SXSW Interactive: Where West Coasters Reign, and the Big Apple Looks Like a Big Waste of Money

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They say if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere. Or at least that’s what they used to say.

Well before I came to my first SXSW Interactive Festival this year, I knew that most high-tech innovation was happening in the pacific time zone. As the world has flocked to The Social Network over the past year, that line of thinking has only been reinforced; Zuckerberg, after all, effectively dumps his business partner because he never wises up and moves away from the Boston bubble.

Still, what’s surprised me as I’ve roamed the halls of Austin is the way in which New York is seen as an impossibility by many young entrepreneurs, developers and investors. You want to start something? Hit up the community, and the talent, of San Francisco, Los Angeles or even Austin.

But New York? Please. Less bang for more bucks.

This stigma is perhaps one of the reasons that New Yorkers banded together Sunday afternoon for a day-long, specially-branded “NYC Startup Meetup” event – a gathering designed to celebrate not only some of the best new ideas tumbling around the streets of Manhattan and Brooklyn, but also a place for these East Coasters to rally and regroup.

So it was more than a little ironic then when one of the first companies mentioned at the meetup was Google. The company has recently made huge investments in New York City real estate, personnel and engineering efforts. Unlike so many other big firms that gobble up New York startups and ship them out west, Google has proudly and visibly expanded its Gotham footprint in recent months.

In addition to thanking almighty Google, the meetup participants also frankly detailed and conceded some of the pressure points of innovating in New York. Wall Street pays more, making it hard to attract top talent; the cost of living/operating is so much higher than elsewhere in the country; many of the top investors looking to fund startup operations live more than 3,000 miles away.

Then again, on the upside: There is a wealth of freelance talent in New York that is simply eager for experience, and probably willing to work for little/jump on board at the earliest stages of a business.

More than 20 East Coast startups were in attendance Sunday, and, as a New Yorker, I was thrilled to see so many promising concepts bouncing around the room. One standout was HowAboutWe.com, an activity-based dating site through which users post proposed outings and match with partners based on things they’d actually like to do.

Also presenting were up-and-comers Lot 18, described as a Gilt.com of sorts  for wine connoisseurs and Aviary, a site that hosts and provides a handful of creation tools, geared towards making “creation accessible to artists of all genres.”

On the other end of the spectrum was established presenter Meetup.com, the popular community gathering site that Sunday alone had tens of thousands of scheduled events across the country.

The meetup was informative, energetic and inspiring, and yet what lingered with me most in the days that followed was this notion of the shifting power centers of American business. As the tech world comes to define the mainstream, are power centers like New York going to be left behind? A place where visionaries are the exception instead of the rule? Where artists and thinkers and designers will be unable to afford an adequate quality of life?

If I was in New York City government, all the revelations at this meetup – about the various handicaps and hardships confronting local startups – would leave me concerned and pondering what I could do to foster these entrepreneurs. In fact, I would make it a priority: What could we do better to make the lives of these hiring startups easier? What could we do to attract even more of them to our asphalt jungle?

And on the flip side: What happens to our position as the cultural capital of America, when all the arts and media leaders have moved west?

I might be exaggerating a bit here. New York still has an edge in a whole lot of arenas. But for any New Yorker who was at South By Southwest this year, it sure did seem strange – and humbling – to feel like the odd man out.

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