Can a Startup Thrive Outside of SF or NYC?
A couple of months ago, I was speaking at an entrepreneurship event in New York City. The emcee’s introduction went something like this: “Hi everyone! I’m excited to introduce you to our next speaker. This is Jody Porowski, the founder and CEO of Avelist. She came to us all the way from [pause for dramatic effect] North Carolina.”
The crowd looked intrigued—or maybe confused—and I felt obligated to start my speech with a classic “Hey y’all” to live up to their expectations.
Avelist is an internet consumer company, so I’m pretty used to being asked if I’ve thought about moving to Silicon Valley or NYC. And while the question might be getting a little redundant, I honestly don’t blame people for asking. Actors head to Hollywood. Country singers head to Nashville. And internet entrepreneurs head to, well, not typically North Carolina.
Uncovering the Decision Making Formula
But yes, in answer to the question, I have thought about moving to Silicon Valley. And NYC, too. I’ve thought about it a lot. So why did I, after much analysis, decide to base my company in a more unconventional location? I’ll tell you, but I have to start by explaining my approach to entrepreneurial decision-making in general.
1. Be Honest
Be honest with yourself about the reality of your company. Brutally honest. Take off the blinders, throw away the vanity metrics, remove the emotions, and get rid of the excuses. Call a spade a spade.
2. Weigh the Pros and Cons
It isn’t until you’re honest with yourself and honest about the realities of your company that you’re accurately able to weigh the pros and cons of a decision.
3. Maximize the Pros and Compensate for the Cons
I firmly believe that the purpose of a pro-con list is not only to help you make a decision; it’s also to help you move forward wisely and intelligently after the decision is made.
4. Be Flexible
After you make a decision, you should act on it with the confidence that comes from firm conviction. But as time moves on, don’t be afraid to re-open a closed chapter. Things change quickly in a startup environment. And when context changes or when new information emerges, a good leader reroutes.
How I Applied the Formula
1. I Was Real With Myself About the Unique Needs of the Company
Before starting Avelist, my co-founder and I were both working at large technology companies in the Triangle area (Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill) of North Carolina. When we decided to take the leap and pursue Avelist full-time, there were plenty of people who told me we should move, and there were lots of people who told me we should stay.
But at end of the day, after talking to all those people, I realized the truth: I don’t know everything, but I do know my company, and I know it better than anyone else. Not only am I responsible for deciding where to locate my company, but I’m also the best person to make the decision.
2. I Determined the Pros and Cons of Being in NC
The main ones being:
Pro: The Quality of Life
The Triangle boasts very a high quality of life for a reasonably low cost. It’s frequently ranked one of the best places to live and work in the country. Low cost of living also means low operational costs for my company, especially when our main cost is employee salaries.
Pro: There’s Lots of (Tech) Talent
With so many universities and corporations, there’s a ton of talent (including tech talent), but there aren’t as many startups—so NC startups don’t end up competing for local talent in the same way that they would in Silicon Valley.
Pro: It’s Startup Friendly
The Triangle is also very business friendly and consistently ranked a Top 10 place for entrepreneurs.
Pro: The Healthy Team Dynamics
Starting a company is a grueling process. After talking with my team, I realized that being in a familiar and supportive environment with friends and family would help everyone handle the stress and navigate the challenges of starting a company.
Con: A Lack of Industry Expertise
I’m a huge believer in mentorship and learning from other people. While tech companies thrive in the Triangle, most are B2B. Investors, entrepreneurs, and advisors who understand internet consumer brands (or who are willing to play that game) are few and far between.
Con: A Lack of National Media
Sure, anyone in any state can send a press release or email a reporter, but there’s something to be said for being in a place where physically crossing paths (and having shared connections) with a national reporter is just more likely.
When it came down to it, after weighing the pros and cons, I decided to stay in North Carolina. The biggest con was the lack of industry expertise in the area, and the biggest pro was the fact that it was the best location for my team. In my heart of hearts, I believe that a team makes or breaks a startup. When you find people who are talented, who believe in the mission of your company, who are willing to work insanely hard, who take reduced salaries, who deal well with the ups and downs of startup life, and who truly love working together, it’s a magical and irreplaceable thing. I realized that staying in North Carolina would be best for our team and, therefore, would be best for Avelist.
3. I Came Up With a Plan to Overcome the Cons
Once I decided to base my company in North Carolina, it was my job to figure out how to strengthen the company against the cons. Since then, I’ve learned how to network long-distance. I talk on the phone a lot, I’m really active on social media, and I stalk a ton of blogs. Yay internet!
I also book full weeks at a time in cities like NYC where I line my days with back-to-back meetings. I usually time my travel weeks with conferences and events that I want to attend. When I meet people traveling, I stay in touch, form relationships, and let them introduce me to other people next time I’m in the city. Being a startup (read: poor), I afford the travel expenses by booking inconvenient flights and getting work done during layovers. I crash on friends’ couches and eat lots of granola bars. It hasn’t necessarily been easy, but I’ve found a way to make it work.
As entrepreneurs we face decisions every day—big ones and small ones, hard ones and easy ones. Over time I’ve learned that most decisions aren’t black and white. Maybe success doesn’t come from always choosing the “correct” decision. Maybe the secret to success is effectively managing the cons of whatever decision we make.
4. I’m Keeping an Open Mind
At this point, my long-distance relationship with internet consumer tech hubs is working. I’m comfortable with where our company is located, and I’m confident that it’s the right decision for us in this moment. But if there comes a point in time when the facts change, I’m open to some serious reevaluation. Until then, here we stay and onward we go!
If you’re stressing about your startup’s location, I encourage you to simply be honest with yourself about the unique realities of your situation. Every company is different. Make the best decision you can given the information you have today, and know that you can always reevaluate in the future.
Photo of U.S. map courtesy of Shutterstock.
Jody loves anything that has to do with people, business, and technology. With these passions (and perhaps the fact that her parents are a psychologist and a counselor) it only makes sense that Jody manages Coach Connect at The Muse. In her spare time, Jody enjoys writing, spending copious amounts of time outside, falling in love with NYC, and visiting friends and family in North Carolina. (Go Heels!)More from this Author