As I began to communicate to my network that I was moving out to the SF Bay Area a few months ago, I was encouraged by several people to document and blog about my experience moving from Cleveland to Silicon Valley, focusing on my role as the CEO at a Cleveland based tech startup. Initially I was against it because I wasn't sure if that's really interesting content, but being out here I now realize there is some perspective to share with those interested in Cleveland's revival - particularly as it relates to startups and the early company tech scene. This may have relevancy to other areas outside of the major tech hubs, and my hope is that it's a unique perspective for anyone interested in tech and startups in general.  

Having been out here for a short time now, it didn't take long for me to realize that I have a unique opportunity to document my current situation. The rest of the Tackk team is still back in Cleveland and we plan to co-locate in both areas for as long as we are around in current form. So while most people come out west and leave their former residence in a trail of dust, I'm still focused and involved on a daily basis with the startup and tech scene in Cleveland while being situated out in California. That is why the photo that I've chosen as the background of this series is allusive - I'm looking at a viewfinder into the city while living afar, and in the mecca of tech and startup activity to boot.

This will read a little like a journal and a little like an editorial, but it's really just a dump of insights, observations, and thoughts in narrative form in a semi-regular series I'll be posting here on Tackk.

Cleveland’s lakefront (Photo by Sam Bobko / Creative Commons)


Aside from the difference in climate, the most pervasive difference here is the complete tech immersion from just about everyone you encounter. I rode the CalTrain (public transport) 4 times so far and have yet to sit next to a group not talking about programming - Javascript libraries and MongoDB meet ups were two discussions I overheard just yesterday.  Every store and merchant, regardless of category or age of the establishment, accepts digital payment.  We even went to lunch over the weekend and sat next to a table of two couples, easily in their 60s or 70s, all on iPads the entire lunch talking about normal topics but referencing insight and info through technology. It's part of the fabric of life here, and it's not just those who are technophiles or work in tech.  

And the benefits are obvious at a consumer level, but what you realize quickly is that everyone is thinking about how tech is making lives easier out here.  And in that way, everyone is becoming a problem solver, looking for ways to do things even easier.  New companies are formed by simply removing a single hurdle from an existing solution. And while that creates an absurd app saturation that is easy to parody, it also creates a level of innovation that can't be touched by any area not thinking about tech advancing everyday life 24/7.

The entire region is fully immersed in technology at a level that shocks the system when a midwesterner first gets out there. I immediately think about how far Cleveland is away from that and wonder how long it would take for the city to get both interested and immersed at a critical mass level like this.


Admittedly I formulated this impression prior to coming out here with many trips to the west coast before making the move, but it's been substantiated already in my short time here.  People out here place a much greater emphasis on ownership (equity) in an idea, company, or concept more-so than people do in Cleveland. They discuss it more openly and call it out as a way of vetting an opportunity.  There is a much greater understanding of it as well - the types of employee equity grants, vesting rules and schedules and everything related is more commonly understood out here whereas back home that's not something that's openly discussed or even on the radar for many employees.  There are even 'startups' that don't offer equity to employees back home, which is unfortunate because the employee takes a risk but without the tethered reward that should be accompanying that risk.  

A lot of people (including very young people) have gotten wealthy out here with company exits because of that employee equity, and not just founders.  Early employees and contributors alike. It's tangible, and enough wins have been had that show that even marginally talented individuals have had life-changing wealth events through that equity. I've always said that the biggest thing the Cleveland startup community needs is a few big wins from the region - companies that start, grow, and get bought or go public in Cleveland.  But a big part of that is the employees (non-founders) responsible for that success need to be benefactors of that win as well.  That way, the peers of those employees see it as a possibility, and will become more risk tolerant and entrepreneurially focused.  It does the region no good to have a successful exit whereby only a handful of people get wealthy, and unfortunately that's what I see as the most common scenario when it does happen in Northeast Ohio.  


Having worked at small, medium, and large size companies back in NE Ohio I can say that the general propensity to build proprietary systems is crippling to the region's ability to move at a pace commiserate to out here.  Fast, fluid technology moves at the pace of innovation, not at the pace of building from scratch when that is completely and utterly unnecessary. This is how systems and people become antiquated quickly, and I see a lot of that in the Cleveland tech scene.  But because turnover of people and systems is costly, that antiquation stays in place and there is a damaging ripple effect that is felt far beyond just these organizations, it's felt regionally.  It creates a 'rust belt mentality' to tech, and it screams incapability to innovate.  I always thought that a good rule of thumb is to build proprietary your core competency, and source any features, technology, and capabilities that are outside of that. That has never been easier to do in this open API driven era, and that way everyone is always innovating at the core of their competency.  That seems to be the thinking out here as well, and a secondary benefit is some powerful product partnerships have been formed in doing so, and this accelerates growth for all parties involved.  


