Get out in town

Escaping the valley may be the best way to develop the next great tech product

I’ve long complained about groupthink and how it helps create sub-standard products in the long run but two trends in the tech world seem to reinforce the concept of building gated communities that “know better” than the user, only mixing up with them when a company decides that it’s the right time for doing so.

Office parks vs. office buildings

As a fierce proponent of New York as a tech center, I’ve always argued that proximity is one of the great advantages we have. Because New Yorkers have to share streets, subway cars, and elevators, the likelihood of making unexpected connections is substantially higher than it would be otherwise. Steven Johnson has long argued that coffeehouse were the crucial information hub that helped create multiple industries and foster new inventions.

Meanwhile, outside of cities, people work in office parks, gated communities centered on the idea of providing a central hub for all employees of a corporation. As the corporation grows, the campuses expand and new features like restaurants or shops may be added to them, all with the idea of increasing convenience for the employees and ensuring they don’t have to leave. In the tech world, the phenomenon probably started with Microsoft and its amazing campus in Redmond, a suburb of Seattle, and was eventually reproduced by most large tech companies, with Google’s efforts receiving the most attention in recent times. This is the type of life that takes employees away from their community and makes them more efficient while they are at work as some of the friction that comes out of getting off a campus and getting things like a meal is removed.

In cities like New York, where you don’t have to drive several miles in order to get to the nearest restaurant, getting out of the building to grab a sandwich is not as big an impediment as it is in office parks in the valley. However, more traditional industries, like finance, try to build vertical campuses inside corporate buildings. Step into a major corporation’s office and it will have a company cafeteria (some, like Bloomberg, will even have food buffets on each floor to ensure employees don’t even have to even leave their floor to get nutrition), a company-provided health office (with nurses available to do first line health checks), a company-provided gym and so on. An extreme example of this in New York is Goldman Sachs’ alley, a set of shops and restaurants that have been curated to serve employees of Goldman Sachs, sitting right outside the entrance to their office building.

This type of island away from the community living explains, in part, some of the disconnect Wall Street has had with the rest of the world. When you commute in a black car to the door of your office or when the subway station is in the basement of your office building, you don’t spend much time outside of the office community. I remember talking to some people on Wall Street last year who had only heard of Occupy Wall Street from the news but had not seen any of the protesters who were camped out only two blocks away.

Unfortunately, some of the larger companies from Silicon Valley are falling prey to the same concept when they are coming to New York and, in the process, are hurting their chances at getting new ideas that could help them create revolutionary new products. While the office building Google bought in New York city is awe-inspiring, a lot of the people who enter Google don’t seem to come back out and mingle with the rest of the community, whether it is the tech community itself (for example, Google is a sponsor of the New York Tech Meetup but its representatives seem noticeably absent from its main event) or the larger city community. Facebook, Twitter, and Ebay have all opened large spaces in the city but, once again, it would be difficult for anyone involved in the New York tech scene to met anyone who works in those offices.

Proximity, in and of itself, does not create community: active participation is required.

So the valley is exporting the business park back into the city and, in the process, the tech industry ends up looking a little more staid, a little more like the finance industry, a little more disconnected from the world around it. Meanwhile, in Silicon Valley, the trend is to more isolation, no more involvement. Yes, it is true that companies like Zynga, Twitter, and others are moving to San Francisco in order to be in the city and recreate some of that magic New York appears to have when it comes to understanding social and mobile behavior but they are doing so by recreating gated communities. Zynga’s building (the Dog House) is a pretty cool place but it sits in an area where cars and warehouses are still more common than pedestrians. Buses and cars come in and out and employees who design games aimed to be social without having to socialize with the people they design game for.

The bus shuttles

Google Travel

Private shuttles for Googlers ensure they don’t interact with lesser people.

Going one step further is the rise of tech bus shuttles. Over the last decade, large tech companies in Silicon Valley have increasingly relied on private bus shuttles to ferry employees from San Francisco to their office. The shuttles are not only a great status symbol but they also take away riders from existing public transportation systems, effectively privatizing some portion of the public transportation infrastructure and removing some of its best customers from the pool. A study published in September showed that as much as one third of public transportation riders were now using private shuttles instead of public transportation. When a next round of investments is required to improve the public transportation infrastructure, do you think those people will feel like it might impact them? My guess is probably not.

But going beyond the political impact such behavior may have, one has to think about the impact it can have on product design. Any New York startup founder has a more intuitive sense of what is and isn’t selling in the mobile world because of what they see in the New York subway. Give me a ride between 2 or 3 stations on a train and I can safely count the number of Android devices, iOS devices, and others that are emerging. Throw in an extra 4-5 station and I can get a sense of how the Android market is sectioning out. By comparison, people riding on the Apple shuttle will be convinced that everyone uses an iPhone and people riding on a Google bus will guess that the Nexus is the preferred device of most consumers.

Furthermore, being coddled and cared for on a public shuttle makes it more difficult to relate to real world conditions a regular user encounters. WiFi signals are not always strong, and service sometimes is inexistent in the real world but in the magic world of private tech shuttles, bandwidth is abundant and always on, a scenario that may be great for the future but does not represent current realities.

Silicon valley vs. New York

Over the last few years, Silicon Valley as adopted San Francisco as its city, in an attempt to bolster its claim of understanding how cities work and how people who live in cities (on a global basis, the trend that will drive the most consumer internet businesses) deal with mobile devices.

The intersection of social, mobile, and local requires active participation in all three groups: you cannot be social by remaining in your own bubble; you cannot be local by living in gated communities, and you cannot understand mobile if you’re always presented with optimal mobile conditions.

This week, Steve Blank reminded silicon valley it needed to get out of the building in order to develop customers but getting out of the building is not sufficient when you’re trapped in a gated community. The gentlemen in Stepford may have gotten out of their respective buildings but their reality was no better for it. Truman Burbank may have left his house daily but it wasn’t until he broke out that he really saw the world. And unless people in the valley leave the comfortable confines of corporate campuses for the wild and untamed worlds beyond, they will not see the real customers.

The New York tech community is still largely concentrated around a central hub instead of being as dispersed geographically as the Silicon valley one (although some would argue it could extend from Stamford, CT to Princeton, NJ, an area that is still smaller geographically than the stretch from San Jose to San Francisco) but one of its key features is that once people leave the office, they tend to be confronted with a world that looks at tech with not just awe but also suspicion, a world that looks at tech as an emerging phenomenon but is still willing to question whether things can work or not, a world that believes a business exist when it has a model that can generate revenue. In other words, a world radically different from the one people in the valley encounter and THAT is part of the magic formula that makes New York great and will help it continue to grow in influence in the social and mobile space.

About the Author

Tristan Louis

Writing and working on the internet since 1993, I've launched six companies, of which two went public and three were sold. This is my personal site and all opinions here are mine.