I’ve had a fascinating journey with Buffer, and having started in the UK and living in San Francisco for 6 months, I’ve also had the opportunity in just the last year to spend time in Hong Kong, Japan and Tel Aviv.
We’re now back in San Francisco, and my recent time in Tel Aviv combined with being back here has made me think a lot about what a great startup ecosystem means personally for me.
One of the key things I’ve noticed simply walking around and being present in various different places, is the impact of sheer numbers of startup-minded people in a location.
I remember in my time in the UK, from Sheffield to Birmingham to London, there were respectively increasing numbers of startup minded people. I spent almost a year in both Sheffield and Birmingham, and as I struggled to find other startup founders I created events in each of those cities.
I had a fairly broad reach to startup founders through Twitter and other event organisers in each city, and I still only attracted around 30 people to these events. This gives me an indication of the numbers of startup-minded people, and it makes a real difference when you feel like a fish out of water amongst people taking very different approaches to life and work.
In Hong Kong, there is actually quite a lot going on for startups. I was lucky to speak at an event when we first arrived, and there were around 60 people at the event. There are also a number of other events running and they generally attract good sized audiences 50-100 people.
The great thing about Tel Aviv, is that it is a tiny place and there are many startup-minded people living there. These two things combined means that there is a lot of knowledge and acceptance of startups amongst the general community. It is the closest I’ve seen to the bay area in terms of a high volume of startup minded people concentrated in a single place.
San Francisco Bay Area
In San Francisco, you can literally get off the plane and take the BART and Muni (transport to and within the city) and feel the presence of startup founders. You can simply look around and see that a lot of people are working in tech or even on their own startup. It’s one of those vibes that is hard to describe, but anyone who has been there knows the feeling.
If you ever talk to someone and mention you’re doing a startup, it is a very normal thing for them to here, to the extent where the response is often “like everyone else here, then”. Also, it’s one of the few places I see actual billboard and physical advertising for startups and tech conferences.
Levels of serendipity
With a higher concentration of startup-minded people in one place, the opportunity for serendipity increases. It has been said many times that the role of serendipity in startups is very powerful. Indeed, Tony Hsieh is even known for his "planned serendipity" in the way he set up the Zappos office.
When I was in Sheffield and Birmingham in the UK, the lack of numbers of startup-minded people meant that the only real opportunity for serendipity is at events, where you could potentially come across someone who might be useful. That said, events also were few and far between, to the extent that I created an event for startups myself in both of these cities. London fairs better, and whilst I don’t have experience of living there, on many occasions where I’ve met someone in a London coffee shop I have ended up bumping into other people.
My time in Hong Kong was similar to my time in the UK from a serendipity perspective. The only real opportunity to meet startup people was at specific events. That said, there was a couple of occasions where I was in a coffee shop and someone came and said hello due to the stickers on my laptop, and one where I saw someone with Tim Ferriss’ Four Hour Work Week and I started a conversation. These kinds of occurrences are the kinds which I think really define whether a location has that startup vibe which places are trying to create.
Tel Aviv was certainly much better for serendipity. Beyond the events where serendipity is likely to happen, I ended up chatting with people in many coffee shops and even had some great meetings as a result. Especially along Rothschild Boulevard there were many opportunities for natural serendipity.
San Francisco Bay Area
In my mind, in terms of occurrences of serendipity in a truly useful sense for startups, the San Francisco Bay Area is far beyond any other place on Earth. When we were here last year, serendipity played a large role in our eventual success of going through AngelPad and raising our seed round, as well as getting great advisors and investors on board.
In addition, just in the one week I’ve been back here, I’ve ended up meeting far more startup people than I would in a single week in any other place. All the apps on my iPhone have come to life, such as Highlight, Instagram, Foursquare and others, where I now get comments from people very regularly seeing whether I’d like to meet up.
The final important part I’ve discovered of a great startup ecosystem is all to do with the level of social interaction which is possible with people I meet. One of the things I’ve struggled with the most throughout my startup journey is to find like-minded, ambitious and positive people who I can speak with on a similar level. It’s a reason I make such an effort to meet lots of people, and it’s a reason I created events when I was in the UK. It’s so important that I truly prioritise finding those people.
One of the things I’ve come to thrive is conversation about ideas, about improving myself and open discussion about crazy things without any hint of it not being possible. I often grab dinner with my co-founder Leo, and our conversations are always of this nature. There are very few places I’ve found people I can have this kind of conversation with. I’d say out of all the places I’ve travelled, Tel Aviv and San Francisco are the two where I’ve been able to find people to talk with about these topics.
Finding somewhere you’re not an outlier
The above points of numbers of people, opportunity for serendipity and social interaction, I’ve realised all lead to one overarching point, which is that for me, a great startup ecosystem is somewhere you can feel at home amongst others.
I used to almost pride myself in being an “outlier”, in feeling out of place, when I was in the UK. What I’ve realised over time, is that when I felt like an outlier in the UK, it was just that I hadn’t found the place where I was amongst like-minded people. I think Seth Godin put it very well:
"The easiest way to thrive as an outlier is to avoid being one. At least among your most treasured peers.
Surround yourself with people in at least as much of a hurry, at least as inquisitive, at least as focused as you are. Surround yourself by people who encourage and experience productive failure, and who are driven to make a difference.”
San Francisco is the one place where I can talk to others about what we’re doing at Buffer, and it is just a normal conversation they hear regularly. Basing Buffer here means that people see us and encourage where we’re going. There’s not much explanation needed, and we’re truly at the bottom of the game again.
Have you found the place where you feel at home amongst others doing similar things? What are your thoughts on startup ecosystems?
Photo credit: ah zut