Moving my tech startup from Silicon Valley to DC was the best decision I made, and I'm convinced more founders should try it
- When TransitScreen CEO and co-founder Matt Caywood had to decide where the startup would be permanently located, DC was not a difficult choice.
- All of the talent that a Silicon Valley company might have to pay to relocate was already there. DC was already of a model for the transit technology they were creating.
- In DC, TransitScreen was able to pitch then-President Obama.
- More tech companies should consider the benefits of branching out from Silicon Valley.
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Silicon Valley is like a casino for startups, run by venture capitalists. There's a certain kind of high-growth startup that needs to put all its chips on the table in a high-risk gamble. Sometimes those startups win, often they lose, but over the long run, the house (VCs) always wins.
But Silicon Valley doesn't have to be the only option for entrepreneurs looking to make a splash - cities like Boston, Atlanta, and Washington, DC are quickly becoming go-to destinations for new tech companies. There are numerous advantages to choosing a headquarters location outside the valley, and few costs.When I founded TransitScreen, a tech startup providing real-time information about nearby transportation options, we had to decide where our headquarters would be. At the time, I was already living in DC and working in neighboring Northern Virginia. The project that would become TransitScreen was originally formed at MobilityLab, a government research center in Arlington, VA.
Once I met my cofounder, Ryan Croft, and turned the idea from a side project into a full-fledged company, we had to confront the specter of Silicon Valley. We discussed whether it made sense to move the company's operations to the Bay Area, and Ryan even relocated to San Francisco to test drive the experience. For almost two years, we operated bicoastally, with Ryan, another early executive, and a handful of developers in San Francisco, and myself and a few others in DC.
Eventually, however, we had to decide between the two, and the decision wasn't nearly as hard as one might expect. For a number of reasons, it had to be DC.
The people and resources we needed were all already in DC
First, my cofounder and I never would have met if not for the extremely strong local tech startup scene. The DC tech community is well-knit, hosting regular events for budding entrepreneurs and existing companies alike. There's a strong talent pool, often coming from a larger variety of backgrounds than one might find elsewhere. Want to find someone who can sell or write code? We've got them. Need a team member with international experience in a key customer industry? In Silicon Valley, you might have to pay that person to relocate. In DC, they're all here.
The city itself has been a huge contributor to our success. We started at 1776, an incubator providing access to plenty of investors, advisors, and important networking events. I even had the opportunity to meet then-President Obama and pitch him TransitScreen - something that would not have happened on the West Coast. And DC is a globally oriented city with endless international connections; we've had the privilege of accompanying DC's Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development (DMPED) on several trade missions, expanding our footprint across the world.Additionally, though, it made even more sense given our industry - transportation. We provide real-time information about mobility options, and our product is designed for cities with a multitude of options. DC's metro system has the second highest ridership in the United States, there are a dozen nearby transit agencies that also serve the city, not to mention we have one of the most successful bikeshare systems in the country and a half dozen e-scooter operators. This local culture of transportation innovation is paralleled by innovation in the hospitality, education, biotech, and cybersecurity sectors, completely rounding out The District in terms of technology innovation.
So while Silicon Valley may be the default choice for tech startups, more and more companies like ours should opt out. Cities like DC are home to numerous companies that have succeeded over the last few years, and continue to excel thanks to customers, revenue, smart policy hacks, and support from the city and the rest of the startup community.
Just like Amazon noticed when they selected the DC region for HQ2, there's plenty of talent outside Silicon Valley, coming from universities, the federal sector, and coding academies. Our workforce is more diverse than many other cities, another strength. And there's even public transit that gets them to their jobs; none of our employees have to drive to work, which would be inconceivable in Silicon Valley. If you're thinking about which city your new idea should call home, consider some outside-the-box options. You'll be glad you did.
Matt Caywood is CEO and co-founder of Washington, DC-based TransitScreen. Matt has a PhD in neuroscience from the University of California San Francisco, and degrees in neuroscience and computer science from Cambridge and Harvard. Matt is a frequent speaker on open data, sustainability, transportation and neuroscience, including at Harvard, MIT, Northwestern University, the World Bank, Dubai RTA, Consumer Electronics Show (CES), and Transportation Research Board (TRB).