Starting a tech company in Silicon Valley, or in the San Francisco Bay Area more broadly, can be a great move. It gives you access to talent and capital and connects you to an ecosystem of people who value innovation and understand the challenges of running a startup.
Operating out of the Bay Area also comes with some serious risks and drawbacks. Plenty of ink has already been spilled on the subject, and as a serial entrepreneur who has worked here for over 20 years, I certainly have plenty of my own opinions on the matter. But today I want to focus on one specific issue that is particularly relevant for ed-tech startups.
The Valley Is Not the World
The Bay Area has a certain “cultural gravity well” and it can suck you in if you’re not careful. There is such an unusually high concentration here of both technology professionals and early adopters that it fundamentally alters many baseline assumptions. Employees, employers, customers, users — they are all different here than they are in almost any other part of the US. They’re often more acclimated to technology, savvier in its use, and more likely to try new things.
At the same time, the Bay Area is also a place of breathtaking economic disparity. In some places, you can clearly see the contrast within a span of just 50 feet. This is one of the wealthiest regions in the world, and yet large groups of residents struggle to make ends meet. Notably, most tech workers don’t live in these disadvantaged communities. And the economic and geographic structure of the Valley makes it shamefully easy to ignore and hide from this reality.
Live or work here long enough, and it’s all too easy to forget that none of this is normal.
Losing perspective like that can have real consequences when you’re building a product, particularly if it’s in the ed-tech space. Just to pick one example, you might end up designing something that requires an expensive device or relies on continuous broadband connectivity. While your average Palo Alto resident wouldn’t bat an eye at such requirements, someone just across the road in East Palo Alto might feel differently.
Applied to education, this means you might find yourself inadvertently designing for privilege instead of for access and equity, and in doing so close your product off from the people who might benefit from it the most.
To put it more generally, living inside the Bay Area bubble can blind you to real-world problems that you and your product may face in other geographies. I’ve been in this spot myself with a prior startup I co-founded and can report first-hand that reality eventually always comes knocking, and the reckoning always hurts.
Escape the Bubble
So what’s a Silicon Valley founder to do? The most important step you can take to escape the bubble is the most obvious one, and yet it requires commitment, intention, and focus.
You have to get out of the Bay Area.
Now, to be clear: I’m not saying to pack up and move your company. And I’m not saying that you shouldn’t do user research or beta testing in the Bay Area. I’d be a hypocrite if I suggested any of those things. After all, I live here and my company is based here. I’ve personally done quite a bit of testing here. I’ve worked hard to build strong, meaningful relationships with a number of educators in this area. I value these relationships, and I’m sure that StoriumEdu’s journey would have been a much harder one without them.
The Bay Area should not be your only test market. And ideally, it shouldn’t be your first market.
This is a simple statement to make but an altogether different thing to act upon. It means making a point of seeking out and cultivating relationships with teachers in other parts of the country (or the world, if you plan to launch internationally), but it also means doing it early, ideally while you’re still defining and developing your product. At the very latest, when your MVP is ready for testing. Wait much longer than that and you risk baking too many Bay Area assumptions into your product.
Taking my advice will make things harder. It may even slow you down. It may be tempting to just rely on local contacts and testers for your feedback. Resist that temptation, set your sights beyond the East Bay hills, and build something that helps students everywhere, not just those who happen to live in our bubble (lovely though it may be).
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