Virgin on Business: Comparatively Speaking

| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 

The Washington State Department of Commerce recently announced it was sponsoring a delegation of companies to attend a trade conference in Europe, part of a broader effort to build, and build recognition for, Washington’s cluster of businesses in composites and advanced materials.

That the state was doing so and that it has targeted the composites sector as an economic development opportunity weren’t the eye-catching features of the announcement. As economic development strategies go, emphasizing composites makes more sense than championing many other sectors. Washington does have a robust and growing cohort of companies that produce carbon fibers, composite materials, and parts and components made from them, a development noted in a cover story in this very magazine last year.

More interesting was the goal the state has set for that sector: to be the “Silicon Valley” of the worldwide composites industry. Had it been paying attention to McDonald’s ad campaign, it might have said it wanted to be the Egg McMuffin of the composites industry. Still, to be the Silicon Valley of any endeavor is no small accomplishment. It’s a status achieved through longevity, size, success, public recognition.

As waterfalls go, in terms of height, Niagara is an also-ran at about 165 feet. Our own Snoqualmie Falls is 268 feet high. Multnomah Falls exceeds 600 feet with the upper and lower segments added together. But no one talks about being the Snoqualmie or Multnomah falls of anything. Niagara gets all the publicity. Not undeservedly so, as anyone who has stood next to the precipice and seen, felt and heard the sheer volume of water plunging over the edge can attest.

Lots of towns have concentrations of tech companies, but it’s Silicon Valley to which all others aspire and compare themselves. For a time, emulation took the form of pairing the word “silicon” with whatever local geographic feature happened to be handy; that trend, thankfully, appears to have faded. Silicon Valley’s stature hasn’t, though, which is why there are frequent outbreaks of Silicon Valley envy. In opening the press conference at which Planetary Resources unveiled its plan to mine asteroids last spring, Museum of Flight CEO Doug King said Seattle should start thinking of itself as the “Silicon Valley of space.”

It’s been a while since Seattle was “the Seattle of” anything. It enjoyed a brief moment of glory as the symbol of all that was cool, but that was in the 1980s. Then came the WTO debacle of 1999, at which point Seattle became a one-word reference on how to disrupt or how not to host an international event.

As Seattle can attest, having one’s city be a shorthand that everyone immediately understands can be a good thing, or not. Detroit and Pittsburgh were once synonymous with industrial might and dominance of their respective sectors, cars and steel. Then they became emblems of Rust Belt decline and urban decay.

If your city can’t become a reference point, good or bad, then maybe one of your hometown companies can. For a time, being “the Microsoft of” had application for both positive and negative connotations, positive for its growth, negative for its reputation as a sharp-elbowed operator.

Those days are long gone, but other companies have taken its place. To be “the Starbucks of” something means the ability to take a commodity product (coffee), doll it up a bit, charge a premium price for it and become as ubiquitous as Microsoft has been in PC operating systems. To be “the Amazon of” something means succeeding in a sector (online retailing) that others have failed at, and becoming so successful that you’re the dominant, default channel.

There are tangible rewards to being known as the pinnacle of achievement in a particular endeavor. Success attracts and breeds success, as the long track record of Silicon Valley demonstrates.

There are tangible drawbacks to having your name associated with failure, too. By all means, let’s make Seattle the Silicon Valley of space commercialization or Washington state the S.V. of composites. We should just make sure that our less appealing traits—the instability and revolving-door management of Seattle Public Schools, for instance—don’t become fodder for someone else’s analogies.

 

Bill Virgin is the founder and editor of the subscription newsletters Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News.

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