It’s time to end the “Silicon” branding of startup ecosystems. Let’s start with LA (survey)

By Michael Carney , written on June 20, 2013

From The News Desk

Want to start a contentious debate? Ask 10 members of any startup ecosystem what name their community should use to describe itself. You’re sure to get 15 different answers, few of which will be civil.

It’s a debate that has been raging in Los Angeles for several years involving the polarizing name Silicon Beach. Similar conversations are surely occurring to varying degrees around the plains states’ Silicon Prairie, Portland’s Silicon Forest, Boulder’s Silicon Flatirons, DC’s Silicon Hill, and others, all of which make me want to silicon puke.

I’m not alone – plenty of influential individuals both in LA and in elsewhere agree. New York has notably moved away from “Silicon Alley” the more successful the ecosystem has become. Not a coincidence.

The LA nickname debate got a surge of fresh attention yesterday when a local founder posted to a private Facebook group begging that the community decide on a replacement. I’m not sure the provenance of this particular outburst, but it could be that this week marks the second annual Silicon Beach Fest, LA’s nascent answer to SXSW. Or it could be due to a link I posted earlier in the day to the same group decrying the campaign by a group of real estate investors to rename the Hollywood tech scene “Silicon Strip.” Combined, those two posts generated several dozen likes and comments, a variety of opinions, and generally reinforced that this issue remains unsettled.

For what it’s worth here’s my case against names involving “Silicon _____.”

The name Silicon Valley is a throwback to a time when the region produced actual silicon. It makes no more sense there today, than it does in LA, other than the great legacy that has been built under that “brand.” In fact it’s rare to hear anyone on the ground in the region even uses that phrase, with most instead opting for the Valley, San Francisco, the Bay (Area), the Peninsula, or other more geographically specific names. For any other ecosystem to appropriate the silicon moniker is not only disingenuous, but generally tacky and screaming amateur hour. Its analogous to arguing that any city will be the “next Silicon Valley.”

There will never be “another” Wall Street, which is why London, Singapore, Hong Kong, and even Chicago have never chosen to call themselves “Wall Avenue,” or anything equally banal. Similarly, Hollywood is one of a kind in the world of entertainment, and excluding Bollywood, which is known for its over the top and kitschy style, and Nollywood, which is a den of piracy, no other self-respecting region has claimed similar branding.

As Brad Feld wrote in a rant on this topic last Spring

The startup community in LA isn’t “Silicon Beach.” It’s downtown, Santa Monica, and I’m sure a few other neighborhoods that I don’t know the name of. Brand the neighborhoods locally so the entrepreneurs know where to go, since you want them clustered together. Then brand your city (LA) which should be an easy one. And dump the Silicon Blah.

Mark Suster was equally vocal at the time urging the market to reconsider its branding, writing:

When you think about a brand you need to create a name that will represent the kind of organization or community you want to build. You can either have a functional name (i.e. Instagram) or a nonsense name that doesn’t paint you into any particular corner (Twitter) or even a generic name where you fill in the marketing messages to define that brand (Los Angeles).
There’s an argument to be made that having a single unifying brand can be a net positive for an ecosystem. I vote for skipping the the whole artificial naming bit and sticking with “LA Tech.” If widely adopted, it would have the same unifying effect as proponents of Silicon Beach claim, without the accompanying embarrassment.

Given our broad LA Tech readership (see what I did there?) I’d like to solicit feedback. Other suggestions already offered within the above mentioned Facebook thread include Techwood, Tech Hills, Tech Coast, or Los Tec. In the comments or on Twitter, using the hashtag #nameLAtech, please share your thoughts on the trend of “Silicon” nicknames and on what, if anything you feel the LA startup ecosystem should be named. Please also indicate whether you are a LA local or a member of another startup ecosystem.

LA’s tech ecosystem has grown up dramatically in the last few years. Let’s act like it.

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]