Last year, we made a conscious decision to run our new company, Plain, from Carbondale, Pennsylvania: a town of just 8,000 people with no other internet technology company in sight. Our colleagues thought we were crazy. No resources! No networking! But we disagreed. Now is the perfect time to start a company anywhere in the world; it's a new era of geographical freedom for a startup company.
It used to be a given that to build a tech company you had to pack up and move to the big city, preferably New York or the Silicon Valley. Not now: the internet, with fast, affordable speeds, cloud services (with the ability to send large files), and the social web, has given small teams the option of setting up camp almost anywhere and letting the product do the talking. Want to raise your family on a farm and 'play in the big leagues'? It's no longer an either/or choice.
Greater control, more desirability
If you were to compare the pros and cons of building a tech company inside vs outside the major metropolitan areas today, it'd be a dead heat. Perhaps surprisingly, there are as many challenges faced by teams that build companies inside Silicon Valley as there are in other areas.
Companies forming in technology hotbeds are forced to raise more money than those in places with a lower cost of living... which means giving up more control of the company to shareholders. It also means competing with other companies in your region for talented team members, and even moving very quickly to get to market. Some of these hotbed-based companies end up working harder on the exit strategy than on the product.
Companies built in relatively small markets can be built on-the-cheap. The maths is simple: the cost of living is lower outside the major cities. This drives down the price of salaries, rent, everything.
These ex-urban companies have the luxury of growing at a slower rate if they choose, and have much more control over their destiny. They can recruit talent without getting into a bidding war. Finding onsite talent where fewer people live isn't easy, but it is possible.
Small town joy
There's a lot of momentum right now to help small towns improve quality of life and educational programs. We (and people like us all over the country) want local high schoolers to learn how to be engineers and designers; to decide to live and work here, not to move far away to 'where the jobs are'. Today's ninth grader is tomorrow's business owner, neighbour and colleague with a great idea.
There's one more feature of today's cultural landscape that marks this as a new era for the technology startup. People increasingly appreciate things that are handcrafted. Artisan bakeries and small batch breweries are thriving both in big cities and rural areas. Limited-run denim shops and furniture makers are multiplying.
People want thoughtful, honest goods and services made by real individuals (witness Etsy's global success). Such goods and services are collectively making a significant impact on the economic and social landscape. The fact that an app wasn't built by a faceless corporation but by three guys who respond to support queries is attractive. And those guys can now live and work where they want.
There are several great examples of companies, communities and individuals building amazing products in all parts of the US right now. Dribbble in Salem; Matthew Smith and The Iron Yard in Greenville; one-man-bands like Shaun Inman in Chattanooga; even progressive companies such as GitHub, which calls SF home, but employs talent from all over including Rick Olson of Rapid City and Matt Burke in rural Indiana. The list of far-flung people and companies that are making an impact on the web is growing every day.
As Geoffrey Moore would say: "The chasm has been crossed." The new era of geographic freedom has begun. Greetings from lovely Carbondale, PA!
Words: Colin Devroe and Kyle Ruane
Colin Devroe and Kyle Ruane are co-founders of Plain, the company behind the forthcoming content editing platform Barley. Thanks to Melissa Haertsch, Matthew Smith, Rick Olson and Matt Burke for their contributions.
This article originally appeared in .net magazine issue 243
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