Underlit bars and blaring techno set the scene at the Park Avenue Armory earlier this month, when a who’s who of New York’s tech scene gathered in the cavernous block-length building for the sort of startup event that bore little resemblance to the usual beer, pizza and Powerpoint office gathering. No, this was a fashion show; a nerdy fashion show, to be sure, but one with glamour and theatrics. Raise Cache, a fundraiser for the apprentice developer program HackNY, tapped local tech personalities to walk the runway outfitted in glasses from local e-prescriber Warby Parker, slacks from e-tailor Bonobos and accessories from e-jeweler Bauble Bar. Larger-than-life cartoon avatars lorded over the crowd from the DJ booth as amateur DJs spun tracks using Union Square-based streaming music startup Turntable.fm. Founders and VCs milled about in gowns, coattails, pinstriped vests, glittery tights and cowboy hats. A recording of Mayor Mike Bloomberg, who has been pumping his pom-poms for the New York tech scene of late, boomed out at the close of the show: “Now more than ever, [New York] is the place for to be for tech soirees!”
That seems to be the consensus among a contingent of New York founders who made the pilgramge to the tech mecca of Silicon Valley but have returned to be part of an up-and-coming scene, as well as for the nightlife, the restaurants, and the higher baseline average peer attractiveness. “There’s a lot more good-looking people in New York,” one founder told Betabeat. “Don’t quote me about that, but if it’s something you want to work that into the story, there’s definitely something there.”
In the past, incubator programs in Silicon Valley contributed to a techie brain drain from East to West. Paul Graham, the architect of the prestigious startup accelerator Y Combinator, insists Silicon Valley is the best place to start a company, and often counsels his startup acolytes to set up shop nearby. The vast majority of the Y Combinator alumni network is in Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Mountain View and San Francisco. Tales of New York-based founders like Matt Mireles, a Columbia graduate and uber-hustler founder of a video transcription startup, shipped out to the Valley when they found themselves struggling in New York are common. “But if you’re a schmoe like me and you’ve got a big, world-changing dream, NYC is not the best place for you,” Mr. Mireles wrote in a heavy-hearted blog post about the move in February 2010. “The odds are already stacked against you. Being outside the Valley just stacks them higher.”
Whatever the reason, a passel of companies have recently boomeranged back to the city after a season on the far shore. The longtime tech mantra of ‘go West, young founder” is being revised for the simple reason that New York’s tech scene is up-and-coming, more social and more fun. Recent Y Combinator grads Codecademy, The Fridge, MessageParty, Hirehive and Tutorspree all moved back the New York within the past 18 months. Sam Rosen, plucked from Flatiron’s General Assembly for the Mountain View accelerator 500 Startups by superangel Dave McClure, returned after the program ended. “My friends in New York City—one would be in marketing, my good friend was a producer at MTV, other friends are lawyers. Whereas in the Valley you go to the party and everyone is in tech,” he told Betabeat in January. “It’s not like I’m tired of talking about my company, but it’s all we talk about.” Josh Weinstein, founder of the Facebook competitor CollegeOnly who later pivoted to interactive web television with a startup called YouAre.TV, ventured out to the Valley to work with a cofounder and be closer to investor Peter Thiel. In September, he returned—mostly because the cofounder bailed on him, but partly because he felt “isolated,” he said.
Amanda Peyton, MIT business school graduate and proud owner of a 212 cell phone number, moved out to Menlo Park in the summer of 2010 to participate in Y Combinator with her cofounders of the mobile blogging platform MessageParty. “It reminded me of Westchester, where I grew up,” she told Betabeat. “We had a lot of space where we lived, and the grocery store was really big and nice and things like that.” At the end of the summer, she and her roommates found out they had been living in the three-bedroom house that Lisa Brennan Jobs, Steve Jobs’s daughter, grew up in. The house was also next to Sand Hill Road, where all the big VC firms are, but there were only two places to eat within walking distance: Safeway, and a well-loved bar called the Dutch Goose.
At the end of the program, Ms. Peyton started talking to friends and colleagues about where to go next. “I had two arguments for going back to New York,” she said. “One was more of a macro trends argument about how there’s so many industries in New York that are going through truly fundamental shifts… but then I was talking to one guy, and he was like, why don’t you just admit that the reason you want to move back to New York is because you want to live in New York? And I was like: you’re totally right. I just want to.”
Ms. Peyton and her team are now ensconced in the former Williamsburg coworking space The Makery (currently transforming into the office of conversation-logger Bnter). “There’s just more stuff to do in New York,” she said. “There’s more places to eat, more people to hang out with. I just learned how to work smarter. Yeah I have cut down the hours a little bit, but I don’t feel like I’m any less productive. I just don’t feel like I’m only working.”