The SoCal Network
The coders, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, designers, and scientists (and, yes, one actress) behind L.A.’s tech boom
In the last two years, Silicon Beach — as people call the startup scene in Venice and Santa Monica — has evolved from a trumped-up trend story to a very real phenomenon. The proof is in the startups like Snapchat and Whisper, the incubators like Science, the expanding new-media platforms like Tastemade, and the huge corporate tech footprints. The proof is, for better or worse, in the artisanal juice bars and the venture-backed café exclusively dedicated to Bulletproof, a hot-butter-and-coffee mix that technologists believe is a panacea.
For Los Angeles tech enthusiasts, it has been a long and humbling road to this boom. The Westside tech community’s start was slow and goofy in the early 2000s — founders made Silicon Beach parody videos to recruit coders, and tech journalists asked startups to gather and pose jauntily on the beach with surfboards (note: they still do). A lot of the startups failed, as startups do, but there weren’t enough big hits to balance out the failures. MySpace grew and quickly busted. Venture capitalists up north would ask L.A. founders to move their companies closer to the Bay Area. Luring talent was a significant, almost impossible, challenge. The size of L.A. — and its traffic — meant that it was hard to gather a cohesive community.
“For so long, we were just trying to convince people to come down here and take it seriously,” says Frank Addante, who founded Rubicon Project, an advertising automation platform, and has been in L.A. tech for nine years.
What changed? L.A. technologists didn’t have as much access to venture capital, so out of necessity they built cheap apps instead of bulky, expensive websites — which proved an advantage as the use of mobile devices spread. There has also been a shift toward creating original content, an area in which L.A. has always been at its strongest. But maybe most important, L.A. is home to the entertainment and advertising industries, and that proximity meant that there was already a culture of selling mass-market products — of creating sex appeal.
Now some of the old dynamic between Silicon Beach and Silicon Valley is inverted. Disappearing-message service Snapchat is loaded on every teen’s phone while Facebook’s failed Poke was forgotten; anonymous posting site Whisper thrives while the Silicon Valley darling Secret shut down.
“Ten years ago I was like, ‘Come to L.A. It’s cool, I promise,’” Google’s vice president of engineering Thomas Williams told me. “Now they’re telling me it’s cool.” Today, according to Williams, “the number of incoming transfers is off the charts.”
No one in Venice wants to talk too much about the changes, wary as they are of getting the same backlash as in San Francisco, where an angry protest once culminated with someone vomiting on a Yahoo commuter-bus windshield. One founder began to tell me that his company also owns the building across the street and that it’s turning it into a parking lot, only to be interrupted by the press liaison: “We have nothing to do with it, do we even own that? I’m not even sure.” Want to meet Snapchat’s young founder? You can meet him at a coffee shop, not in the office. (Snapchat is rumored to be doubling its Venice footprint.) And the wariness is fair. Artists, long part of the appeal of Venice, are certainly being pushed out — this July, someone listed a crumbling 280-square-foot cottage that didn’t have a kitchen for $1.3 million. But Venice had been gentrified already. Decades ago, photographer Lauren Greenfield, who was raised in Venice, gathered with her mother and their friends in boats along the famous canals to hold a funeral for the old Venice, before anyone even knew to be worried about tech companies.
Venice is a 3-square-mile beach town full of colorful bungalows, jutting opaque glass homes, and picturesque palm-tree-lined canals. Its community was already a good match for startups, with its taste for expensive casual wear and raw wooden furniture. But Venice is a more diverse community than wealthy, suburban Palo Alto, and its influence is visible in the new tech buildings and the founders’ aesthetics. San Francisco and Silicon Valley campuses are blockaded compounds; Venice offices blend into the city.
“Unplugged spaces, having the community walk through freely — this is completely alien to Google,” Williams told me, gesturing around his sunny, open Venice Beach office. “In Mountain View, they keep it closed. It’s self-similar. Here, corporate bent the rules because it’s Venice.” The town, he said, “brings that out — if you’re going to bother being here, you don’t want to bring Silicon Valley into the office as much as the weird, creative Venice.”
Greenfield followed these rising power players through surf sessions and poker games, through an orchid greenhouse and a celebrity home transformed into a startup castle, to capture the personality and ethos of this new Westside.