NorCal vs. Nashville

I'm cheating a bit today. I've been fermenting an overview of the contrasts I've experienced between NorCal and Nashville. So today I'm posting what I have so far. Comments/suggestions/edits encouraged!

A Year in Nashville

I've just celebrated my first year in Nashville after
20 years on the West Coast, most of them in Silicon Valley and I’ve paused to
reflect on the contrast I’ve seen and experienced. But first, a disclosure.
Raised in Alabama and a graduate of Owen, I didn't move here because it was
best for my career or me. I moved here because it is best for my family. I
usually tell people "there was a reason I left the South." 

But I did move here willingly. I made a list of cities
to consider that are close to family and, in the end, there was only one city
on the list. Nashville has all the ingredients for business growth success:
ease of networking, money, education, airport, and creativity. The last is
probably the most important to me. The media industry (can't call it just the
music industry anymore) draws creative people from the corners of the world and
deposits them into a cauldron of competition. They often emerge (or are
ejected) from this cauldron and find ways to make a living outside of media[1]. It is common
to meet a dynamic company where someone in leadership has roots in, or
connections to, media. In my experience, creativity is crucial to uncovering
and executing new business models. Another important influence from the media
industry is that its expats are usually comfortable with income that doesn't
come from a bi-weekly paycheck. 

Moving backwards in my list of five advantages is the
airport. While BNA is not considered a main airport or hub, it does give
businesses the ability to fly almost anywhere (except for the Bay Area) in one
flight. Other entrepreneurial southern cities just can't compete except for
Atlanta, Dallas and Charlotte. Southwest is dominant, and I love the story
behind Capital Confirmation's growth – that they simply expanded to wherever
Southwest flew direct. This allowed them to cost-effectively meet and greet
in-person to build partnerships and business. This is a huge advantage for
frugal startups. And as tourism continues to grow, the airport is only going to
add more flights.

Education is significant but mostly a qualifier, not a
place where Nashville leads. I might get some flack for that statement, but
Nashville schools aren't seen as national players except for Vanderbilt. Even Vanderbilt
struggles with recognition on the west coast, with many folks assuming that
Vanderbilt is somewhere on the Eastern seaboard, not smack dab in the middle of
the South. Retaining the best and the brightest will remain a challenge and I
don’t think Nashville will win many younger folks, but as the media industry
has shown, if a city has similar strengths and a lower cost of living, it will
continue to attract competent professionals regardless of age that are looking
for a higher quality of life.

Money is here in spades due to many medium and big
company liquidity events. Unfortunately, the experience range of this money is
fairly small. This has been discussed in many articles over the past year, and
Nashville needs to get more and larger liquidity events from businesses outside
of healthcare to help diversify the knowledge of local investors. As the
venture funding world changes (crowd funding, angel networks), the
concentration and diversity of capital may not be as important as it was in the
past. However, what is ignored the most in this subject is that money with
knowledge is far superior to money without knowledge. Arguably, the most
important function that VCs play is in advice and networking to help a small
company get around the obstacles that constantly get in the way of success.

Nashville is growing in experience and does have an
advantage in knowledge sharing. The friendly South is key to the openness of
networking and sharing that exists here, witnessed by the mentoring that occurs
at the Entrepreneur Center, JumpStart Foundry, EO and many other formal and
informal ways. When I relocated here, I was seeded with some great first
contacts. In the span of three months, these turned into over 150 face-to-face
meetings with investors, CEOs, technologists, connectors, businesspeople, and
marketers. That would have been hard to do in the Bay Area! One interesting
difference is that in the valley, 80% of my meetings would be in the evening
after work over drinks. Here in Nashville, I think I had two out of 150 that
occurred after 5:00pm. Family time is important here and it shows. The
willingness of the community to help and invest time into new people is a
critically important trait for our ecosystem and can never be underestimated.

Where is Nashville challenged? Well, other than
weather, my opinion is that the biggest weakness is a fear of diversity here.
One of the things that makes Northern California such a dynamic place is the
diversity of thought, lifestyle, ethnicity, and experience. In my 20 years on
the west coast, I had around 10 different bosses. Only two were white American
males. I think that would be hard to duplicate here. I'm used to being a
minority as a white male and actually find it strange to be back in a virtual
monoculture. Here’s data from my networking to illustrate: Of my 193 initial
contacts, 86% were white males, 1% black males, 13% white females. To be sure,
the younger crowd is certainly following the demographic trends and embracing
more diversity, and over time Nashville will become more mixed and accepting of
differences. Ideas will be bigger, execution will be more efficient, and
companies will grow faster in their higher relevance to the rest of this world.

Another challenge is the double-edged sword of
lifestyle. Yes, Nashville has a wonderful work/life balance. Yes, I'm sure that
there are also plenty of people that put in 60-80 hour work weeks. But what I
continually bump up against is the acceptance of a casual pace of change. I
love that rush hour here in Nashville is just that – one hour. But it is also
hard for me to find people that are striving to be better tomorrow than they
are today, challenging themselves to learning a new industry, make a new
friend, or run one more mile. I know, it's the South and slowness is a positive
trait in the eyes of many. And I'm not sure that anyone wants it to be another
NYC or Silicon Valley. But I would like to see more passion for excellence and
a tolerance for visions that seem impossible to achieve. People like that are
the folks that have influenced me over the years and I miss having more of them
here.

A final thought is cost of living. Yes, the statistics
state that Nashville is cheaper than the valley by 30-40%. However, in
practical real terms, my family probably has a cost of living that is around
15% lower than California while the salaries are around 30% less. In looking at
cost of living calculations, they assume that median house prices are
representative of how you live. In my example, that was a bad assumption. So
from a sample size of one, I can state that cost of living adjusted for earning
power is actually higher in Nashville. I state this not to dispute that
Nashville is cheaper, but rather to hopefully stop people thinking that the
main reason to move here is cost of living. It's not. The other advantages (and
the future growth/direction) are more than enough for Nashville to continue to
attract passionate, driven, and talented professionals that want to wake up
every morning and do something that's never been done before. Onwards and
upwards! 


[1]
Echoed by Richard Florida at the Nashville Chamber of Commerce Annual Meeting
9/20/13.


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Categories: Deep Thoughts

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