Perhaps that jeering bet is what’s kept the bicoastal battle alive even after the city surpassed Boston in venture capital invested in Internet companies in 2011. New York now has a stable of plausibly successful companies, including Foursquare, Etsy and Tumblr; and with both a Facebook engineering headquarters and the Cornell-Technion tech campus on the way, one would be hard-pressed to deny the city its tech cred. California dreamer Paul Graham, who finds New York intolerable, especially when the humidity causes sweat to bead above his upper lip, encourages the startups at his incubator, Y Combinator, to stay in the Bay Area. But even Mr. Graham acknowledged on a recent visit that “New York is definitely now solidly in the No. 2 spot.” By this and many metrics, the city seems to have arrived. So why the persistent Valley-baiting?
Kirill Sheynkman, a former Silicon Valley resident who heads up the New York branch of RTP Ventures, a
$750 $700 million fund based in Russia, likes to compare the New York tech scene to a football player stammering through a history report and then blurting out, “San Dimas High School football rules!” in a panic, a scene from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.
“There’s a lot of talk about Silicon Valley in New York City, a lot of comparison. I think it’s the underdog syndrome,” Mr. Sheynkmann said, though he added that the “star quality” of New York startups, which tend to be highly visible and impeccably-branded, might have something to do with the messaging.
“I don’t see a need to compete,” he said. “The two cities are different! They focus on different areas of tech. Tech is vast. It’s like science. Science is a broad concept.”
New York talks about itself for two reasons, he said. First: it’s in the city’s nature. Second: there is pressure to tell a compelling story in order to attract talent and capital.
Still, as much as New York tech loves itself, some are wary of talking too much talk.
“I just think it’s a little bit of a wasted effort,” said Kyle Bragger, who recently returned from a session at Mountain View’s 500 Startups for his startup Forrst. “Is it really productive to have yet another blog post debate about the latest ‘New York is better or worse than other city,’ or ‘City A is better or worse than City B’?”
Maybe the persistent marketing served a purpose when New York was getting on its feet. But at this point the local tech scene is at least toddling, if not walking. “We call it the flywheel effect,” said Lucas Nelson, an associate at DFJ Gotham Ventures. “Is the flywheel going? Can it sustain itself, or do you still need to put energy in it?”
New York needs big exits and role models more than it needs savvy marketing, he said. “I think the underdog thing is getting pretty old pretty quickly,” he said. “I don’t want to dissuade anyone who is cheerleading in New York. But in the end, no amount of cheerleading will take the place of smart, experienced angels, or smart experienced anything.”
Others pointed out that the marketing for New York tech tends to get competitive mostly because talent and capital are scarce. “We need to keep investing in the ecosystem and evangelizing what is going on here,” Mr. Wilson wrote in an email. “Students still leave the CS programs at Columbia, Princeton, and NYU and go to Silicon Valley. That means we still need to market NYC.”
A survey of local tech professionals suggested that the boosterism is likely to continue. “NY tech talking NY tech is fine,” Alex Taub, head of business development at Aviary, said in an email. “I don’t think it’s an insecurity thing—I think it’s just topical because NY tech is really thriving. Real businesses are being built and scaling here.”
New York may not be insecure, but there seems to be plenty of demand for self-validation. Two entrepreneurs have organized New York Tech Day, a “science fair for startups” to “celebrate New York’s awesome startup ecosystem” in April. More concretely, it’s going to be a gigantic one-day expo at the block-sized Lexington Ave. Armory, with 200 startup booths, more sponsor and vendor booths, and a few thousand attendees rotating through.
It will followed by an awards show.
A version of this story appeared in the New York Observer the week of February 20, 2012.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story said Rachel Sklar moved to New York two years ago; that is incorrect. She has been in the city for 13 years. Betabeat regrets the error.