On exporting the culture of Silicon Valley

It’s often said that America’s biggest export is its culture. And, for better or worse, this seems to be true. China and India certainly seem to envy aspects of our way of life and of doing business (or we’re just really good at making movies that suggest that we’re all happy and drive SUVs and live above the poverty line, so why wouldn’t you want to be like us?). But in the last couple years, I’ve noticed a microcosm of this phenomena around Silicon Valley — specifically that people elsewhere want to be like us or do things like us or make money like us. But there’s rarely been a case, at least that I’ve seen, where that envy has lead people to want to think like us. And, as far as I’m concerned, you can’t have the our culture unless you start to think about your everyday experiences and interactions like us.

Now, let me quickly point out that 1) I’m a New England boy and didn’t grow up in California (Live Free or Die, baby!) 2) I went to school in the midwest in an old steel town called Pittsburgh 3) I migrated out to San Francisco just over three and half years ago 4) and I’m not about to try to convince you to make over your local township in a rough effigy of Silicon Valley or the Bay Area.

…because the way that we “think” transcends geography; it just so happens that there’s a lot of folks out here who happen think alike. And, the weather doesn’t hurt much either.

Coworking - Working Alone SucksSo Tara and I traveled to the East coast this past week for two coworking openings. Proof, first of all, that not everything happens in Silicon Valley and second, that this kind of thinking and acting is not something that has to be — or is — unique to this area.

In fact, if you know where to look, you’ll realize that there’s probably a lot more going on right in your backyard than you think or are willing to admit. Ask just about anyone who’s thrown in a BarCamp in the last three years what kind of community they thought might exist after the fact, and I can guarantee you the majority will be shocked at just how many people in their own neighborhoods were into social media or, more importantly, wanted to connect to people like them locally but just didn’t know where or how to go about unearthing them.

And, now that so many of these nascent communities are beginning to emerge — and there’s an awareness — that people don’t have to be alone in their progressive thinking, the question seems to quickly become: “So what happens next? How do we create our own Silicon Valley here?”

Well, I’m here to tell you that the next thought should be, “Oh wait, what we want isn’t to become another Silicon Valley with all their disfunctions and navel-gazing — what we really want is a community that is self-sustaining and a culture of sharing, opportunity and hope…!” Of course, that’s a harder proposition and reality to accept and to create, but if you really want a slice of the Bay, you might as well take the one that’s not just covered with whipped cream.

Where I’ve seen this work, people are collaborating, are open, are sharing, are working together and building something that is defined from within, rather than from without. It’s not about imitating what you think we have out here; it’s about creating and instituting an attitude and mentality that shares the same philosophical underpinnings that allow us to define success for ourselves and then go about achieving it, however we best can. It’s really about coopetition rather than competition; it’s really about helping each other other out than tearing one another down; it’s really about “yes and…” instead of “but but but…!” It’s wanting to give everything away and expecting nothing in return. It’s pushing through and discovering unseen opportunities where others saw only boundaries, risks or costs. It’s about a willingness to fail, but to fail quickly and get it out of the way so that the constant learning that keeps you sharp can get underway. It’s about constantly feeling overwhelmed and yet always doing more. And then a little more. And it’s about how our turn of mind keeps us on top of it all and inventing the future and determining for ourselves what we want from life and not accepting anything less than what we know, deep down, we’re capable of.

And I can tell you that, just as this kind of thinking has taken root in the culture of Silicon Valley and continues to define it, the seeds of this approach are on the wind and have permeated the network. They are finding new homes in your backyards and in your neighborhoods and starting to grow. If you nurture these ideas and provide them fertile ground, they will grow, and they will spread, and they will change the pH balance of the mentality of your friends, your neighbors and your townsfolk.

I have seen this happen, am witnessing it happen more and more everyday, am doing what I can to produce more culture, to consume more culture, and package it up and make it accessible and implementable and practical and worthwhile.

Just as Gary V and his cabal of wine drinkers are changing and opening up the wine world, we are doing the same for the future of work and the future of event organizing. But it’s not something that happens over night, and it’s not something that happens only in one place. If you look back over just the past three years, you’ll see been over 250 BarCamps and derivatives around the world, in communities that had no sense of what they were capable of and that have now come into blossoming hotbeds of activity. If you look back just one year, you’ll see over 110 local efforts to get coworking spaces set up around the world. This isn’t an accident and this isn’t just the work of Silicon Valley types. This is the work of turned on, smart and destiny-shaping independents.

So wherever you are and whatever you think you need to do to become more “like” Silicon Valley… STOP. You’d be wasting your time.

Instead, follow the lead of your friends in Philadelphia, New York City, , , , and elsewhere. These are the places that are defining their own culture; mashing up what they see from all over the place, embracing both chaos and diversity and taking a chance that maybe a culture that emerges naturally, and from the desires of the local citizens, will be more powerful, more popular and more sustaining than anything else that might come out of the Valley.

