I’m often asked what the biggest difference is between the New York and Silicon Valley tech scenes. Aside from the obvious differences (e.g., in San Francisco, good luck finding decent public transportation or a grocery store that’s open past 9 p.m.), the biggest difference is the diminutive nature of a lot of New York-based startups’ approach to growing their businesses.
In most ways, New York is the consummate “think big” city. It’s known for being bigger, badder, more daring and more ostentatious than any other city in America, if not the world. New York’s obsession with size, money and power is the stuff of legend. Unfortunately, that flagrant disregard for boundaries stops short of the burgeoning tech community here.
Compared with our compatriots in the Bay Area, NYC startups often think smaller. The scope of our visions, the audacity of our goals and the nature of the disruption we’re trying to unleash are subdued by the financial realism that has been drilled into us. In a city where finance is king and profits equal power, tech startups are an anomalous and oft-misunderstood world where sometimes immense power needs a gestation period of heavy losses. This is exacerbated by the economics underlying (usually) smaller seed fund sizes here on the East Coast, as well as the lack of an history of massive exits that can help spark the imaginations of founders and investors alike.
Please don’t misunderstand me; there is nothing wrong with building a company that has a limited scope. Creating a product that does something niche in an awesome fashion can be as rewarding as building a tech behemoth. Just don’t artificially limit your vision because you think it’s “unrealistic” or someone told you it would be “stupid” to try to aim higher. Every product is risky and has a low chance of success at its genesis, and there are pitfalls associated with even the most limited-scope startups.
But New York-based founders seem inexplicably pushed to let go of their grand visions for more “reasonable” ones. We’ve got to change this. If you’re building a plugin for Salesforce, what’s stopping you from trying to unseat Salesforce? If you’re trying to help connect college students with summer internships, what’s preventing you from trying to connect anyone with any job?
Aiming for the stars doesn’t mean you should spread yourself too thin. As startups, we all have limited resources and need to prioritize accordingly. It’s not enough to just say you’re trying to be a world-changer; you need to have a smart plan of action to get there. Find a beachhead industry or vertical or customer group, think about how you expand from there and be strategic about how you will achieve world domination. Don’t mix naiveté and delusions of grandeur. That can also be a toxic mix.
The New York tech world needs to start thinking bigger. Let’s be brash. Let’s be those kids in a coffee shop trying to beat the big bad Fortune 500 wolf that’s had a stranglehold on our space for decades. Let’s have a vision slide that’s so big in scope, it makes investors look at you funny. It’s way, way, way more exciting to tackle a big problem, something structural, something insanely difficult—not an iteration on someone else’s thing, not an incremental improvement, but something that would change the way entire industries function.
Sounds pretty ridiculous, but that’s what technology and innovation is all about. We can’t spend our lives being worried about being Icarus when our brethren in Silicon Valley are finding out that the sun doesn’t actually burn that badly.