old or status quo, whereas the west coast embraces change. It's always so refreshing to visit the other coast.

Anonymous said...

The reaction to the Thiel Fellowship is a case in point. In Newton, people have mixed opinions with many people consoling us that at least after two years our son can go back to college. On the West Coast, people have been almost uniformly positive about what these kids can accomplish in their two years.