Chicago, Be Chicago

Yuck! Enough with the Silicon Valley worship, Chicago!

🎶Hey, Chicago, what do you say? Can we stop talking about wanting to be the next Silicon Valley today?🎶

If you pay attention to the Chicago tech/media scene, you’ve probably been hearing for years that Chicago is poised to be the next Silicon Valley. The storyline continues in this recent Inc article: Why Chicago will be the next Silicon Valley tech hub.

There’s a lot of good in this article. And we’re honored that Basecamp is held up as an example of something positive happening in Chicago. But the notion that it’s now Chicago’s time to grab someone else’s torch is where it falls apart for me.

It’s certainly true there’s more entrepreneurial excitement in Chicago these days. More optimism, more opportunity, etc. This is great.

But what’s with all this this fetishizing of Silicon Valley? To be next in line to be them? What about being us? What about being original? The Silicon Valley approach is original for Silicon Valley, but what’s our original approach? Something that’s expansive, rather than restrictive. Following someone else’s playbook is always limiting.

Why not build something here that’s so fresh that eventually other cities want to model themselves after us? What would that look like? 10 years now we’d be far better off if other cities were saying “We want to be the next Chicago” than “Chicago is still trying to be like them”. Unfortunately today if you Google “The next Chicago” the first story is about how citizens in Richmond Virginia are afraid their town is becoming like Chicago.

Some suggest Silicon Valley stands for innovation. Ok — I’m into that. But if we’re just trying to be like them, where’s the innovation in that? That’s the opposite of innovation. So to be innovative, we want to copy? That gets you to me-too, not us-instead.

Further, why follow a playbook that leads to oppressive rents and a workaholism culture? A race towards pumped-up billion-dollar valuations rather than a thousand paying customers? Why salivate over so many profitless-revenue and unsustainable business models? Why build companies to be sold rather than ones built to prosper independently?

What’s so unattractive about stability and make-more-than-you-spend economics? The economics the pizza shop, dry cleaner, autobody shop, and restaurant down the street live by? If they can survive like that — some for 25 years or more — why can’t a tech company with far more favorable cost structures?

I get it. Rapid job creation. Pumping millions/billions into startups that are hiring is a quick way to show things are happening. But if we can’t build sustainable businesses built on solid fundamental economic principles, those will all be temp jobs. Long temp jobs, but temp jobs nonetheless. That’s a political move, not a purposeful move.

Of course Silicon Valley has some wonderful success stories reaching back decades. No doubt — amazing things have been created there, and I admire and respect many of those stories. I’m a happy customer of a few of them for sure. But a successful Chicago doesn’t need to be predicated on the next Apple or Tesla being here. That’s limiting.

Further, it’s too easy to assume that there’s a formula that any city can apply to generate those kinds of businesses. Specific inputs that always produce specific outputs. If we do what they’ve done, then we’ll get what they have. It doesn’t appear to work that way. Is it just a matter of eventually, or is it a matter of place and moment? That places are unique, and intangibles make the difference? That moments can’t be manufactured? That luck is the largest variable in the equation?

Great places are unique places. New York is uniquely New York. San Francisco is uniquely San Francisco. LA is uniquely LA. New Orleans is uniquely New Orleans. New York isn’t like LA, and LA isn’t like San Francisco, and Seattle isn’t like Boston, etc. Silicon Valley didn’t become “the next whatever”, it developed into itself. New York isn’t striving to be Rome, it’s thrilled with being New York. But Chicago?

If Chicago is going to follow anyone’s philosophical lead, let it be Simone Biles: “I’m not the next Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps. I’m the first Simone Biles.” That’s confidence. We could use more of that here.

I remember the last time Chicago got frothy about the closest thing we’d had to a Silicon Valley success story: Groupon. The city rallied around it. Everyone hailed as the fastest growing company ever, and it raced to a $1 billion dollar valuation on waves of institutional investment. We celebrated around fastest growing, not profitable, not sustainable. And now just a few years later, you don’t hear many people talking about Groupon anymore — except when they need to show an example like the one below:

(Full disclosure: I was on the Groupon board prior to them going public, but was asked to leave after a year.)

And today, in 2017, guess who’s being touted as the fastest company to a $2 billion dollar valuation? Uptake, another Chicago company. I hope things turn out differently for Uptake than they did for Groupon.

I hope Chicago avoids the trap. That we don’t get carried away by bullshit metrics, and wannabe stories. Rather, we build more sustainable, profitable companies. Companies that grow steadily and strong, not rapidly and weak. Companies that treat people exceptionally well, and create environments where people can do their best work of their lives — and have great lives at the same time.

Chicago, be Chicago.