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We need a Philadelphia story for the tech age

Let's find a narrative and spread it far and wide, writes Todd Barrish of Indicate Media.

Center City at night. (Photo by Flickr user Michael Righi, under a Creative Commons license)
This is a guest post by Todd Barrish, president and founder of Indicate Media.

In late 2010, Philly had a modest proposal: A weeklong celebration of the city’s tech firms called Philly Tech Week. That first event, back in 2011, was designed to give local tech companies a national spotlight.

Eight years later, the event has succeeded beyond that mission. In a large part that’s because the region’s tech scene has grown so much in that time as well. Philadelphia is now the No. 18 city in terms of share of global venture capital investment. VC investment nearly doubled between 2010 and 2016 to $1 billion, though last year the total figure was down, mirroring a national trend.

That growth was based on a confluence of factors, including a rebounding economy, and the continued adoption of tech across pretty much every industry. But after witnessing the energy and breadth of Philadelphia’s tech scene during the most recent PTW, the question is how do we maintain this momentum?

My solution: brand the city.

In search of the Philadelphia story

(No, not that one.)

In the past few years, Colorado, Amsterdam and Melbourne, Australia, have launched new logos that sought to update their look. Those campaigns have had varying degrees of success, but consider how New York City’s “I Heart NY” effort helped change the image of that city from a fiscal basket case and crime-ridden, 1970s dystopia to the tourist-friendly destination it is today — the city now gets 59 million visitors a year.

Philadelphia has a tourist department that does a great job advertising the city for visitors, but what about rebranding Philly for the tech community? For inspiration, look at Albuquerque, New Mexico, which has sponsored tech conferences and run ads on Facebook and Instagram to woo tech talent to the city. St. Louis, Mo., and Austin, Texas, have also worked hard to raise awareness for their tech scenes; Philadelphia should do the same.

Both funding and the ability to attract talent depend on the narratives that people tell themselves about our city. Boston is known for smart companies, New York for savvy ones and Indianapolis for low-key unicorns and a culture of a heads-down work ethic.

What is Philadelphia’s tech scene known for? One issue is that few people outside of the city are writing about it.

That’s an opportunity. What the scene needs more than anything is a consistent, coherent narrative. Investors and the tech community should present Philadelphia as the third and most affordable spoke in the Boston–New York axis, where you can have access to solid schools, a burgeoning tech scene and a taste of gritty urban life.

The city government and Mayor Jim Kenney have done a great job promoting Philly’s tech scene. Startup PHL, an initiative that provides support for area startups, is a great start and Kenney’s enthusiasm for programs like Coded by Kids illustrates the kind of forward thinking that the scene needs. According to an analysis by Brookings, Philadelphia would seem to have all it needs to become a tech hotbed. It’s a metropolitan center (98 percent of the Inc. 5000 are in such centers) with a young, college-educated population. And the city government is very pro-tech.

The only thing I see lacking in Philadelphia is a story.

Philadelphia should be the city you go to if you want to build your startup or even maximize your venture funding without wasting it on high rents. We need to figure out a way to conjure up a positive image when you mention the Philly tech scene. I am sure many of us have several ideas but a little collective thinking in this direction will go a long way.

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