Want to help your hometown? Pack up and leave

Written on 20th March, 2013


I’ve done a lot of traveling throughout my journey with Buffer. I started in the UK, and since then I’ve lived in Hong Kong and Tel Aviv as well as San Francisco where I’ve now settled for the longer term.

When I was in my hometown of Sheffield in the UK, I became quite involved in the (then tiny) startup scene, and even ran a meetup for startups. The choice to move to a different city was quite a big one, and later the choice to leave the UK completely was a step even further.

I often hear the argument that people should stay in their hometown to help the startup ecosystem. I believe that paradoxically, the best way to grow the ecosystem in your hometown might be to leave it.

I think there’s this myth that the best way to help your hometown is to stick around. I also think there is a misconception that the way to help is to focus on the community, more than on yourself.

Focusing inwards, in order to be able to help others

One of the key things I’ve learned is that you can help a community far more by focusing inwards, on yourself, than you can by spending a lot of time working on the community itself.

"The greatest gift you can give to somebody is your own personal development. I used to say ‘If you take care of me, I will take care of you.’ Now I say, ‘I will take care of me for you if you will take care of you for me.’" - Jim Rohn

Indeed, in a recent post on the gender bias in the tech and startup world, Melissa Miranda concluded:

"The best way to have more women at the top is to climb up there myself."

Kate Kendall, a great friend and a founder I am inspired by and respect a lot similarly mentioned in a recent post:

"I cannot continue to provide for others if I don’t get my own company’s foundation firmly planted. I look forward to giving more again soon. Once I first learn how to ask."

These are some very wise words. The message is clear. Many who have taken considerable steps along their journey are realizing that their best way to help is to focus inwards on themselves, in order to become more and have more to offer. This is certainly the approach I am aiming for, too.

Refreshing your environment and your circle

One of the toughest things to accept as an ambitious entrepreneur is that you are affected by your environment and the circle of friends you have. We have far less willpower and self-control than we like to admit to ourselves.

Seneca wrote in a letter somewhere between 63 and 65 AD that even the most accomplished men are affected by the “crowd” they choose to be amongst:

"Even Socrates, Cato, and Laelius might have been shaken in their moral strength by a crowd that was unlike them; so true it is that none of us, no matter how much he cultivates his abilities, can withstand the shock of faults that approach, as it were, with so great a retinue."

If Socrates himself would be affected by a crowd who did not push him and encourage him, how can we hope to even achieve a sliver of the success he had unless we decide carefully who and what we choose as our environment? Seneca advised in this same letter:

"Ponder for a long time whether you shall admit a given person to your friendship"

I got lucky myself. Something drew me to Birmingham in the UK, from my hometown of Sheffield. Then, after Buffer reached ramen profitability Leo and I had a craving, a calling to visit San Francisco. After arriving and spending 6 months in Silicon Valley, lack of visas forced us to travel the world and live in places such as Hong Kong and Tel Aviv.

It was through this journey I learned the power of a fresh environment and starting new friendships. With each new place, I had a more specific criteria for who I would let into my true circle of friends. Today, I have much freedom and I am surrounded by people who never judge and always encourage. The difference this makes is something I can’t put into words. Leaving your hometown is the best way to deliberately sever those ties and step into the unknown and the chance of great possibilities.

Finding somewhere to thrive

With an inward focus and a desire to shape your environment in a very deliberate way, I think that if you choose to try and do these things in your hometown, you are very much at a disadvantage.

There is no way I would have been able to develop as much as a person if I had not jumped on a plane to a place where I knew nobody. I love my friends and I love my family, but the truth is that stepping away has helped me tremendously to become a better version of myself, and paradoxically to allow me to help them even more, too.

There’s probably a place in the world that is better for your business than where you are right now. For AirBnB, it was New York:

While at incubator Y Combinator, Paul Graham looked at their plans for Airbnb and asked them the simple question, “Where is your market?” The founders said that New York seemed promising. To which Paul, gesturing wildly with his hands, said, “Your users are in New York and you’re here in Mountain View.” The founders were dumbfounded, saying they were in Mountain View for Y Combinator. Paul repeated himself. “Your users are in New York and you’re here in Mountain View.” After a pause, he added, “What are you still doing here?”

For us, it is San Francisco. We’re a distributed team, but many of the conversations we need to have with startups we partner with and the social networks we are providing a service on top of, happen much more easily when we’re in the same location as the majority of them and can grab coffee face-to-face. I’ve come to agree with what Brad Lindenberg said in a blog post recently:

"I am convinced now that in order to be a player, you need to have a presence where your target market is because if you do, things can happen really quickly."

A lot has happened in my hometown of Sheffield since I left. There is even a startup accelerator there now. If I hadn’t left, I’d not be on a level where I would comfortably and excitedly be a mentor for the accelerator. Would you be able to help more if you let go of your roots and focused on yourself?

Photo credit: Christine Vaufrey