How to compete with Silicon Valley

I just saw this excellent rant on what makes Silicon Valley special: its people.

I disagree with several of its other claims. First of all, that it's just a parking lot. That's true if you look at it from one angle. But, it has several Fry's. And TONS of infrastructure that makes it easy for geeks to get going.

Also, getting geeks to move away from concentrations of other geeks is INCREDIBLY hard. I'd love to move to Montana, for instance, but there's no way I would do that. I'd be bored there in a few weeks. The TechRanch there is fun, but sorry, when I'm down in Silicon Valley there are just so many people to talk to and so many interesting companies doing interesting things.

That said, there are several places in the world I keep hearing about: China and India. Look for the next Silicon Valley to appear there. Why? For exactly the reasons Paul gave: people.

I just added Paul to my reading list. Good stuff.

Writing from the road

FedEx truck on route 90

We're about 200 miles away from Seattle traveling on Route 90. Did I tell you I love my Verizon card? It works everywhere in the Western United States. Maryam's driving.

It's fun to read blogs at 80 mph on my Tablet PC. And isn't it crazy that I can send my thoughts (and photos) all over the world through a cell phone tower? I was thinking back to the 1989 earthquake when it took several hours to get a black and white photo sent across the US to a newspaper on the East Coast (back then cell phones were rare and digital cameras didn't exist and the Internet consisted of servers that only geeks really knew how to use).

Anyway, for the past few hours I've been thinking about what I'm learning from road-side advertising. There sure is a lot of it. I'm thinking about whether there's some lessons for online companies that need to make money from advertising. I'm not sure there is, but businesses sure could learn a lot since a lot of my reactions are the same when I look at ads on Google or MSN or Yahoo (and the time spent looking at each is about the same).

In just Coeur d'Alene, which is a relatively small town in Idaho, I counted 113 commercial messages. Not counting the FedEx truck that Maryam passed. That's in about 10 minutes of driving over a few miles (like I said, it's a small town).

There were signs advertising McDonalds and Starbucks. Car dealerships. Hotels. Tourist attractions. And a lot more.

It's amazing how bad most are. First of all, you only have one to five seconds to read any sign. Second, a large percentage of the signs weren't kept up very well. Why would I want to stay at a hotel that couldn't even keep its sign looking nice? Third, very few stood out.

See, for a business what really matters?

Scarcity.

Tren Griffin taught me that. He works at Microsoft as a networking services strategist, but that really doesn't explain why I like Tren. He participates on lots of internal mailing lists and challenges us to think about business in new ways.

I wish I had posted his thoughts on Vonage's IPO. He warned us to stay far away and broke down how bad a deal their stock offering was for investors. It's amazing looking at it that anyone bought stock in Vonage (Memorandum has quite a few comments on the deal). Shows that investors don't always do their homework and think about how likely a business will return anything on their investments.

Anyway, back to the advertisements. How do you create scarcity in a place of large numbers of competitors. Heck, most every major exit has a sign like this:

Commercial district ahead

In fact, usually there are two: one for restaurants and one for lodging. Some exists have a third for gas stations.

The chain restaurants stand out on signs like this. Why? Consistency. You know what Subway will give you. It's the same thing you got 300 miles back. Same goes for McDonalds. Denny's. Etc.

I'd love to have better food on the road, but it's hard to take a chance on "Joe's diner" because you have no idea what you're gonna get.

So, how can you create scarcity? Well, one sign in Montana yelled "Grizzly Bears next exit."

It's the only sign I remember seeing in 700 miles that said THAT.

Another sign touted "Lewis and Clark camped 900' south of this sign." Heh, didn't get my business, but at least I remembered it.

Another business that does street advertising well? Chico Hot Springs. They are located in the middle of nowhere (five miles from my mom's house) but they are always packed and people two states away knew about Chico when we talked about where were headed. Great food there, too.

Chico Hot Springs

Their signs are simple, and easy to follow to get there (they are several miles from the main highway).

Oh, one other thing before I sign off from the road. I've been reading a bunch of blogs on my cell phone. It's amazing how bad most of them are. For instance, Martin Schwimmer's blog is totally unreadable on my cell phone (it has dark text over a dark background). You all need to test your blogs out on cell phones!

I think when I get back I'm gonna show you guys on video just how bad you make it for cell phone readers. Maybe there's not a lot of us out there, but why make it hard when you don't need to? Dave Winer's blog rocks on cell phones, by the way. It's light weight. Loads fast. And brings the content right to the top (many blogs make you wade through navigation before you can get to content).

Be home in a couple of hours. If the roadside signs don't snag us into a late-night dessert! :-)