Talk of tech startup hubs often doesn’t include any mention of Baltimore, which seems to relish playing scrappy underdog to its bigger cousins, Washington, D.C., and New York City.
There’s some reason for this. Ask someone about major “wins” inside this city’s startup ecosystem, and they may cite AOL’s acquiring Advertising.com and Millennial Media’s IPO in March 2012. Although, if some of the comments on a Quora thread asking how tech hotbeds in the U.S. perceive Charm City are any indication, many other people won’t even know that much.
That’s the hard truth. Baltimore, a tech startup hub? Not a chance.
Because a hub is more than a city that has People Doing Technology-Related Things. To a degree, a tech hub is a place with a long-standing record, as Localist founder Mykel Nahorniak notes in a discussion on the Baltimore Tech Facebook group:
“We like to constantly cite the 8 to 10 companies that sprung up in Baltimore, but there are dozens of other cities across the US that are padding their pitch deck with similar stories. 10 successes over 15+ years isn’t a great track record.”
Naturally, that track record is what other places possess, the ones that are tech startup hubs—we’re talking Austin, Boston, New York City, Silicon Valley.
And the story of Silicon Valley? That’s a tale that dates back to 1956. Fifty-six years. Transistors. Shockley Labs. Apple. Google. Success stories. A brand? Sure. But the Valley being branded as The Valley makes for a good case study in serendipity.
Granted, Baltimore suffers from a perception problem, principally because people simply don’t know what’s going on here, as Betamore co-founder Mike Brenner pointed out in his response on Quora. [Full disclosure: Brenner is a partner with Technically Baltimore.]
People don’t “perceive” Baltimore at all, said 410 Labs‘ Dave Troy. “Pretending we’re better than we are,” he wrote on Facebook, “isn’t going to make us magically awesome.”
Pieces are starting to fall into place. Early-stage investment? Wasabi Ventures, the Baltimore Angels. Lower cost of living? Check. Bigger companies? Moodlerooms, Ad.com, StraighterLine, Millennial Media. A mass of talented people that’s both ample and available? We’re working on that. Political leadership touting tech in this city? See digital roadmap.
Brenner’s assessment, though, is only partly correct. If anything, what we’ve seen the last decade is the word startup divorced from the notion of simply creating a business—now, when we say startup, we’re talking tech (tech startup almost sounds redundant, at this point). And we’re not exactly talking servers and motherboards. Today’s tech is web apps, mobile apps, teams of two, or four, or five people coming up with an idea and coding the heck out of it. In that sense, Baltimore perpetually plays catch-up because other cities have SO MUCH STUFF happening—investment, acquisitions, hirings, spin-off companies.
But a combined sense of humility and pragmatism would dictate two things. One is that Baltimore is just a pup, and we need to have an appreciation for the long view here. And two, Baltimore needs to stack itself against smaller cities: Detroit, Richmond, Raleigh. Moreover, it behooves us to truly figure out what distinguishes this city, in particular, when it comes to tech. A case can be made for cybersecurity. A strong case can be made for education technology.
Admittedly, Technically Baltimore is biased when we say this city is poised for bigger things when it comes to tech startups, and our efforts are largely focused on reporting on the tech and startup scene, from our “spec journalism” on events happening to longer pieces on STEM education, civic data and new startups. (It’s something Technically Media has been chronicling and reporting on for close to four years in Philadelphia through our sister site, Technically Philly.) Raising awareness of the tech scene in this city as a goal unto itself sounds self-righteous, but without coverage, people outside of the Baltimore tech bubble will continue to remain ignorant of what’s happening in this city when it comes to the community.
Beyond that, Baltimore “needs wins,” as venture capitalist Frank Bonsal said. Baltimore also needs to give bigger companies like Millennial Media reasons to remain here, although a question of parking in Canton seems fixable with more reliance on existing public transportation and some improved parking accommodations.
During an interview with Wasabi Ventures founding partner Tom Kuegler in August, Kuegler told me Baltimore needs another 10 years to take its startup ecosystem to maturity. That seems fair. Ball-parking 10 years isn’t saying that the city’s tech scene is woeful, or pitiable, or laughable.
It’s simply saying the scene is underdeveloped.
To be sure, it will take work, and the type of work that extends beyond the reach of hype, journalistic coverage or making sure people on Quora give us our damn respect.
Nothing worth building is ever easy. But making Baltimore’s tech scene the best version of its own self can be done.
Lest we forget: Baltimore is the scrappy underdog.