(Photo by Flickr user Marc Levin, used under a Creative Commons license)
I care a lot about my future. Maybe you care about yours, too.
I’ve been covering early-stage tech companies for six years now. I’ve gotten this great privilege of speaking to founders and entrepreneurs along the East Coast and elsewhere. Mostly, I’ve approached these conversations from a surprising vantage point for tech companies — a local one. How will what you do impact others around you? Why are you building a team here? What unique advantages do you have here versus there?
People are different. Some care very greatly about where they’re doing the work they’re doing; some are dismissive that place matters much. But for almost all, I’ve always found a kind of mixed-up uncertainty. For us mobile and privileged and educated knowledge workers, we often have moments where we ask ourselves: Are we where we’re supposed to be?
It’s something I’ve talked about with this guy I know.
“Hi, my name is Wes Garnett. I’m from Wilmington, Delaware, I’ve lived here my entire life, all 32 years. I’m an entrepreneur. Currently I’m working on a product for people living with chronic conditions.”
- Editor’s note: We performed this essay as part of our first-ever live podcast recording. Listen to that podcast here or subscribe to the Technical.ly Podcast on iTunes or Stitcher. It’s also available via RSS feed.
We at Technical.ly publish in Philadelphia, Baltimore, Brooklyn, Delaware and D.C. They’re all these fantastically creative places full of creative people who are excited by the world and hungry to explore it. Even Delaware, with a smaller tech community than most, newer to building up a network of technologists and entrepreneurs launching the kinds of businesses that might thrive in the future, is increasingly vital.
"I've always called this, 'Who's your city?' You have to make the best decision for you. And I think that really depends on what you want to take on and what you want to achieve."
And this is important. Because of the very nature of how we’re building successful communities. I had a conversation about this with Richard Florida, the Global Research Professor at NYU, pop urbanist and author of The Rise of the Creative Class. He said he recently had a similar conversation with a colleague.
“I said, ‘What is the difference between economic development yesterday and today?'” Florida said. “And he said, ‘You know, we’re no longer big-game hunters.’ We fashioned ourselves big-game hunters out on the safari of economic development, hunting the big game, the big factory. … Now we really have to do the things which cultivate a wide variety of smaller things.”
And Wes is one of those smaller things, one of Delaware’s rising stars.
He’s already this landmark success story for tiny 70,000-person Wilmington. For all the downtown banking giants, Wilmington still has a major violence and schools problem. But there’s Wes, a Wilmington native going to Delaware Technical Community College and getting a user experience job. In 2010, he cofounded the city’s first coworking space. At a Startup Weekend three years ago, he cofounded Kurbi, the startup he and a handful of others are working on with real paying customers.
He’s part of this first generation of Delaware tech entrepreneurs, the kinds we’ve seen in those other markets we cover, who help make it easier for others to stay. I see them at the coIN Loft, the coworking space Wes cofounded. He’s part of this group growing and talking about a walkable innovation corridor in Wilmington, just a short stroll from the Amtrak station.
That’s why even I was a little surprised when, sitting in a conference room at The Loft, he said this to me.
Sure, Madison is the home of a brainy university and a major healthcare customer that also happens to be known for spinning out lots of health IT talent. But Wes? Leaving Delaware?
At Technical.ly, we’ve done for years this semi-regular feature called Exit Interview. It’s a simple profile of a technologist or entrepreneur who is leaving for somewhere else. We ask why, put it in context and try to better understand the perception of a place.
And nothing we’ve done has ever as consistently gotten people angry with us than our doing those Exit Interviews.
Because each one stings.
Sure, people leave cities all the time. There’s always been a natural flow of people. But whenever any small community is growing, trying to raise its standards and get more serious to do better work, it depends so much on the early leaders. The trailblazers, people who give up that exploration to dig in and connect the dots and make something special there. People like Wes.
When someone leaves, it’s tears at the fabric of the community.
Years on, well, there’s less angst when someone leaves. There are more hands on the steering wheel. But Wes? In Delaware? Can’t we keep him at home?
“I hit a point working here at the coIN Loft where I realized, if I wanted to see startup activity happen, like, I hadn’t built a startup, so how could I tell people what I think it could be?” he said.
So now he’s doing what he thinks he has to do to get that done. Richard Florida isn’t so worried about this. He says this is the shakeup of the mobile workforce.
“I really think for the entrepreneur, it’s a really a question of do you want to go to a place that’s emerging, do you want to go to a place that’s done?” Florida said. “I’ve always called this, ‘Who’s your city?’ You have to make the best decision for you. And I think that really depends on what you want to take on and what you want to achieve.”
So when you can build a business or have a career anywhere, the focus for civic leaders is now about building the best community for those people you want to attract.
So don’t fault someone for leaving. Thank them for what they’ve done for a place and only ask that they spread the good word of your community elsewhere.
“Madison is just a good place for me as a person,” said Wes Garnett.
Which got me thinking:
We don’t choose a place to live. We choose a time and a place to live.
Maybe Wilmington in 2013 was right for Wes and Madison in 2015 is also right for Wes. Maybe it’s Philadelphia in 2015 and Chicago in 2020. If Brooklyn in 1998 was right for you, maybe Baltimore in 2015 is your jam.
No one should ever make you to feel badly about where you want to live. We’ve worked so hard to create the mobility we’re only now beginning to experience — in work and life. The only work worth doing is making the best version of wherever you live, even if that might just mean it’ll be better for someone other than you.
“I don’t want people to get discouraged that someone that they thought was a representative of the tech community is leaving the tech community,” said Garnett. “I wouldn’t describe it as leaving, I’d describe it as replanting in different soil so that the nutrients that come out of the venture can actually feed the thing that I care about the most.”