Author: Chris Messina

Head of West Coast Business Development at Republic. Ever-curious product designer and technologist. Hashtag inventor. Previously: Molly.com (YC W18), Uber, Google.

11 thoughts on “On exporting the culture of Silicon Valley”

  1. You’ve nailed it here Chris. It’s been about 2 years since the first BarCamp Boston and the community around Boston and Manchester has exploded. In September and October there are more than a dozen events including conferences (Tech-North and REMIX), un-conferences (Podcamp Boston 2 with 800+ registrants) and several smaller gatherings such as Ignite and Tech Cokctail.

    It’s been an interesting emergent process over the past 18 months or so. There was a small but dedicated group planning events here and there that has grown into a real community.

  2. Agreed with Ian, 100% nailed.

    I’ve told the story dozens of time about how I *almost* moved to the west coast to work with you and your crew, and when things didn’t pan out, I found myself thinking about why I wanted to move in the first place. Sure, being around you and Tara was awesome. Sure, the job was going to be cool. Sure, the money was going to be nice. But I wasn’t moving for any of that, I was moving for a culture that embraced free thinking, idea sharing, and mutual encouragement.

    ‘Why not here?’ was the next question. As you’ve personally witnessed, I was answered with a loud and proud, “YEAH, why NOT here?” by the 30+ members of IndyHall and 200+ people who came to the opening last weekend.

    At the same time, it was clear that we needed to accomplish that goal of encouraging those core values our own way. “This is how Philly does coworking” isn’t just a tagline, it’s something we’ve embraced since day one.

    Open source movements like coworking and barcamp let these ideas start to filter into places that they may not have before. Just like you did for me, these events show people that while it may not be staring you in the face, the culture that the Valley embraces is often here(wherever here may be)…just disjointed, or underground.

    Showing people that it is OK to speak out of turn and say “this can be better” is so powerful. Them recognizing it on their own is even more powerful.

    We’re proud to be taking an amazing idea, standing on the shoulders of giants and making it not necessarily *better*, but a better fit for us.

  3. Very well said. Is there something that stayed with me after I left the SF and the Valley, it’s the sense of community, purpose and culture.

    And the important thing is that, as this movement spreas like pollen around the globe, it permeates all areas of life, including business, politics and society. It’s a world-changing movement.

  4. Chris, first of all it was great to see you while you were in NYC — one can only start to measure your and Tara’s dedication to the coworking community in miles traveled. And that’s a lot!

    But you’re right: New York is going to be New York. Trying to be “like SF” or anywhere else is a waste of time and, more importantly, a waste of a wonderful city! New York is awesome. I couldn’t imagine living many other places at this point in my life, but I also want my life to be enhanced by the bounties of coworking. That’s why this is going on in New York right now: more and more people are realizing what folks realized in SF a few years before, which is that when we work together, we succeed together, and that’s what’s already happening here.

    Thanks for making it to NYC. Silicon Alley forever!

  5. Thats an excellent point. The couple of times I’ve stopped by CitizenSpace to work or talk with Ivan I’ve noticed that there is that kind of free thinking talk back and forth that it’s difficult getting when you’re the lone person thinking about these kinds of issues.

    About importing Silicon Valley culture. This is what everyone wants to do. I’m Danish and the Danish Government even set up an office in Palo Alto to import this kind of culture. I wrote about it here


    In Denmark as an entrepreneur you really do feel out of it. But there are changes. I think there are even CoWorking spaces opening up now. We’ve had the Reboot conferences and even the Copenhagen Ruby meetups have done a lot I think to help foster entrepreneurship amongst the Danish technorati. However one conference a year and one meetup a month still does not a Bay Area make.

  6. Hey Chris,
    a very rallying post, indeed!

    I think the main point is that at least for me, I’ve little interest of being like, or living in, or even thinking like the Silicon Valley. What I’m interested in are that bunch of likeminded people who’re living the very fact that the group is far more thant the sum of its parts 😉

    Luckily enough, information highways and cheap fly fares are allowing for viral spread and rapid feedback of this same culture (almost) throughout the globe.


  7. Another great post.

    Silicon Valley is no panacea. In fact there are many places that are much more culturally rich and just plain more fun. But the best bits of Silicon Valley are exquisite, they involves attitudes and cultural mores and approaches and frames. Other regions should learn from and import the best bits, and meld them with their own cultural strengths; don’t try to blindly copy whole thing.

    PS- Chris I think you in particular would appreciate Regional Advantage, if you’ve not already read it. It’s a very strong analysis of what makes Silicon Valley work, and it compares Silicon Valley with the tech industry culture around Boston:

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