The Rise of a Tech Metropolis: From San Francisco to Seattle

Last week I visited Seattle to report on a video game tournament. The prize pool was an astonishing 10 million dollars, enough to turn a gamer into a career athlete. I enjoy my video games as much as the next guy, but what caught my attention was the city itself. It reminded me of a younger San Francisco. As I wrote this editorial, my thoughts drifted away from technology and towards the juxtaposition of these two tech metropolises.

Up until the mid 00’s, Seattle was home to the world’s foremost technology company, Microsoft. Located a dozen miles outside of city limits, this PC goliath has had a significant influence on the Puget Sound economy, much like Google upon the Bay Area. It's common to see talented employees leave their corporate jobs to build something original, but they never forget the experiences, cultures, and skill sets that their prior employers instilled upon them. You can bet half of San Francisco’s techies have a year at Apple or Facebook stamped onto their resumes.

Seattle is no exception; Gabe Newell, the Microsoft veteran who founded Valve Software, is a prime example. Valve hosted the aforementioned tournament, and made a minimum of 50 million dollars in receipts.

The 10 million dollar prize pool was largely fan sponsored. When gamers purchased an annual virtual compendium, 25% of the sale price was added to the championship prize pool. Compendium sales revenued 40 million dollars. In addition, Valve sold out Key Arena, 17,000 tickets starting at $100 dollars each, for their 4-day tournament. Furthermore, most attendees left this annual event with souvenirs. My friends waited three hours - yes, three hours - to buy $12 collectible plushies and $30 action figures.

Seattle’s sprawling video game industry is an absolute powerhouse. Excluding Valve, firms include Nintendo of America, Bungie, Arenanet, Big Fish, and PopCap. Seattle is also home to an array of traditional tech companies, including Amazon, Classmates, Redfin, Expedia, and Tableau, just to name a few.

San Francisco’s game industry, specifically mobile applications, still reigns supreme in scale, revenue, and profit, but quality is an arbitrary term. The juxtaposition is intuitive, mobile and Internet games descend from Apple and Google, while PC games arise from Microsoft.

Furthermore, divergent cultures has greatly influenced the two regions, albeit for better or for worse. San Francisco has a dired mindset of optimizing towards some apparent maximum. When we drove from Seattle to Lynwood, my friend opened Google Maps without considering our context or setting, and to no one's surprise, Google suggested that we take the massively overcrowded highway at peak rush hours. “Google figured it out, it inputs all the data and calculates the best way,” said a friend. San Francisco believes that there is an optimum for any situation, but can we say the same for life outside of a computer screen? Furthermore, if everyone takes the same path from point A to point B, is it the best or the most popular?

As Seattle’s tech industry continues to grow, so will the metropolitan that harbors it. Seattle has a spark that I find wanton in the Bay Area. It seems like Sergei, Larry, Mark, and Steve have already accomplished all the major technological breakthroughs, and our current industry focuses on optimizing the pie before it finishes baking. Maybe it’s just Economics; profits spur competition, and competition optimizes the market towards competitive equilibrium.

Though, I still feel that something is awry. If these two cities were in a bike race, San Francisco would be the athlete riding the custom built bike, wearing the spandex suit, and capping himself with the crazy wind-shearing helmet. Seattle installs an engine, and finishes the race on a motorbike.

Over my career as an editor, I’ve met many startups that were simply unoriginal. Many of these ‘tech’ entrepreneurs started ventures without offering anything genuine. To succeed, you can’t just have 'drive'; you need to introduce products that significantly change how people and businesses interact. I was watching Parks & Recreations the other day, and I remember Amy Poehler bargaining with some 20-year-old San Franciscan tech billionaire. His startup built “the cloud for your cloud,” and instead of declining Amy’s offer with a “No thanks”, he replied with “Nah, bro.” Is that how Middle America sees San Francisco?

San Francisco’s technology industry reminds me of New York’s financial industry in the 80’s. Except in SF, hookers and coke are replaced with EDM and molly. San Francisco is vibrant, but it’s also dirty, like the Gilded Age of a century and a half past. Poverty is acutely prevalent, especially outside of the Soma bubble. As millionaires are made daily, the cost of living continues to rise for the poorest of our citizens. But who cares about money, when you make 75k right out of college.

Am I blaming anyone specifically? Not really, I’m just citing the growth and evolution of our city. Is Seattle the next San Francisco, I honestly believe so. In fact, it distinctly reminds me of the vibe that San Francisco protruded in the late 90’s before the tech boom.

Seattle is beautifully situated between two bodies of water. The weather is cloudy, with a hint of rain, but the sunny summer days are an absolute delight, much like San Francisco. The city itself is an amazing place to live, and their tech industry upholds globally recognized giants that rival their San Franciscan counterparts. After walking by the lake on a Friday evening and playing a few licks on the public pianos, I seriously contemplated abandoning my life in SF and moving up North.

Soon, reality set in and I realized that my life in San Francisco wasn’t serene at all; it was wild, vibrant, and courageous, a key attribute that Seattle lacked. Courage is an odd word, but it distinctly describes the millions of individuals who strive to build a better life in our city. Even in the face of abnormal discouragement, we keep a smile on our lips and a determination in our hearts. I never felt that courage in Puget Sound.

San Franciscans like me are willing to barely scrape a living because we believe in what we are building. It’s courage to shoot for the stars when you can barely pay rent on your bedroom on a 6-person flat. It’s courage to leave your life behind and move to the city with a few hundred bucks and an idea. It’s courage that built the empire that is San Francisco.

I love SF; I might be critical of our city, but it’s the only place where I feel at home. Seattle’s growing, but she hasn’t found her inner courage. Her citizens are just living their lives, not changing the world. The previous sentence can be said of San Francisco a few decades ago, but look at us now. I have no doubt that Seattle will become another tech metropolis within two decades.

Cities, businesses, and lives all follow similar patterns. We start as youthful juveniles desperately trying to etch our mark on this world. Yet, every dent and scratch we make, we're overshadowed by the millions before us. As we mature, we discover that our hard work wasn’t for naught, but solidified the foundations of our future. When we're finally recognized for our efforts, we're flooded with such acknowledgement that we're dumbstruck by the opulence. Our envies of the past become the vices of the present. As the hype of newfound pleasures fade, our interests return to the life that we attempted to build. We remember the years of unacknowledged work, and the courage that kept us going. And for some, we find ourselves enraptured by the past and cease the creation of the new. But for many, its only the starting point for the life before us.

I ended my trip chatting with an old friend by the Puget Sound. The moment was serene and optimistic; two words that fondly describe Seattle.

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