Explaining Southern California's economy

Mark Suster doesn't like the term "Silicon Beach"

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It's a beach. Just don't call it a Silicon Beach.

I missed this when it was fresh, but the debate is more-or-less evergreen, so I don't feel too bad about picking it up from Brad Feld's blog about tech and investing in Boulder, Colorado rather than Mark Suster's blog about tech and investing in Los Angeles. The topline summary: Mark — who started LaunchpadLA and is a VC at the biggest firm in town, GRP Partners — doesn't like the term "Silicon Beach."

It's not like he's breathing fire or anything. He's just trying to gently incite a larger discussion about the L.A. tech scene and the whole question of regional branding:

For me Silicon Beach doesn’t quite encapsulate the wonderful, dynamic, creative, large, thriving community that is the 13 million proud Angelinos any more than Silicon Alley captures the bustling 2012 community of New York City.

If anything using the word “Silicon” seems a bit derivative to NorCal. Don’t you think?

Interestingly, nobody I know in NorCal EVER calls it Silicon Valley, “Silicon Valley.” It seems to either be “The Peninsula” or “San Francisco” or even just “The Bay Area.”

To me, LA will always be a creative hub for TV, film, music, video games and now technology. We need to be different & unique. Not derivative.

Feld does breathe a little fire:

In the late 90′s a wave of “Silicon Blah” appeared. Silicon Alley, Silicon Mountain, Silicon Prairie, Silicon Slopes, Silicon Gulch, Silicon Bayou, and on, and on, and on. The rallying cry was “we are going to be the next Silicon Valley.” Whatever. At the time, my opinion as someone who disliked generic marketing was that this was the worst branding ever. I feel even more strongly about this today.

If you are going to create a startup community, build your own identity. People now talk about “New York” and “Boulder” as amazing startup communities. They don’t talk about Silicon Alley and Silicon Flatirons. Well – I suppose some do, but I don’t hear it anymore (or at least my brain doesn’t process it) – I just hear New York and Boulder. And when someone says “Do you like living in Denver?”, I say “I live and work in Boulder.” Sure – Denver has a startup community also, but it’s distinct from Boulder.

Frankly, I think both gentlemen doth protest too much. Feld might be right that "Silicon Blah" is a lazy branding syndrome, but at this point, "Silicon" Wherever has slipped in the lexicon and neatly captures several important elements: that a region has a startup scene, is supportive of entrepreneurship, and most importantly, has a funding community in place. 

In L.A.'s case, there's also a nice renaissance narrative, with a twist. Silicon Beach, as a term, was a creation of the Web 1.0 boom. But these days — especially from folks like Suster — what I hear isn't that L.A. will the next Silicon Valley, but that L.A. is a perfectly viable alternative to Silicon Valley (even if nobody in Silicon Valley wants to call Silicon Valley by that name). The "Silicon" part isn't aspirational; it's simply a signal, ultimately to the rest of the world (I'm not sure the fineries of American regional startup branding matter all that much in China or India).

Of course, it's amusing that Melbourne, Australia has also laid claim to the Silicon Beach moniker.

Speaking of Silicon Valley alternatives, there's a whiff of fear in both Suster and Feld's thoughts. See above for Feld's view's on the New York City scene. Suster goes deeper:

NYC has gotten a lead on us in the perception of creating a next generation technology hub and with good reason. Every time I’m there I’m blown away by the renewed energy and the thriving communities that have formed around the Flatiron District, Brooklyn and elsewhere.

In fact, New York's aggressive push to become a tech hub shapes a big part of Ken Auletta's lengthy piece on Stanford in the latest New Yorker. A taste:

In late 2010, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that New York wanted to replicate the success of Silicon Valley in the city’s Silicon Alley, and he called for a public competition among universities to build an élite graduate school of engineering and applied sciences on city-owned land. Seven universities submitted proposals for a campus on Roosevelt Island, and Stanford was widely viewed as the early front-runner.

[...] Stanford proposed spending an initial two hundred million dollars to build a campus housing two hundred faculty and more than two thousand graduate students. It pledged to raise $1.5 billion for the campus.

For the record, Stanford wound up withdrawing its bid. And yes, notice that Auletta uses "Silicon Valley" and "Silicon Alley" in a joyfully unreflective way, right up to the employing the "new Silicon Valley" trope. But the overarching point here remains: L.A. is MUCH closer to Silicon Valley than New York, and with institutions such as Caltech, USC, and UCLA, is really better situated than New York (Columbia and NYU are fine, but are the Caltech?) to "replicate" Silicon Valley's success. 

Nonetheless, Silicon Alley, undergoing its own revival, is looking more like the next Silicon Valley, at least as far as the discussion about the evolution of regional tech hubs goes. That should concern Suster more than whether we call it "Silicon Beach" or just plain old "L.A."

Follow Matthew DeBord and the DeBord Report on Twitter.

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