Wesley Zhao

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.

Ajay Mehta

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.

I wondered why, so asked Mehta (whose past tech projects include PennMatch.com, TastePlug.com and others) about it.

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?

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  • http://twitter.com/nancychowmein Nancy Xiao

    Great article, John. Having spent the past year trying to bridge young entrepreneurs and the greater community here in Ann Arbor, we’re battling many of the same challenges, but on a smaller scale. In part I think the issue stems from the glitz and glamour that being in the Valley lends–but is even more influenced by the fact that young entrepreneurs in Seattle feel no ownership in the community. Without that sense of ownership, they feel no inclination in sticking around–similar to UM students. Here, a graduation diploma goes hand-in-hand with a plane ticket to either of the coasts. Definitely a problem that can be and should be tackled!

    • http://twitter.com/chrisamccoy Chris McCoy

      Put the limelight on the angels in the UM community. I think you’ll start to find more crop out from the woodwork. Talent follows money. In your case, people do startups instead of Consulting, Wall Street, etc. This is same successful model applied by TechCrunch.

  • http://www.JakeMilla.com Jacob MIlla

    They should stay in Seattle. Why get lost in the valley?

    • http://www.daniellemorrill.com Danielle Morrill

      Why do you think they should stay in Seattle?

      • http://www.JakeMilla.com Jacob MIlla

        I agree. I see that they want to get experience fast so I guess it makes sense to go where all the growth has been. I think we’re both pretty biased tho..

        • http://www.daniellemorrill.com Danielle Morrill

          I left Seattle to do exactly that, and it’s working pretty well for me so far. When I think of moving back to the PNW it isn’t primarily for the tech community, it has more to do with being near my parents, living in my house again, and not paying taxes to a bankrupt state and crummy city. I also think there is a lot of tech talent at Microsoft that I’d love to recruit away to start a company of my own someday.

          • http://twitter.com/chrisamccoy Chris McCoy

            right on! I’m 100% with you.

  • Bill Bryant

    I applaud Wesley and Ajay for their decision to move to the valley; their objective is to gain experience, and you’ll do that far easier in the densest network of startups in the world. Its akin to a decision by an aspiring actor to move to LA or NYC versus trying to build a career here. But I also look forward to the day that Wesley and Ajay decide to return to the area. They will quickly learn that there are many advantages to starting a company in Seattle. On a net inflow basis, there are more technologists and entrepreneurs who move INTO Seattle and OUT. We’ve missed Box, Animoto, Twilio and a few others but we’ve gained hundreds and hundreds of startups, and a handful of pretty good ones, from the valley and elsewhere.

  • Anonymous

    There is no doubt that we should better build schoolrooms for “ the boy,” than cells and gibbets for “the Man” learn to get a degree from “High Speed University” article in few months and get a job

  • http://twitter.com/absolutgcs Giri S.

    Programs like TechStars and Founder Institute and funds like Founder’s Co-op are positive signs for the Seattle area to cultivate startups and I hope we’ll see a lot more. My guess is that the angel/seed investor per capita here in Seattle pales in comparison to the Bay Area and until it starts to compete with the Bay Area, entrepreneurs will be giving themselves the best chance to get off the ground there instead of Seattle. Getting started is just the tip of the iceberg, and as Bill alluded to, there are some advantages to running a company here.

  • http://www.nosnivelling.com daveschappell

    Offended. I’m starting to think that John doesn’t consider @daryn and I to be young :-)

    • johnhcook

      You guys are old fogies, just like me, at least when compared to
      18-year-old entrepreneurs. :)

  • http://twitter.com/susansigl Susan Sigl

    Thanks for posting this article, John. Very interesting. I think there really is a big problem at hand for WA’s innovation future. In some respects it’s easier for stars like Zhao and Mehta who have already left for college out-of-state to make that long range plan to head for the Valley when they’re done. But, what about the talent that would stay here for college and might stay afterwards to engage in the regional start-up community? Our rankings in K-12 and the continuous erosion of funding for higher ed drags us down. Public education will become a deeper root cause of the loss in standing as a tech hub in the long run, more so than access to capital or support for raw start-ups. There are a lot of tech icons taking this on who are making a difference. But it’s still not enough. A critical mass of tech leadership has got to put some weight into public policy influence to change our educational standards for a long-term fix.

  • http://www.puzzazz.com Roy Leban

    I don’t think it’s disappointing that Wesley and Ajay are moving to Silicon Valley. Sure, they sound like nice kids and they’ve created a cute web site. But, from my read, they’re like so many fresh-out-of-college kids who think that they’re going to hit it big instantly, be multi-millionaires by the time they’re 25, etc. Most people aren’t that lucky. It’s not even a small number of people who are that lucky — it’s a minuscule number of people.

    So, what’s disappointing to me isn’t that they’re moving to Silicon Valley (honestly, I don’t even see why it’s news), but the reason they’re moving there. They think if they move there, they’ll get rich and famous. Chances are they won’t. They’ll probably be lost in the sea of all the other 20-somethings who moved there to get rich and famous. How will they even get noticed? But, if they moved here, they’d be in the midst of a smaller but very vibrant startup community. They’d find other people like them who had a spirit of camaraderie instead of just competition. And I think they’d have a better chance of realizing their dreams.

    Yeah, maybe we could use some more angel investors :) but we’ve got a great community.

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