The Center of the Universe or It's Dead
Where is Silicon Valley?
A few weeks ago, feeling somewhat adrift and philosophical, I asked Product Hunt co-founder Ryan Hoover where is Silicon Valley, exactly, these days.
As a younger tech reporter, nearly six years ago, I remember trekking out to a Hoover-orchestrated convening at 620 Jones, a bar right above the Tenderloin in San Francisco. The networking event was open to the public, so tech strivers snaked around the block to get in. More than 1,000 people showed up. Reporters chronicled it. I had a passphrase to say at the door to make sure I could get inside. Groupon Inc. co-founder Andrew Mason observed back then, “I haven’t seen anything that captures the magic of the times we live in the way Product Hunt does.” That visceral feeling of mania over a buzzy San Francisco startup feels so distant now.
Hoover and I both left San Francisco last year, long before the pandemic. He moved to Los Angeles. I flew to my girlfriend in Brooklyn. Now, the lockdown has given everyone license to scatter. The Wall Street Journal reported that tech companies outside of Silicon Valley are seeing an increase in job applicants. The Information reported that Dropbox CEO Drew Houston and Splunk CEO Douglas Merritt have bought homes in Austin and plan to live there; Brex’s co-founders are in Los Angeles. Amy Sun, a promising venture capitalist who left Sequoia to build her own startup, is starting anew in Austin. My tech friends are in Hawaii and wine country. We’ll see where they end up. The tech set has long threatened to abandon Silicon Valley. But this feels more credible.
We’re all in our own little worlds, looking at our own reflections in Zoom. What does it matter where we live? (And wouldn’t it be nicer if the taxes were lower?)
So, recently I turned to Hoover – because he’s always been emblematic of that startup hustle to me, even if he no longer embodies the zeitgeist like he once did. I hoped he might offer me some sense of place in a time when our existence is defined by the inside of our homes.
“Where is Silicon Valley? It's all on the internet. It's been on the internet,” Hoover told me.
He’s right, of course.
Purists once restricted the phrase “Silicon Valley” to the places south of San Francisco, where they actually design silicon chips. The usage slipped to include San Francisco as the city became the nexus of all that was young and cool in the technology industry. Now, Silicon Valley is a way of thinking, coupled with a certain process for funding and valuing new companies. Somehow Oscar Health, a New York-based health insurance company, and SpaceX, a south of Los Angeles rocketship-manufacturer, both feel like Silicon Valley companies because they raised money from venture capital firms and because they would prefer to receive optimistic, growth-based valuations. Silicon Valley isn’t so much a place anymore. “It's on Twitter. It's on Product Hunt. It's on just different internet communities,” Hoover says.
Hoover marveled at the ease of investing in startups over video. He recounted a founder’s description of the new way of life: “It’s amazing, so much better. I don't have to bounce from café to office to café.” Hoover shared similar joy for the new order. “I’ve only met founders over video. I think I've only met a few portfolio-company founders in person ever,” he says. “That's just a much more efficient process. It forces investors to not be so constrained by location.”
It’s a sentiment I’ve heard from a fair number of people. Deals are certainly getting done faster than ever. There’s no excuse to drag out the process when we’re all just sitting around in our pajamas. (Some investors are more reluctant to make investments in strangers over Zoom, so they’re mostly sticking to deals with founders they already know.)
To be honest, Hoover’s response bummed me out. I miss trekking from café to office to café, seeing the inside of people’s little worlds. On my last reporting trip to San Francisco before the end times, I bopped around San Francisco, hanging out inside one tech titan’s home and some random venture capital firm offices. I paced around South Park and the Embarcadero.
So much of Silicon Valley can seem totally made up. We obsess over valuations, but the numerical certainty starts to crumble if you so much as squint at them. What’s the preference stack? Could you really sell the stock at that price to anyone besides the Vision Fund? When will anyone be allowed to sell?
People sell fake ad inventory. People buy social media followers. So much of the technology news is an illusion. Elon Musk is the second-richest man in the world right now, allegedly. You really believe he’s richer than Bill Gates? Imagine if Musk started unloading Tesla shares.
Mapping things to the physical world countered the absurdity of it all. It might be crazy but at least the atoms existed. What was more Silicon Valley six years ago than a Product Hunt happy hour, or than a scooter zipping across Dropbox’s offices?
Even as the exodus is real, it is also already overhyped. “Here's the thing that I find super annoying,” says venture capitalist Ann Miura-Ko.
“Everyone either thinks San Francisco is the center of the universe or it's dead,” Miura-Ko says. “It's just super annoying because anyone who has been here for over one cycle knows it always comes back and it always also falls out of favor.”
In all honesty, San Francisco could lose a few thousand tech workers and still keep its grip on the industry. To the defectors, we welcome you to New York. And Austin could really make a run at being a verifiable tech hub. Go somewhere that feels like a vacation.
The disorientation is a reminder to pay attention to the people that make up Silicon Valley. If Silicon Valley is “on the internet,” as Hoover says, it’s more important than ever that we don’t lose sight of the people who make it tick. That’s one of my goals with this newsletter. I’m so grateful to the thousands of people who have signed up for Newcomer so far and for the hundreds who have paid for a subscription. If you haven’t already, I’d love if you joined them.
“If you go to see Silicon Valley, what you'll see are buildings. But it's the people that make it Silicon Valley, not the buildings,” Paul Graham wrote in a 2006 essay.
I’m going to do my best to bring everyone to Silicon Valley — no matter where we are.
Have a Happy Thanksgiving!