14 Nov What If We Cut Our Own Path?
What if we didn’t spend so much time trying to be the next Silicon Valley? I have lived in both places, and if Wisconsin’s technology roadmap is to become a Midwest carbon copy of Silicon Valley, we should save ourselves the frustration. The cultural differences in business, labor and general population are so vast that we could spend the next century trying to copy their formula and still not come close. If it’s true that the only way for Wisconsin to prosper as a high-tech player is to accept the fact that we must create competitive businesses willing to share confidential information with each other, encourage our employees to change jobs every 18 months and magically find a bazillion dollars in venture capital, we’re sunk before we start.
What if we didn’t use the words Valley or Corridor to market our area? I travel frequently to most major and many second- and third-tier technology areas in the United States. Without exception, each area is marketed as the “Something” Valley or the “Something” Corridor. It’s hard to find a group of three cities in proximity to each other that doesn’t use Valley or Corridor these days whether they have any high-tech industry or not. While the need to gain mind share by creating a marketing image is important, using the same approach as everyone else is questionable. “Us too”, doesn’t seem like a great way to differentiate ourselves.
One Size Doesn’t Fit All
What if we didn’t act like the many professional sports teams that model themselves each year after the previous years’ world champion, usually with poor results? Much of the United States (and the world) has been trying to model Silicon Valley mostly with the same results as copycat sports teams. Don’t get me wrong; Silicon Valley has done a fabulous job of finding a formula that works for it. It’s arguably the crown jewel of business in the history of the United States, hence the reason everyone wants to know how they did it and tries to copy their success. As with most things in life however, one size does not fit all.
What if Wisconsin didn’t tear down its strengths just to find out that being a wannabe wasn’t necessarily the best route after all. Employees who like stability, who like to grow their careers within one company shouldn’t be seen as something to be discarded only to find out later that employee turnover is a big reason many Silicon Valley-based companies expand elsewhere or even fail. Trying to quickly force fit a highflying entrepreneurial culture upon an area that has traditionally grown through more conservative business practices will only frustrate everyone involved.
What if we made a real commitment to education in Wisconsin? I mean a real commitment. Yes, we have a fine base to start from. Our high school SAT scores are the envy of the country and our university system is something to be proud of. But we’re fooling ourselves if we think the technology cluster idea can work throughout Wisconsin without each region having a college or university that can offer research and development and post graduate degrees in that particular regions area of expertise. If there’s one area we should mimic California, it’s in the number of schools that offer postgraduate degrees. True, this would be a huge upfront investment by the citizens of this state, but one that’s absolutely required if we really want to create a Wisconsin that stands out from the pack in the creation of high-paying technology jobs.
What if the state government saw its role as a facilitator for setting up events that bring technologists together from our many companies and our universities and colleges? In a recent article, John Byrnes of Mason Wells suggests that the best way to jump start new business ideas is to get the technology people together. I couldn’t agree more. It sounds almost too simple, but networking is the most powerful economic development tool we now posses. Introduce our best and brightest to each other then stand back and watch all the “what if we…?” discussions that would flourish.
What if we set our own path, playing to our own strengths, and branding ourselves in creative ways?
What if Wisconsin ended up being a state others would want to copy two decades from now?
Jeff West is President and Founder of Silicon Logic Engineering, a chip (ASIC) design company located in Eau Claire, WI. Jeff can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.