The Capital Note

Escape from Silicon Valley

Skyline of downtown Miami, Fla., in 2015. (Joe Skipper/Reuters)
How Miami mayor Francis Suarez is making a play to lure tech figures sick and tired of the Bay Area.

The season’s trendiest tech entrepreneur isn’t an AI researcher or Stanford dropout — he’s a 43-year-old politician. Francis Suarez, mayor of Miami since 2017, is leading a surprisingly successful social-media campaign to bring startups and investors to a city better known for tourism than tech. With companies leaving California in droves (most recently Oracle and Hewlett-Packard), Suarez believes that reaching out to the business community will position Miami to displace the West Coast tech hubs.

Fittingly, he’s doing it almost entirely on Twitter. In early December, Suarez responded to a tweet asking, “what if we moved silicon valley to miami,” with “How can I help?” In an interview with National Review, the mayor says they’re the four most powerful words he’s ever written. Since that post — which garnered 2.3 million impressions and won praise from high-profile tech figures — Suarez’s tweets have become a daily ritual on VC Twitter. In contrast with typical political messaging, Suarez engages in a friendly back-and-forth with investors and CEOs — both known and unknown. In the span of an hour, he might go from hosting a town hall discussion to asking followers for policy advice to requesting reading recommendations from investors.

And if Suarez is offering Miami as a new product, he has found a receptive market.

Keith Rabois, a partner at Founders Fund and an early PayPal executive, has taken the lead in championing the mayor’s efforts, calling Miami the best city in America. Other VCs, such as David Sacks and Shervin Pishevar, have followed his lead, while less prominent investors have availed themselves of Suarez’s responsiveness by asking for meetings or offering investment ideas.

And while the tweetstorms carry the whiff of a fleeting viral phenomenon, preliminary data suggest they’re having an effect: Searches for Miami on apartment-rental platform Zumper increased 36 percent in one week this month.

Entrepreneurs are “sick and tired of dealing with governments that don’t appreciate them and charge more in taxes than is necessary,” Suarez tells NR. With a friendly regulatory environment and no income tax, Miami represents a natural alternative to the progressive enclaves of New York and San Francisco. In recent years, those cities mostly retained their businesses despite high taxes and deteriorating quality of life, but “COVID-19 was a tremendous accelerator” toward better-governed alternatives, Suarez argues. The adoption of remote work “allows people to live where they want to live as opposed to where they have to live.”

Suarez has shown a knack for social media, catering to the utopian, often-saccharine sensibilities of the tech community. On the phone, his Panglossian vision for a Miami of “disrupters” and “builders” sounds like it was pulled from a TED Talk. But there’s a reason entrepreneurs hype up their companies: It works. And Suarez is eager to apply the marketing tactics of entrepreneurs to local government.

The Bay Area still enjoys massive advantages — elite research universities and an abundance of venture capital. But while Silicon Valley now receives close to half of all venture-capital investment in the U.S., it began as something of a startup.

William Shockley — one of the inventors of the transistor — grew up in Mountain View and returned to his hometown to start a semiconductor company in the mid 1950s. At the time, the Valley was something of a technological backwater: There were no VC firms there, and Stanford produced fewer than 20 engineering Ph.D.s annually.

Unable to recruit experienced employees to the Bay Area, Shockley resorted to hiring recently graduated Ph.D.s. Though Shockley’s startup failed, his early employees stayed — among them, Gordon Moore and Robert Noyce — and ultimately headquartered a new company, Intel, in the same place.

The Bay Area’s status as the world’s tech hub is a testament to the ability of charismatic founders to transform cities. But now, like an aging business, San Francisco has ossified, with Big Tech firms and local politicians content to rest on their laurels. While the concentration of people and capital in one area creates positive network effects, those are increasingly outweighed by skyrocketing home prices, constant traffic congestion, and incompetent governance. San Francisco ranks among the nation’s dirtiest, most dangerous, and most expensive cities.

In an indication of just how little it cares to cultivate its tech industry, the San Francisco board of supervisors formally condemned the naming of a hospital after Mark Zuckerberg after the Facebook founder made a $75 million donation. Before that, a California assemblywoman posted “F*ck Elon Musk” on Twitter. (Musk promptly moved to Texas.)

With San Francisco’s dysfunction showing no signs of abating, competitors are stepping in. While low taxes and good weather help, Suarez thinks that charismatic messaging will bring Bay Area exiles to Florida. Even if the exodus to Miami ends up being exaggerated, increased competition between cities is a welcome trend. Politicians can no longer take for granted the tax revenue and economic activity generated by local businesses. Meanwhile, the concentration of economic opportunity in New York and California — arguably the defining political issue of our time — will likely subside as remote work enables businesses to relocate.

For his part, Suarez has full confidence in Miami. “We are transferring this moment into a movement, and we have reached a critical mass — an inflection point,” he argues.

Whether visionary or naïve, Suarez is offering an escape from the sclerosis of America’s big cities.

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