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Edinburgh, Austin, San Francisco - a startup tale of three cities

3 min read

I sometimes tell the story of the three places where I’ve been involved in founding startups.

in Edinburgh, the cost of living was low, and I never worried about healthcare. I don’t think I would have founded a startup, or entered this world, without these kinds of democratic socialist protections. But at the same time, everybody told me it would never work and that I should get a real job. And although it’s changed since, in 2003 there was absolutely no infrastructure for starting this kind of business: precious little money or expertise.

in Austin, there was a lot of enthusiasm; very little “get a real job”. But with the exception of certain pockets, my perception is that investors were primed for more traditional businesses, and didn’t quite have the risk appetite or the value-add in terms of expertise they could offer. (This is changing rapidly, too.)

In San Francisco, there’s money and expertise everywhere. You can get funded and have coffee with people who have been on the journey many times before. Sometimes, you bump into those people in the burrito line. It’s a completely different universe. But, correspondingly, the cost of living is much higher and it’s harder to stand out, because there are a million other startups vying for everybody’s attention.

It’s not quite Goldilocks and the Three Bears, but it’s not three even choices, either.

I don’t think it’s possible to build a technology business and not at least visit the Bay Area regularly. Should you live here full time? I’m actually not sure - although you’re maximizing your opportunities for serendipitous meetings, the whole area is absolutely beautiful, and everyone’s really just a short walk away, you’re also meaningfully shortening your runway. There are lots of people here who don’t work in startups, so it’s absolutely possible to stay grounded, but some people only travel in those circles, and that’s an existential danger, too. And obviously there are the people who are only in it for the hope of VC money, absolutely everywhere.

Like everything, I think you’ve got to work out what’s best for you, your team, and your mission. But start with the individuals. What nourishes you? What kind of place will make you feel supported even when things are going wrong? Where does your joy come from, and where can you be in a place that makes you feel passionate about something, where you feel like being human is beautiful and not something flawed that needs to be improved? Where will you not just work best, but live best?

I’ve found that here, but it’s different for everyone. Start there and work backwards.