new york state of mind

There’s nothing like New York City – this has been said so many times in so many ways that it hardly bears repeating.  But the compulsion to declare love for New York is like the compulsion for love itself:  it doesn’t matter that countless generations have found this magic and proclaimed their discoveries to the world, each person still engages in a distinct journey for a song of one’s own heart.

I was born in New Jersey, grew up about 45 minutes outside of the city, and went to school and started my career in NYC.  I’ve been out in the San Francisco bay area for over a decade now, and I’m firmly rooted here with family and career, but the thought of going back to The City (the one and only “The City” – pretenders begone!) still occasionally buzzes in my head like a bee in a speeding car.  However, on a trip back to New York last week, I realized that one of the things that prevented me from moving back is my own very New York attitude.

Over the past few months, a few New York based technoscenti have carried a conversation about NYC as a startup environment.  Chris Dixon said conditions are ripe for a new NYC tech revival, Fred Wilson and Charlie O’Donnell agreed but noted that NYC has been a strong tech scene for years, and Dixon and Wilson came together to agree again that the NYC startup sector is special.  All this caused me to reflect on why I left the city that I love to pursue a tech career in Silicon Valley, and why I’d do it again.

It all goes back to why I went to NYC in the first place.  I was learning the law, I wanted to be a dealmaking lawyer.  And while there’s law and lawyers all over the world, the pinnacle of the practice is in New York.  Routine transactions in New York would be considered fantastically complicated almost anywhere else, and complex transactions in New York are so far above other places that they can’t be considered the same category of endeavor at all.  So if I was going to be a lawyer, I had to try to do it in the belly of the beast.

And it was a great time, but after a few years I realized I wanted to be more connected to the creation of something from nothing, rather than the financial engineering of something into vast amounts of money.  That meant working in startups, because startups aren’t about money but about value creation (a distinction often lost on New Yorkers).  So I shifted the path of my journey, but I retained that New York attitude of wanting to play on the biggest possible stage, and in the startup world, that meant going to Silicon Valley.

There are other great startup scenes in the world, and New York is certainly a special startup environment.  But if you’re a stage actor, you don’t go to New York dreaming of playing Off Broadway; you dream of your name in lights on the Great White Way.  Because I grew up as a New York dreamer, dreaming of a startup career meant leaving New York for the biggest and baddest startup scene in the world.

It’s all a bit ironic, and I’m not saying this “big stage” attitude is right.  In fact, it’s almost certainly not a healthy way to live.  A healthier attitude would be less entranced with the size of the stage, and more focused on the production and your role within it.  I think that’s the attitude held by Chris, Fred and Charlie, and I really look forward to seeing those guys continue the public conversation (and private work) about making New York into one of the great startup locales in the world.  For those interested, Elie Seidman is another good new voice in the thread, and of course Joel Spolsky is a longtime stalwart for software engineering in NYC (or anywhere).

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