If the above points sound like unscalable hurdles, they are not and it's because of this realization: there is no difference whatsoever in the caliber of people out here than there is in Cleveland (or anywhere else in the midwest for that matter).  In fact, most of the people out here are transplants from other areas anyway, as this map of where the Valley talent comes from indicates.

Silicon Valley Imports it's Brains

The key is how that talent and intellectual capital is harnessed, and it needs to become priority to improve the regional tech scene.  Even to those who don't see an immediate benefit of doing so (those at cushy corporate gigs or safe at their startups because they are the only subject matter expert) need to take ownership of the responsibility to improve the capability of the entire area.  There are dozens if not hundreds of ways of doing this, but all involve getting a little uncomfortable in stretching beyond current people networks.


Honestly I am both encouraged and discouraged in equal parts.  Encouraged by the fact that it doesn't seem like there is anything inherently stopping technology and startup progress other than the masses making a commitment to technology.  But I'm discouraged by the fact that the desire doesn't seem to be there at a meaningful scale (my impression at least) in Cleveland.  I encourage ideas or discussion below in the comment stream.  Ideas that can help speed that process along or additional anecdotes, but I maintain my stance that the best 'we' as entrepreneurs in the region can do is have successful companies and other critical dominos will begin to fall.    

Comment Stream

2 years ago

Kyle: Great insights. It's simply not possible to understand the ubiquity of tech and startup life without experiencing it first hand. To me, the most important insight is our RustBelt propensity to think we are "different" and need proprietary systems. I'm know you aren't talking about financing structures, but this idea of a Cleveland deal adopting a Clevekand structure is one of the things strangling our entrepreneurs. There is no reason to reinvent the wheel.

2 years ago

Great Tackk @kyle! It’s only been a short time and already so much insight. I am encouraged to think that Tackk could be a vehicle to help increase the desire for a larger commitment to technology and startups here in Cleveland.

2 years ago

Great post, Kyle. I think it's important that we're unapologetic for being from Cleveland. It's not a "Cleveland startup"... It's a startup. It doesn't mean we can't be proud of being from the Midwest. But we shouldn't let that hold us back as entrepreneurs either.

2 years ago

"Proprietarily built is dumb" ... unless you are Steve Jobs : )

It is interesting tho how I can't seem to "talk shop" with close friends or family members here at times without having them feel a little confused (perhaps intimidated) by the depths of technology – it's almost like a black box that no one wants to look inside. But it seems you can meet a stranger on a train and talk about it there...

A little SAT analogy to see how accurate this is... The Valley:Technology :: Cleveland:The Browns (In C-Town even if you don't care about the Browns you can still hold a conversation with a stranger about them)

2 years ago

Very impressive observations as you begin another phase to grow the business. I am a little intimated by your intelligence. You are so articulate and have such clarity of your mission. Keep your eyes and ears open - great way to all learn from others. I just can't wrap my head around the environment and demographics that exist on west coast. So different from east coast. Awaiting your next installment.

2 years ago

I think one of the big issues here for Cleveland is we need businesses with actual business models (in consumer and business tech). Not meaning this as a vailed threat / insult here .. but you guys are a tumblr / twitter type consumer play that only works at 10s of millions (could be wrong but heard your story from mike bellsito on his blog and I am extrapolating). I guess my point is in those businesses you often raise 10's of millions because you need huge scale.. I think Cleveland needs to focus more on high tech businesses where people actually pay.. so specifically b2b, health tech, innovating consulting / marketplaces etc. just my two cents. Confused by the commenting here so just so its totally clear I publicly stand by what I am saying this is matt kruza. Next time you are in town would love to chat and at least hear more about your stry / company

2 years ago

Very impressive insight Son. I feel much of Cleveland is still stuck in the Industrial Revolution and the hope is that we move beyond.

Well written too!

It is cool to be around to see the evolutionary process. Data processing was a course that began being offered as an elective in High school in the 70's. Computers were the size of refrigerators and data was input in punch cards and fed into a hopper, then read.

I am really enjoying the ease of it all, even though there is still a learning curve for some of us DOS Dino's 😝