April 14 2014 05:26 PM

Some unsolicited advice on building the next tech giant in our city

bar joke WEB
A hipster, a glasshole and a bro walk into a bar.
Illustration by Lindsey Voltoline

It's official. Because Forbes said so, San Diego is the No. 1 city in the country for startups.

Oh wait. In 2013, we were only No. 20 on the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation's startup-hotspot ranking. Hmmm, we didn't even make the "Top Startup Cities by Cost and Taxes" infographic produced by the tax software startup GoodApril last summer.

Notice I still say "we." Even though I've moved to San Francisco, I remain a cynical but dedicated booster of San Diego. When a Silicon Valley entrepreneur asks me for advice (which is never), I tell them that Forbes rules, Kauffman drools and GoodApril—well, who the f-bomb are those fools? Yes, if you're starting a tech business, you should follow the coast until you hit the border.

While I'm doling out unsolicited advice, I want to share some insight I've picked up in the year or so I've been in the Bay Area. There's a bit of a class war underway, or at least an accelerating series of clashes, between local communities and the tech sector. You may have heard of protesters blocking Google buses or online services refusing to pay local taxes. Words like "Tech bros" and "Glassholes" are appearing in news articles. Although it shouldn't have taken me by surprise, I'm stunned that computer nerds are suddenly the bad guys.

But they don't have to be. Here are a few tips for tech companies (whether you're a brand-new startup a migrating giant) to live in harmony with San Diego:

Don't roll in like a parasitic alien species that takes over and gobbles up all the resources. There's no shortage of land in San Diego County, so don't displace rooted communities, whether by buying up property or driving up rents. I'm sure North County and East County would love to have you, but if you do want to build in the city (or any of the cities on either side of the border), make sure you employ and, if necessary, train a significant portion of the local population, rather than just importing recent grads from around the world. 

Don't create a segregated society. It's one thing to turn a corporate campus into a huge, contained community. That's kind of cool—except for the people who never get to visit it. A quick way to irritate the locals is to extend your insulated world outside the walls of your company, building your own city on top of the existing city. Mass transit is a good example here: The Silicon Valley giants have created their own complicated private-bus system for their employees, essentially undermining the benefit of the startup boom on the city's transit system. Worse, companies have been using public bus stops. If you want harmony, you have to become a part of the community. That means not pretending that your service innovatively brings down costs of a service—such as vacation housing or car-sharing—when really you're just pretending that regulations and taxes don't apply to you.

Solve local problems for free. Include some pro-bono tech work in your business model. As you launch your revolutionary fresh-grocery-delivery service, make sure you're simultaneously helping solve San Diego's "food desert" problems. Don't just offer to help because you think you'll score a government contract out of it later. 

(Quick rant: Awhile back, CityBeat's Kelly Davis wrote about homeless parolees who have to hide out in bookstores for a couple of hours each day to charge their ankle bracelets. That's no good for the homeless person, worse for the businesses and unsettling for the public. General Atomics can keep a 2,500-pound drone in the air for 40 hours, so how the hell do we still have this problem?) 

Don't be arrogant: A lot of the problem is just the attitude toward those outside the bubble. San Diego's got a lot of bros and hipsters, but they usually get along by balancing the generally chill kumbaya California vibe with long-term ambition. You have to do the same. Or, in the words of Deadphones (a San Diego band that I'll plug for no real reason except that I'm just in love with their new album): "Take it easy. Take control." 

And, c'mon, tech folks, cut the disdain for poor, disadvantaged and mentally ill people. Being in the tech sector doesn't immunize you from human frailty. There is no shortage of advanced science degrees on the streets and in the shelters.

Don't wear Google Glass in bars. At least not without asking the bartender first.

Email davem@sdcitybeat.com or follow him on Twitter @Maassive.


See all events on Monday, Dec 5