Can You Buy a Silicon Valley? Maybe.

Saturday, February 28th, 2009

Can you buy a Silicon Valley? Maybe, says Paul Graham:

A lot of cities look at Silicon Valley and ask “How could we make something like that happen here?” The organic way to do it is to establish a first-rate university in a place where rich people want to live. That’s how Silicon Valley happened. But could you shortcut the process by funding startups?
People sometimes think they could improve the startup scene in their town by starting something like Y Combinator there, but in fact it will have near zero effect. I know because Y Combinator itself had near zero effect on Boston when we were based there half the year. The people we funded came from all over the country (indeed, the world) and afterward they went wherever they could get more funding — which generally meant Silicon Valley.

The seed funding business is not a regional business, because at that stage startups are mobile. They’re just a couple founders with laptops.

If you want to encourage startups in a particular city, you have to fund startups that won’t leave. There are two ways to do that: have rules preventing them from leaving, or fund them at the point in their life when they naturally take root. The first approach is a mistake, because it becomes a filter for selecting bad startups. If your terms force startups to do things they don’t want to, only the desperate ones will take your money.

Good startups will move to another city as a condition of funding. What they won’t do is agree not to move the next time they need funding. So the only way to get them to stay is to give them enough that they never need to leave.
Suppose to be on the safe side it would cost a million dollars per startup. If you could get startups to stick to your town for a million apiece, then for a billion dollars you could bring in a 1000 startups. That probably wouldn’t push you past Silicon Valley itself, but it might get you second place.

For the price of a football stadium, any town that was decent to live in could make itself one of the biggest startup hubs in the world.

What’s more, it wouldn’t take very long. You could probably do it in five years. During the term of one mayor. And it would get easier over time, because the more startups you had in town, the less it would take to get new ones to move there. By the time you had a thousand startups in town, the VCs wouldn’t be trying so hard to get them to move to Silicon Valley; instead they’d be opening local offices. Then you’d really be in good shape. You’d have started a self-sustaining chain reaction like the one that drives the Valley.

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