Pando Daily slaps Chicago in the face. Are we going to take it?

March 19, 2012

An open letter to Sarah Lacy, the CEO of Pando Daily.

The team here at Built In Chicago has worked hard over the last year to tell the story of Chicago’s growing digital technology community.  We have been able to show that more than 30,000 people in Chicago are building world-class digital businesses.   We have told the world about the 128 new digital startups created in 2011 and the $1.4 billion in capital that was raised to fuel growth in every part of the ecosystem.  In fact, just last week the Wall Street Journal wrote a story about the recent growth of Chicago’s tech eco system. 

For these reasons it was with great disappointment that I read Trevor Gilbert’s latest blog post about his take on the “midwestern mentality”.  It was with greater disappointment when I saw that you quickly tweeted how his post was an example of why you sent your reporters on the road.  When you started Pando Daily I had hopes that you would have high standards.  Instead, so early in the development of your brand you sent your “entry level kid” (your words, not mine) to our great city and then praised his work that laid bare to even the most casual observer how little insight he seems to have gained during his fourteen days in our city. 

So if you are as you say  “unashamedly part of the startup community” and you “love it and are advocates for the best parts of it” and you will really “call out the worst parts of it”, I would encourage you to read on and tell me if Trevor really captured the essence of the digital startup community in Chicago.  Because I assume that when you say you love the startup community you are not just talking about Silicon Valley but about the larger national and international tech startup community.   I don’t think you want to send a message to Chicago, New York, Boston, Seattle, Austin, Los Angeles, Washington, DC London, Paris, Tokyo or any other growing tech community that the writers of Pando Daily think so little of them that they are willing throw around unsubstantiated insults about our entire community.

For example, do you agree with Trevor when he says that Chicago “is not a city built to house fast scaling products” despite Groupon being one of the fastest growing companies in the history of American business?  Do you stand behind his equally absurd assertion that “no “hot” startup could ever exist in Chicago”?  How do you explain Accel investing $30 million in Braintree and how did GrubHub raise $85 million from Benchmark and other leading venture capitalists?  How did MuSigma just raise $105 million from General Atlantic and Sequoia.  And all of this happened in the last 12 months.  

And when Trevor says it would be shocking to him if a “hot company” with “no revenue model” ever comes out of Chicago does he realize that Twitter actually recruited Dick Costolo, a two time Chicago entrepreneur to help them scale?  Did he know that Dag Kittlaus, the founder & CEO of Siri just moved back to Chicago?

And seriously, Sarah, as a new parent, how can you be ok with Trevor saying “ people here got married too soon” and that “means that the ecosystem can’t rely on the insane work hours of the independent, no responsibilities generation.” Because at the ripe old age of 19, Trevor believes that married people “need to go home at 7 or 8 to spend time with their kids and families”.  Seriously?  As a father of three writing this letter at 10:30pm on Sunday night, I would like to throttle Trevor for a) implying that parents don’t work their asses off juggling a startup and a family and then b) he makes spending time with your kids seem like it is a negative and spells certain doom for tech startups.   And by the way, when Trevor says he has “no recent census data at his finger tips” you might want to tell him he actually does and if he had done a single Google search he would have seen that he was flat wrong.  (the median age of first marriage is 29 in both California and Illinois)

When Trevor makes comments like these it really makes me wonder what he did in the two weeks he was here.  “Instead of working on a startup 24/7, employees take the weekend off and don’t work through the night. It doesn’t help in the creation of amazing technical feats, but it does allow people to have lives.” Seriously?  What is Trevor saying?  Technical breakthroughs are most likely to happen by single people? I wonder if I told him that good reporting is likely to be done by someone who is 29 rather than 19 if he would take offense? 

Trevor seems to feel we are missing the “radicalism” and “intensity” of the Valley.  So he sums it all up with this gem, “The steady life only gets you so far, but in the end, the pragmatism is both Chicago’s greatest asset and its greatest liability. Which really is the entire problem with the Midwest Mentality. Midwesterners have their priorities straight, but nothing generationally disruptive comes out of being conventional.”

Now remember, this “pragmatism” that Trevor says is our greatest liability he defines as figuring out a business model when starting a business.  Seriously Trevor?  Have you drunk the kool aid so completely that you think the reason Silicon Valley is a major tech center is because it is so radical and intense and doesn’t worry about business models?  Doesn’t it make you wonder why Sequoia suggests that a revenue model and pricing is a central part of a business plan?

Perhaps the real reasons for the success of any entrepreneurial ecosystem is the close cooperation of Universities, Venture Capitalists, Serial Entrepreneurs and the larger business and civic communities. We could debate cause and effect, but I am pretty sure that “not having a business model” is not high on the list of reasons that businesses of innovative ecosystems thrive.

Bottom line?  We get Silicon Valley is the big kid on the block.  We admire what you have done and are proud of your successes.  But don't have the hubris to think that other cities and regions can't be centers of innovation and entrepreneurism.  Because they are and frankly in a few years you might find the most unconventional and innovative things are happening outside your corner of the world. 

By the way, we are not the first region that Trevor saw fit to dismiss.