Update: This article was originally published for the Houston Chronicle on June 10, 2015.
Be like Mike. The original and greatest mimetic. You can also be like Michael Jordan. Nobody ever said Be like Magic or Be like Malone. It was always about Jordan. Here’s the problem with mimetic techniques. Beneath the feel-good aspirational comparison is a whole lot of hollowness, an empty void where actual value and quality should be, masked by a marketing-friendly image.
Be like Silicon Valley. In the past few days, I’ve witnessed this debate pick up again, about Houston’s constant struggle to compare itself to Silicon Valley. There’s constant desire to frame our challenges and problems in terms of “why aren’t we more like SV?” And, after some thought, all I can ask is “Why?” Why do we settle for mimetics when there’s plenty of quality and talent to stand on its own? You can’t want to be unique AND want to be like Silicon Valley. There’s no having the cake and eating it too.
Settling for surface-level comparisons does everyone in Houston’s startup ecosystem a disservice. It sends the message that their contributions can’t be recognized unless via the lens of another city’s perspectives. It sends the message that their achievements will always be qualified. You’re excellent, but I’ll choose to focus only on how this is like Silicon Valley. This is the best technology that I’ve seen. Did you model it off of [insert Silicon Valley company here]? It’s counterproductive at best, and downright insulting at worst.
This is startup culture’s version of body shaming. Yes, your work and your background are all spectacular, but I’ll choose to focus on superficials. Do you look like a Silicon Valley body type?And hey, if you want to look like the anorexic supermodel, that’s your prerogative. But you also need to accept the baggage that comes with that- the unsustainability, the emptiness, the insecurities. That’s the deal.
As a Rice student, I see and experience this same issue firsthand, when people try to call Rice the “Harvard of the South.” No- there’s no such thing. We’re Rice University, period. We’re the Rice Fighting Owls and John F. Kennedy came to our campus to talk about going to the moon. Trying to be like Harvard has already irrevocably damaged our identity as a student body. Rice has lost so much of that “unconventional wisdom” charm and impishness that makes us Rice. Now, it’s but a hollow marketing phrase that someone gets paid to slap onto promotional materials. That’s what worries me; will the constant struggle to want to look like Silicon Valley irreparably de-culture and devalue Houston’s own greatness?
Houston was recently ranked as the No.8 metro for startup activity in a report by the Kauffman Foundation. Think of our successes like PROS, AlertLogic, and SnapStream, which is used by the Daily Show. It’s not the same industries as Silicon Valley. It doesn’t have the media flash or size of Silicon Valley. But we are growing. We’ve got the Surge Accelerator, and the university accelerators from Rice and University of Houston are in their 3rd year. The Rice Business Plan Competition is the largest graduate-level startup competition in the world. Shark Tank recently came down to Houston for a casting call, the first time in the show’s history.
Of course Houston wants to be an excellent technology hub and a successful startup ecosystem. There’s nothing wrong with wanting that. There is however something wrong with only being able to convey that message by referencing Silicon Valley. There’s nothing wrong with deeper level analysis of how to implement best practices that we can learn from the SV model. There is something wrong with only looking at the surface-level Silicon Valley image, and basing conversations and opinions off of that. Let’s not confuse “be a great startup city” with “be Silicon Valley.”
“Be like Mike” delivered Kobe Bryant. LeBron went and claimed his own throne. Would you rather keep chasing someone else till you break down, or would you rather be the King?