OnQ Blog

Start-Up Spotlight New York City: Those Are Features, Not Bugs

Jul 19, 2012

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Let’s face it: New York City is not predominantly a tech town, and it probably never will be. There are too many other industries and cultures in this city for technology to ever play a dominant role.

And yet, that dynamic makes it fertile ground for growing tech companies, as demonstrated by the thriving ecosystem of tech startups and tech giants in NYC. For the innovators in NYC, the clash of industries, people, and cultures is the city’s defining feature, not a bug.

It’s a familiar phrase to anyone reading this: “it’s a feature, not a bug!” I’m using it here to illustrate that many of the characteristics that horrify the city’s tourists and discourage its newcomers are the very same that aid its tech entrepreneurs, if they stick around long enough to see them as features instead of bugs.[i]

Proximity to People

The most impactful of these is proximity. Since the very beginning, New York City has been stuffing too many people into too small a space. You’ve got people above you, below you, all around you. You smell their B.O. on the subway, you compete with them for tables during your lunch break, you run into them on the sidewalk, you squeeze past them at your favorite bar.

Remember: feature, not bug. This constant collision of people in New York City, if used properly, is an amazing catalyst for unexpected introductions, relationships, and even collaborations.

In his book Triumph of the City, Harvard economist Edward Glaeser argues that, far from being a bug, this collision of humans is one of the best features of cities, and always has been. In the introduction to his book, Glaeser writes:

“The urban ability to create collaborative brilliance isn’t new. For centuries, innovations have spread from person to person across crowded city streets.”

As an example, Glaeser describes the Florence Renaissance, which kicked off when Filippo Brunelleschi, an engineer, unlocked the geometry of linear perspective. Brunelleschi shared his discovery with Donatello, who used it in his sculpture, and Masaccio, who incorporated it into his painting. And thus, a creative renaissance was born. Glaeser continues:

“The artistic innovations of Florence were glorious side effects of urban concentration; that city’s wealth came from more prosaic pursuits: banking and cloth making[ii]. Today, however, Bangalore and New York and London all depend on their ability to innovate.”

Technical innovation today tends to take hold the same way Brunelleschi’s did: among interconnected social and professional networks. And while interconnectedness no longer depends upon physical proximity the way it did in old Florence, there’s no substitute for face-to-face interactions to cement relationships and spread specialized knowledge. An easy example: these words you’re reading are a poor facsimile of the great conversation we might be having if we were in a room together.[iii]

This proximity that Glaeser talks about expresses itself in all the ways I mentioned above: crowded subways, crowded lunch spots and bars, crowded sidewalks, crowds crowds crowds. Don’t fight them, use them. Just like old Florence, New York City has always been full of intelligent, ambitious, resourceful people. Meet as many as you can to get the most out of living here.

Proximity to Users

Of course, the benefits of proximity can be realized in any urban setting—New York certainly doesn’t have a monopoly on crowded bars. But if we dig a bit deeper, we’ll see a couple of real competitive differentiators from other tech hotspots, especially Silicon Valley.

The first is proximity to users. By “users,” I mean “real people.”[iv] NYC is not predominantly a tech town, so the friends you make here will not necessarily be working in tech. The people you rub shoulders with on the subway won’t often be techies either.

Again, this is a feature that tech developers and entrepreneurs can put to work for them, and it decreases the social distance between developer and user (which is a very real issue in the tech sphere.)

New York provides ample opportunity to observe and interact with 1%-ers from both sides of the spectrum. How would that old man reading a Kindle on the park bench put your app to use? The mother struggling with her stroller on the subway—is she in your target userbase? How will you reach her, and how will your product enrich her life? It’s easy, and generally fatal, to build an app or product that is aimed solely at yourself and people like you. Everyday living in New York, especially riding the subway[v], forces a little more empathic imagination.

Of course, if your target userbase is young, urban creative professionals who like to use technology to enhance their social lives, NYC has a critical mass of those, too.

Proximity to Industries

Returning to the idea that New York City is not predominantly a tech town (and never will be), let’s talk about what it is: It’s a finance town, a fashion town, a food-and-fun town.

The conversations you overhear in Starbucks will vary by neighborhood, and they’re more likely to be about upcoming auditions, stock prices, or commercial real estate values, than about technology. You might share a building with an ad agency, or share a favorite lunch spot with editors from a national magazine. Your favorite coffee place might be a hangout for a local fashion house.

The building I work in now also houses Google, Deutsch (a big ad agency), Spotify, an acting school, and who knows what else. Right across the street is a whole bunch of media and Internet companies, like Scripps Networks and MLB.com.

This jumble of industries is great for tech entrepreneurs, and should be encouraging for those of us working in what Steve Rosenbaum calls “Hyphen-Tech.”  

“What we’re seeing is emergence of Hyphen-Tech. Technology plus Media, Technology plus Advertising, Technology plus Finance, Technology plus Fashion. In worlds where tech is driving innovation around industries, being near those industries accelerates innovation and growth.”

To Rosenbaum’s list of hyphenates, I would add sports, hospitality, music, art, politics (both geo- and municipal), and tourism. That’s a big list of big industries, and if you’re building something to play in any of them, there’s no better place to be than NYC.



[i] Actual bugs being a rare exception. They aren’t features, just bugs.

[ii] A parallel to modern New York City if ever there was one

[iii]Happy to prove this IRL: [email protected]

[iv]And by “real people,” I mean “non-tech people”

[v] Cars might just be the ultimate increaser of social distance; public transit the ultimate decreaser. The subway sucks on a hot summer day, but it’s still a feature, not a bug.



This article is commissioned by Qualcomm Incorporated. The views expressed are the author's own 


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