Fuck the Valley, the weather is boring, the bars close too early and they don’t know how to sell.
There are hundreds of well-intentioned, hard working founders on the west coast building world-class technology. But almost invariably you find the whole founding team comes from a technology background. Culture is strong in these businesses, the teams use all the latest tools, the free lunches show up everyday and everyone is having fun writing code and building things. But these founders often all make the same mistakes. They undervalue what they don’t know and they fail to appreciate the intricacies of business. They don’t understand sales, they create products that don’t have a good market fit, and they don’t spend enough time thinking about revenue.
Chicago is on the other end of this spectrum. There is an amazingly diverse set of industry here, but technology doesn’t seem to drive these companies at all; if they do have technology, it merely helps power them. The companies in Chicago value people and structure, and they have departments and processes, layers and rules. The engineers sit in the backroom and marketing or product teams create product specs and a team of delicate project managers ensures shit moves forward. These companies are slow, inflexible and inefficient. In today’s world, those mistakes are fatal and many of these massive companies are failing. World-class products require vision and passion, yet big companies drive products forward by committee and the end result stinks of compromise.
I’ve built a version of that ‘too tech’ company before, and I made all the Valley mistakes. ‘Where I’ve Been’ was Facebook’s fastest growing travel application, we had an awesome team – every day we worked passionately into the night – it was a ton of fun building whatever you wanted and having 10 million people using it. But we didn’t solve a real world problem and you can’t recover from a mistake like that. Ultimately we failed because the fundamentals of the business were not there.
I founded SocialKaty in 2009. They are a marketing agency driven by people and processes, they solve a real world problem. It’s driven by sales, and they live by the financials. It’s a great company with some well known clients, they turn a healthy profit but it’s not going public anytime soon.
Belly is a balanced blend.
We value all the specializations needed to build a massively successful company. Chicago has a wealth of incredible people to fill all those roles, and we have them in every department. We have the best leaders too, driving forward those teams, keeping culture strong and metrics moving up and to the right.
Our approach to technology is much like the Valley. We use the latest tools and languages, tests are first class citizens and every product is built on top of our RESTful API’s. Continuous integration and continuous deployment allow us to move quickly and carefully. Each engineer is free to fork and contribute to any product and a peer review philosophy enables pull requests to go live after a second pair of eyes sees them. The engineering team owns product and we move forward quickly and iteratively in small sprints. We believe in supporting the community, which is why we’re open sourcing many of our tools.
We buy beer and lunches too, but spending money doesn’t make culture. Belly is Chicago’s best technology company because we focus on empowering great engineers to be effective and creative, not creating structures of accountability to put them in boxes.
One thing I am certain of though: technology is still mostly undervalued outside the valley. We still have a little way to go until everyone realizes the engineering team is the most important part of a tech company. Engineers are multipliers and can exponentially impact a business. They drive disproportional growth and revenue, so expect to pay a lot more for the best ones.