Recently I took an extended trip to San Francisco. I had visited SF before, but this was the first time I spent the majority of my time socializing within SoMa, a startup and tech mecca. Here are my impressions of SF compared to my residence in the Boston/Cambridge area.
Boston’s Startup Scene Doesn’t Compare with SF’s
There’s been tons of arguments written about Boston vs SF (see Paul Graham’s Xconomy interview about this topic). In my heart I’ve always wanted to believe that Boston’s startup scene was just as strong as silicon valley’s, only not as large or as spread out.
Alas, it isn’t.
Graham probably says it best: “[Boston] has more startup culture than anywhere else [outside of Silicon Valley], but the gap between number 1 and number 2 is huge.”
In SoMa, any cafe or restaurant you go to buzzes startup energy. People have ideas and aren’t afraid to try them. Going unemployed (i.e., “working on your startup”) for a year or more is accepted in Silicon Valley. Maybe even expected.
In Boston, going unemployed typically means you’re a student. And if you’re not a student then people wonder what you’re doing. This is obviously an exaggeration*, but you get the picture.
The stronger startup scene in SF breeds two other core entrepreneurial advantages over Boston.
SF Tends to Be Ahead-of-the-Curve in Tech
I heard about mobile apps in SF that haven’t yet appeared in Boston. But they probably will. And some will be very big.
Being in SF and chatting with people involved with the startup scene feels like being at a hollywood party, where you get the inside screening of upcoming films. There’s just a lot more money being tossed at ideas, and in turn more “hey, let’s try this” apps show up. And with more new apps, entrepreneurs have an advantage in SF because they spot more trends ahead of mass adoption. They set themselves up to succeed if those new companies explode.
Because more money seems to be thrown at young entrepreneurs in SF than in Boston, you get more apps that are outside the box, or address first world Millenial problems. Which are often very attractive. Young people with a lot of money to spend equals big profits.
One specific example that comes to mind is that everyone uses Uber in SoMa. Yet I don’t know of any friends who’ve used Uber in Boston.
There’s a strong inbred startup ecosystem, where you sell to other Startups
The second big advantage for any tech entrepreneur launching in SF–especially a young tech entrepreneur–is that there’s a strong in-built network of young founders running their own startups.
Because they’re running startups (and ones that are often flush with cash), these young founders are more willing to “think outside the box” with new products and services. They’re also more willing to work with other young founders because they themselves are the same age and know how hard it is to pitch.
Anyone who’s somewhat connected to the startup scene probably has a rolodex in the double figures of peers who run startups. That is powerful. I don’t see the same startup network in Boston.
Boston’s Startup Culture is More About Big Ideas Than Easy-to-start Businesses
This is mostly based on my experience at MIT and Harvard so take it with that caveat, but most startup pitches I hear in Boston are focused on “big ideas.” Like changing the energy infrastructure. Or addressing climate change. Or advancing biology.
The challenge with this is that industries tied to government regulations and healthcare take time–usually a LONG time–to change. And long time = lots of money.
In contrast, something like Instagram, Twitter, or WhatsApp only takes a few coders and some accounts on Amazon Web Services. Customer adoption is fast and viral.
As Paul Graham says, “A large part of the reason Boston is weak in startups is probably that it’s good at other things. The focus of Boston is ideas, and it seems hard for a city to have two foci.”
Of course, the downside to the SF approach is that it’s hard to tell which startups are addressing “Silicon Valley Problems” rather than real-world problems. If a startup serves another startup who in turn serves Twitter, and if each layer is running on loads of cash fueled by optimism, it does worry me that a bubble is forming.
Boston’s Ethnic Food Scene Doesn’t Compare with SF’s
This is similar to the “apps appear first in SF effect,” but for ethnic food. Particularly Asian and fusion food.
Not much more to say about this other than I’m still waiting for a good Korean-Mexican fusion place, Boston. Maybe this year, hmmm?
And Ming Tsai as the pinnacle of Asian Fusion? Pleeease. I mean, I like his food, but we need better.
Everybody Says They Work at a Startup in SF, even if it’s a Public Company
Because startup is such a hot term in SF, everybody wants to associate themselves with startups even if they don’t really work at one.
“Where do you work?”
“A startup in the social media space.”
“Oh cool! Which one?”
Boston’s Living Cost is Much Lower than SF’s
I used to dread paying for my Cambridge apartment without a roommate. But then I talked to multiple people who lived in SF (and not just in SoMa).
Single bedroom apartments and lofts typically run over $3,000 a month. Yikes!
That’s 1.5x to 2x Cambridge prices.
Living by myself doesn’t sound so expensive after all!
SF seems a livelier city for young professionals
While census statistics would have you believe Boston is younger, that’s only because of the huge student population.
Social-life-wise, San Francisco seems more exciting for young professionals than Boston.
I can’t explain it. It’s just a feeling.
With all said, I still Prefer Boston
Rationally and based on all the things I’ve written so far, I should probably live in San Francisco instead of Boston.
But my heart still loves Boston for several reasons.
I love changing seasons. Sure, winter can start getting old when it’s persisting past March. But that makes every summer day that much more precious. Growing up in the tropics, I’d always fantasized about living in a place with four seasons, and Boston epitomizes that. A Christmas day when it’s sunny and there’s no snow just doesn’t feel like Christmas to me.
Plus a part of me fears getting soft living in California. Real men plow snow off their cars.
I guess I’m still not a California guy.
By this I mean less Noise in the startup scene. San Francisco for entrepreneurs is like New York for Artists–there’s so much competition and noise that it seems hard to stand out or to stay grounded. It’s good to hang out with non-you types.
Hanging out with people outside my tech bubble reminds me that there’s more to life than work/startups/art/whatever you’re obsessed with. The diversity of interests in Boston provides that.
The History and Architecture
Again this is purely subjective, but I love East Coast architecture–Gorgeous brick architecture; Buildings that have been here for hundreds of years and whose walls tell stories. I used to work in a building that was the old Boston City Hall. James Curley probably worked in my office space. That was cool to imagine.
I also love the quirky mansions left over from the gilded age in Newport, and the density of small but different cities in Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine.
Although I have to admit that the Bay, Fisherman’s Wharf, and the Beach in SF are quite amazing.
I’d love to hear thoughts from San Franciscans who’ve visited Boston. Would you ever move to Boston? Are my impressions accurate, or way off base?
Please start a discussion on the comments feed!
*Another euphemism for being unemployed in Boston is calling yourself a “consultant”