Online giants and small start-ups alike are drawn to Seattle. The city is rapidly becoming the new Silicon Valley – without forfeiting its coolness factor or counterculture music and art scene.
When Mohit Bhende is asked to explain why he launched his start-up in Seattle of all places, Mo – as everyone here calls him, in keeping with the American love of abbreviating everything – opts for a gesture: With arms outstretched, palms facing up, he shrugs, as if to say: “Where else?”
Three years ago, Mo set up Karat, a company that uses algorithms to analyze job interviews in order to match up the best candidates with the best positions. A team of 45 people now program, manage and interview for the enterprise. “We’re a start-up success story,” says Mo. Shoulder-length dark hair swept back, an untucked polo shirt, sneakers: There’s little to distinguish the 43-year-old from his employees. In the office, long rows of screens perch on long wooden tables, operated mainly by young men, but also a few women, many with Indian or Asian backgrounds, most wearing baseball caps and jeans. The soundtrack is the rhythmic tapping of keyboards, while on the screens, symbols converge to form mathematical formulas.
It’s unlikely that Mo’s success is down to the vibe of the office alone. Rooms that turn into video conference rooms on demand, sofas, machines dispensing organic coffee, ping pong tables and wire baskets with yoga mats are all basic start-up amenities, as is an optimistic “We will change the world” poster. What has truly boosted Mo’s operation is its location.
For the past 20 years, says Mo, the city has been attracting start-ups and Internet enterprises; its StartUpSeattle program is aimed at digital businesses, and its low tax rates do the rest. Currently, there are over 1300 start-ups in the city, their staff populating the co-working areas, offices and cafés: WiFi and caffeine, what more do you need? Over the past five years, the city high up on the north Pacific coast of the U.S. has been evolving into the new – and according to Mo, better – Silicon Valley. “The area around San Francisco has gotten crazy; the tech scene has bulldozered everything else out of the way by putting up prices,” he says. He compares it to a club. “If you’re in, then everything’s fine.” The problem is that the boys want to keep to themselves. The competition is bitter and remorseless, and there’s a lack of diversity. “Many folk in the Valley have forgotten just how important friendliness and communication are,” says Mo. In contrast, Seattle is more open. And it’s also much hipper. Seattle isn’t just populated by small enterprises hoping to become the next big thing with virtual reality, artificial intelligence or blockchain (the digital datasets that make up online currencies, such as Bitcoin). The big players, the likes of Amazon, Facebook, Google and Microsoft, are also here in the city, profiting from the creative minds, but also changing the unique vibe and rhythm of the city.
Mo picked a spot far from the glossy downtown high-rises; his company resides in the University District, close to the former law library of the University of Washington. The 1980s building bears a passing resemblance to a command bridge in a Star Trek movie: Sunlight streams through a sloping window onto tall, white supporting columns; a gallery runs around the cantilevered hall with its exposed concrete and dark floors. Karat is a part of the university’s CoMotionLabs, an incubator with 95 innovative young tech enterprises. One uses virtual reality glasses to digitally dissect the human body; another employs a real swing, a fan, and VR glasses to recreate the sensation of paragliding over imaginary islands and waterfalls. New worlds, as far as the eye can see!
CoMotionLabs not only provides space, infrastructure and a global network, but also gives its data and computer science graduates direct access to big business. The university offers regular management classes; companies like Amazon, Nintendo and Facebook work with some of the CoMotion start-ups and sponsor projects with up to 100 000 U.S. dollars. “Washington has one of the best tech universities in the country,” says Mo, “many really good software engineers graduate here.” Sitting at the source, he and his company benefit from this fresh expertise.
You’re unlikely to find the next Facebook or Twitter in Seattle, where the focus is more on business-to-business, which is start-ups like Karat mainly design solutions for other businesses. Just like Silicon Valley, Seattle also offers thousands of techies good jobs. There’s really no good reason to leave.
Asked to explain why there are more start-ups in Seattle than elsewhere, Samuel “Sam” Assefa, 60, also thinks first before motioning a reply. He leans back and smiles broadly, as if to say: “Why not?” For the past two years he’s headed the department of Planning and Urban Development, which is on the fifth floor of the City Council building. From his office window, you can watch the cars pushing their way along the streets like so many beetles. For Assefa, the past few years have been like a gold rush with tax income high, unemployment low at less than three percent, and more new working citizens flocking to the city every year and filling the tax coffers. Currently, Seattle has a population of over 720 000, almost 10 percent more than in 2010: few other cities in the U.S. are growing as fast.
