Wesley Zhao and Ajay Mehta have been friends since the fourth grade, attending Stevenson Elementary, Odle Middle School and Interlake High in Bellevue. The gifted students and Internet entrepreneurs are now enrolled at prestigious East Coast colleges, but after graduation they don’t plan to return to Seattle for their startup dreams. Instead, the 18-year-olds — the brains behind a fun Twitter application called The Grim Tweeper that allows users to excise unwanted contacts — have their sights on Silicon Valley.
“Our future plans are (to) continue to work together for a long time and hopefully create a lot of cool startups together,” Zhao tells GeekWire. The unfortunate thing is that they don’t expect to build those startups here.
“We plan to start in Silicon Valley, but want to end up … relaxing in Seattle,” says Zhao, who is currently studying computer science and entrepreneurship at The University of Pennsylvania. Mehta, an editorial intern at Gawker and former intern at Zillow.com, is a freshman at New York University’s Stern School.
Ugh. Seattle as a location for the leisure class isn’t going to create an innovation hub. And Zhao’s comments speak to a serious challenge facing the region.
As leaders of the technology community debate how to get the high-tech mojo going (See: “Adeo Ressi to Seattle angels: It’s time to get off the sidelines”), there’s perhaps a bigger problem that’s harder to address.
How does Seattle hang on to its smartest, youngest, most-hungry entrepreneurs?
I don’t want to sound like a Whitney Houston song, but sharp entrepreneurs like Mehta and Zhao are the region’s future. More so than venture capital. More so than IPOs.
We’ve seen other promising young entrepreneurs leave Seattle for startup dreams elsewhere, most notably the creators of Box.net and Animoto. And I am reminded of a blog post by Redfin CEO Glenn Kelman — an older entrepreneur by tech standards who resettled in Seattle after a stint in Silicon Valley — who noted that some of the biggest tech companies in the world were created by first-time entrepreneurs under the age of 30.
In fact, Seattle owes much of its technology industry to two young geeks from Seattle who happened to relocate to their hometown rather than stay in New Mexico.
But that doesn’t happen to be the plan for Mehta and Zhao, who are hoping to earn a spot in the prestigious Y Combinator incubation program this summer. After graduation from college in 2014, they want to root themselves in Silicon Valley.
He said it was driven in part by a recognition of the fact that their biggest handicap as entrepreneurs happens to be their youth. To lessen that roadblock, they need to gain more experience and credibility. And the best place to do that is in Silicon Valley, he said.
“We believe that in Silicon Valley we can make up that gap quicker by making our ways through a much more extensive network in which we will be able to find advisors and mentors that will help us along the way to both teach by experience and give us some credibility,” Zhao said. “The network is more dense there and we want to capitalize on every opportunity to maximize our chances.”
It’s not a bad strategy, and you can’t fault them for taking that path. But it does speak to a hidden challenge facing Seattle: Home-grown technical and entrepreneurial talent feeling the need to go elsewhere to pursue their startup dreams.
All this leaves me wondering: Where’s the young blood?