I’ve kept my mouth shut on whether the Triangle would or should land Amazon HQ2 since the day the possibility was announced. If you had asked me, I would have told you: Not likely, not a fan. But like most people, I didn’t want to be the singular tin-foil-hat-wearing idiot ranting about how we don’t need 50,000 jobs and zillions of tax dollars.
I love this place as much as you do. I want to see good things happen. I just didn’t believe Amazon opening up a second shop here was the kind of windfall it was cracked up to be.
There were a ton of issues that most people who weren’t keen on the idea brought up over and over — and you could plant your flag on any one of them and I wouldn’t argue with you. Amazon would bring too many people, too much traffic, too much pressure on real estate, schools, and other chunks of infrastructure we’re already struggling with. That wasn’t my concern so much. The concern I had, and one that really doesn’t change now that we know where Amazon HQ2 will indeed be, is that it would have set our startup growth progress back a few years.
I’ll say “a few years” because I can’t put an exact number on it. Maybe a year, maybe five, maybe more. I don’t have the data, mostly because every startup infrastructure grows and retracts in a different pattern, for different causes and reasons. It’s hard to weigh the benefit of another big player moving in to provide some credibility and a soft landing spot against the cost of that player sucking up all the oxygen in the area. Once IBM snapped up homegrown Red Hat, the math got even trickier.
But I do know it would have been some kind of setback, because if we’re going to die on the hill of the Triangle being a technical, innovation-focused, and entrepreneurism-fueled wonderland, we’ve got to build it from the inside and from the ground up.
My top concern was all the talent in the area would immediately have a new benchmark to negotiate against. If you’re a startup and you’re going to survive here, you’ve got to do two things. 1) Build and sell a product on more than hype and 2) Find more than a couple needles-in-a-haystack for your tech team.
The latter means hiring solid, up-and-coming developers that aren’t in it for the money, the glory, and the prestige that can be found elsewhere, even right next door when the next big thing starts to look just a little sexier than the last big thing. And by the way, we’re still bleeding talent to the West Coast, D.C., New York, and even Colorado and Texas. That hasn’t stopped.
Having another player in our backyard who could pay more than top dollar for top developers plus all the incentives of working for a known entity like Amazon plus the ridiculous churn rate at a place like Amazon means the rest of us get even shorter runways.
The former means the goalposts would not have moved. Having Amazon here makes it no more likely that our startups get the attention, the funding, and the connections that they need to get over a growth bar that’s higher here than with other startup hubs. We don’t get investors writing checks for tens of millions of dollars off ideas and glitter. We’re customer-first, revenue-first, survive now and dream later.
No shortcuts to promised land
So even if we do have the technical talent to change games and disrupt markets, we need the leadership, the operations, and the sales and marketing talent to put our products in the hands of enough customers to attract enough of that attention and investment to get over the higher hurdles in the growth stage.
It’s been five years since I sold ExitEvent. I think we’ve made huge strides on the technical and the product side since then. And I know that five years ago, the tail end and exit on my ride with Automated Insights would not have been possible here, let alone the rise of stellar companies like Pendo and FilterEasy and about a dozen others that are clearing those growth-stage hurdles.
There was no Amazon or Apple acting as a catalyst to make those great things happen. It was all homegrown. But I feel like the last year, as this where-will-they-land drama has swirled, we’ve kind of taken our foot off the accelerator while waiting to see if we’ll become Amazontown or Appleville when we really should be putting our focus into figuring out who the next Pendo and FilterEasy are and what we need to be doing to get them there.
When I left Automated Insights last year, I could have uprooted. Google still calls me every three months to check in. But I went to Spiffy, because it’s here, it’s our story with our talent (CEO Scot Wingo), we’ve got incredible haystack needles, and it’s a chance to build the type of company here that we haven’t built yet.
Now that Amazon has left us hanging, instead of turning to Apple, let’s look at our next 10 Pendos, and the 10 after that, and give a boost to that cycle of start-to-success-to-start so that our own homegrown companies can someday look to other cities to drop their own HQ2s.
On our terms.