One company here harnessed the power of data and algorithms to become a global force. Since Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, said to be the world’s richest man, decided to base his headquarters in South Lake Union at the heart of the city, the online retailer has changed the face of entire districts. Shiny office towers with names like “Day 1”, “Doppler” and “Rufus” reach skyward. Amazon’s nearly 50 000 employees occupy more than 40 complexes and extra buildings are rented if more space is needed. The Amazon Campus is one million square meters in area. Amazon operates its own TV channel, music streaming service, supermarkets and an online data-storage cloud. Freshly asphalted cycle tracks seam the district’s roads like a network of black carpets. Jeff Bezos also commissioned a landmark project to stand between the two main Amazon buildings: the Amazon Spheres. These giant domed conservatories look like three super-sized bubbles tethered to the ground by intricate steel latticework. The Spheres are a greenhouse-cum-conference and work space with over 40 000 plants and designed to promote the creativity and health of the Amazon staff. They soon became a tourist attraction: Hip youngsters with hair dyed white and skinny jeans take perpetual selfies and then pose with biodegradable shopping bags from the shiny, new Amazon Go supermarket while their parents admire the city from above in the restaurant on the top floor of the futuristic Space Needle, the city’s official landmark. For Generation Z, the Amazon Campus is the place to be.
For Assefa, the brave new world in Seattle is the result of successful urban planning. For many years, nobody wanted to live downtown, he says, and anyone who could, fled to the safe, green suburbs. In the center, buildings became empty, rents fell. Now, the hum of many major construction sites floats across the four-lane highways, and hoses for liquid concrete protrude from the top floors of new buildings. “The city changed the rules,” says Assefa, “new buildings can now be higher and narrower; new parks and recreation areas were created, and quality of life increased.” When the company announced it was building its headquarters in South Lake Union, formerly a gray expanse of concrete with workshops and warehouses, Amazon was integrated in the plans. “We didn’t want the employees to stay in their offices; we wanted them to go out onto the streets.” The company cafeterias intentionally only cater for around a third of the workforce. Unlike Silicon Valley, where the employees’ every need is met in an insulated environment, the programmers and developers here spend their lunch breaks in the local restaurants and cafés. People no longer stick with just one employer forever, and not everyone wants to move to the quiet suburbs. Instead, many want a lively place with cinemas, bars and culture. “The younger generation is returning to the city, it’s a sea change,” says Assefa.
He mentions the economist Richard Florida, who teaches at the University of Toronto and is hailed as the pioneer of modern urban planning. Florida’s theory, set out in his 2002 bestseller, The Rise of the Creative Class, is as clear as it is simple: The old economy will be replaced by the new creative economy. Seattle is a prime example of this. In hip districts, like Capitol Hill and Ballard, artists found studios, bands, rehearsal rooms, and the sizeable LGBT scene, its spaces. Here, the zebra crossings are painted in the colors of the rainbow, and signs at the entrances to bars and restaurants clearly state: “No space for hate and racism.” The city, which became world-famous for its lively art scene and subculture, represented by bands like Nirvana and Soundgarden, has retained its cool image. Seattle is young and liberal – this image attracts young creative minds.
Mo is a good example. He didn’t just come here from Pittsburgh to program at the Microsoft headquarters outside the city, earn well and later start up his own business. He also came here because “Emerald City”, as Seattle is called for its green lakes and urban woodlands, is supremely attractive: “Great quality of life, fantastic art scene; I bump into architects and artists in the evening; and the city still has small bou tiques instead of identikit stores; and plus, in only an hour’s drive I can be in the mountains, snowboarding or hiking.”
But the boom also has its downsides: congested streets, crowded buses, ballooning rents and spiraling property prices. More and more new luxury apartment blocks are springing up, entire districts are changing, becoming more expensive, displacing their original communities. Many are forced to seek new accommodation outside of the city, 11 000 have ended up on the streets, homeless, and now live in the ubiquitous tent cities. Under highways, in parks and cemeteries – there are tents everywhere in Seattle, with neat lines of shoes, suitcases and even kids’ bikes outside. Mo says, “A lot of money has come to the city, and many of its original inhabitants simply can’t keep up; that creates tension.”
That may also be the reason that the Seattlelites have elected a socialist to the city council for the first time in 100 years, Kshama Sawant. She has already pushed through a new minimum hourly wage of 15 dollars and wants to raise taxes for Amazon and other big businesses, and use the money to subsidize affordable housing. “The tech industry is great for us,” says Assefa. He hopes Seattle will stay a city where all sorts of people can live side by side: entrepreneurs, techies, musicians and regular families. A serious yet determined expression crosses his face: “That’s what we’re working to achieve.”
Worship Hendrix and Nirvana at the Museum of Pop Culture (Seattle Center Campus).
Hipsters, punks and techies all meet at the farmer’s market in Ballard.
Enjoy art, cocktails and seasonal food at Vermillion Gallery (Capitol Hill).
Lounge and browse at the art and comic store Push/Pull (Shilshole Avenue).