Why Philly Will Never Be a Start-up Hub

This city doesn't have the personality.

Last weekend was Startup Weekend in Philly, and no offense to the great companies who competed (and to voxx.io, the winner of the competition), but I’m not sure many people noticed. I’m not surprised. Vanity Fair released its list of 50 visionaries recently, and no one from the area was on it. The occasional article runs about the Philly start-up scene but never creates much of a stir. People continue to try and create a buzz that we’re a start-up hub.

We’re not.

In a recent promotion, the City of Philadelphia informed us that CyberCoders (umm … who?) ranked Philadelphia as having the “third largest growth of tech jobs,” and that companies like “InviteMedia (was) sold to Google in 2010 (for) $81M.” Really? That’s all you got? I’m pretty sure that Google misplaced $81 million in petty cash during the time that I was writing this post. And be careful when you see numbers about employment growth: For example, a 50 percent growth in tech jobs may be nice, unless you started with 100 tech jobs.

But let’s face it: Even though we’ve seen many young people move into town and lots of new businesses start up over the past few years, we’re not even on the radar screen as an entrepreneurial hub. Sure, the odd survey may pick us up as a great place for start-ups, but we’re never going to be like San Francisco or New York. We’re never going to rank among the world’s best start-up cities.

It’s certainly not for lack of trying. Drexel and Penn’s Wharton School have been expanding their efforts to promote entrepreneurship, including by investing in promising technologies. Angel investors like Gabe Weinberg and Josh Kopelman have recently committed themselves to the city. Great blogs like Technically Philly (which I read every day and strongly recommend to anyone involved in our tech scene) cover all the activity in the start-up, entrepreneurship and investment communities. There are tons of meet-ups for entrepreneurs.

There are local resources like SeedPhilly. There are a handful of great Small Business Development Centers, like the ones at Wharton and Temple. There are free mentoring and workshops available at the Philadelphia office of SCORE. You can get backing for loans and apply for grants at our local Small Business Administration office. The University City Science Center is one of many incubators for young companies.

We’re midway between New York and D.C. and only six hours from Boston (four-and-a-half if I’m driving). There are a half-dozen major airports within two hours and a busy network of rail and busses. The cost of living here is so much lower that a handful of my neighbors actually commute into New York every day. In addition to Penn grads, the city is inundated with smart students from great colleges like Villanova, St. Joe’s, Temple, Drexel, Haverford, Bryn Mawr, etc.

And yet we are not a start-up center. We are not an entrepreneurial hub. We will never be either. We had our chance to be a real player on the world scene but we blew it back in 1800. Why is this? Why do I not think that Philadelphia will ever become a world-class city for start-ups and entrepreneurs?

This city does not have that personality.

Start-ups that change the world and create billions of dollars of wealth are created by young, hyper, edgy, manic geniuses who stay up all night hacking into computers at the Department of Defense, or developing new drugs to make themselves even more hyper and manic. These people want to flock to a city with the same personality and be around others with the same personality. They find them in New York and San Francisco. And then the money finds them. Philadelphia is not a city like that. We are a city where people settle to raise their kids, go to soccer games or catch a movie. For every club downtown there are a hundred better ones in Greenwich Village alone. People from other nations, cultures and religions are actually noticed in Philadelphia. If we want hyper, edgy, manic, we can always go to New York.

People with families move here because of the quality of life. The price of rents and real estate in Philadelphia is significantly less than what you’d pay in the Bay Area or Manhattan. Our suburban schools are amazing. The Schuylkill may get jammed up during rush hour, but for the most part, our roads aren’t ranked among the worst. I go in and out of the city without even thinking about it, something I could never consider if I lived in North Jersey or Long Island.

We are kidding ourselves if we think we are on the same entrepreneurial playing field as New York or the Bay Area. Our entire Center City District could fit into a corner of Central Park. Our local venture capitalists and investors may have boxes at the Wells Fargo Center and attend Art Museum fundraisers, but let’s face it: They’re poor cousins to their counterparts on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley. Our most well-known company, Comcast, is doing its best to throw around a little seed capital but they’re an entertainment company, with bigger problems to overcome, like when to fire that guy who created Animal Practice, and what do about their own fiscal cliff when 30 Rock and The Office end.

Of course, Philadelphia should continue to support and foster its start-up community, and the great organizations that are helping entrepreneurs. Every little bit helps. But I don’t think we’re ever going to be a world-class start-up city like New York or San Francisco. And that’s OK. Philadelphia should stop competing with other cities to be a start-up center. We should instead compete with ourselves to be a better place to just … live. Don’t worry, the successful companies will find us then.