Here’s How David Bookspan and Wil Reynolds Grade Philly’s Tech Scene

The founders gave an honest review at Thinkfest on Thursday.

David Bookspan, Wil Reynolds and Richard Vague at Thinkfest 2017.

A lot can be said about how far Philly’s tech scene has come in the last decade or even in just the last five years. The industry is at a tipping point some have argued and getting over the hump is going to take some maneuvering. At Thinkfest on Thursday, esteemed local tech leaders Amino Payments founder and executive chairman David Bookspan and Seer Interactive founder Wil Reynolds both slapped grades on Philly’s tech scene to give us their idea of where things stand.

Bookspan gave Philly an “A,” but said that’s just compared to Philadelphia. If you were to compare Philadelphia to San Francisco or New York, “you come up way, way short,” he said. But the city has tremendous opportunity to level up, he added. For example, Philly companies have much room to attract technical talent from nearby hubs like New York. “It might seem counterintuitive but if you find superior technical talent, particularly people who have just started a family, it’s a good sales pitch to say come on down to Philadelphia,” he said, “Come on down and see what you can get for what you’re paying in rent around here and enjoy the restaurant scene, cultural scene and music scene.”

Reynolds agreed with Bookspan’s high mark. “Comparing us to us, looking at 15 years ago to now, it’s night and day,” he said. Back then, there were just four or five tech companies doing something in the scene. But now, there are many options for people to find a company that they can call home.

Moderated by Gabriel Investments managing partner Richard Vague, the conversation also touched on some of Philly’s persistent challenges: a lack of capital and an absence of unicorns.

Investment is down in 2017, Vague acknowledged, nodding to PACT’s recent investment profile on the region. But even so, Bookspan said he’s confident that Philly’s entrepreneurs and founders who are passionate and committed always find a way.

“The bar keeps getting higher for venture investors and it is reflected in the number of startups that do get funded nationally, internationally, and locally,” Bookspan said. But even without investment, some entrepreneurs may find that the investment they didn’t take turns out to be a “serendipitous, great decision.”

To get things moving, Bookspan suggests that existing businesses engage with the startup community because “capital follows momentum, which follows customers,” Bookspan said, emphasizing the idea that established businesses can be the oxygen for local startups as early customers. (One example: Comcast is an early customer for ROAR for Good and MilkCrate.) In contrast, Reynolds pointed out that most of his early customers were in Seattle and California, though launched Seer in Philly.

And as for the never-ending unicorn debate, both Bookspan and Reynolds agreed that a single company could do for Philly what Magic Leap has done for South Florida. The company raised $1.8 billion and managed to put the South Florida tech scene on the map. “Philly needs some more pillared companies,” Reynolds said. “Their early employees can build momentum.”