I’ve spent the past week and a half in Yakima, Washington. It’s a town in Central Washington with a population of around 93,000 in the city itself and almost a quarter million in the greater metropolitan area. The primary economy is agricultural: nearly 80% of the hops used in beer production in the USA come from here, and 40% of the entire world’s hops. It’s also a center for apple and cherry orchards and vineyards. It’s nestled in a valley from which, on a clear day, you can see Mount Adams rising above the hills. Seattle is a two and a half hour drive across Snoqualamie Pass, and Portland is three and a half hours, across the Yakama Nation Reservation and through the gorgeous Columbia Gorge. The first brew pub in the world was in Yakima, and the town is famous for its wine, beer and fruit.
And hopefully, soon, it will be famous for tech. Effective immediately, I will be leaving Las Vegas and relocating here to Yakima, with a commitment to spend at least one year here. Initially, I will be working with a local company, Appleseed Media, to help them create a new alternative weekly publication for the Yakima Valley, as both a writer and a developer for their online presence.
Once the publication is launched, I will continue to write for it…but my primary focus will be on establishing a startup to develop some of the online projects I’ve been attempting to put together for the last few years, as well as doing research and development into creating inexpensive, efficient technologies for the agricultural industry. This company will likely be called Cherry Blossom Industries, after the beautiful cherry blossoms that grow everywhere here. I am also working with local technologists and advisors, as well as potential investors, to potentially establish a tech angel fund in Yakima, to attract startups here, with a focus on (but not limited to) agricultural tech.
I will also be using my time in Yakima to complete my book Digging For Fire, about the technology industry in East Africa, which I had planned to have finished earlier this year, though it’s been delayed due to life stuff. I’ll also be blogging and documenting my experience building a startup here.
That explains what I’m doing. But the bigger question is: why?
The short answer is: I’ve been miserable for a long time, and I want to change that. Part of my misery is due to personal stuff and relationship bullshit, but most of it boils down to a couple of things:
1) I hate the tech industry as it exists right now, and 2) If I have to spend another year in Las Vegas I’ll put a gun in my mouth.
I’ve been in Las Vegas for fifteen years – long enough to see multiple waves of the supposed cultural renaissance that has been perpetually about to happen since the day I got to the city. And the fact is, there really is a renaissance happening now, thanks to the momentum generated by the Downtown Project and the revitalization of Fremont Street and the old downtown core.
The problem is, it’s precisely the renaissance that Las Vegas deserves. The new Downtown Las Vegas looks like what would happen if you took all the lifers from a psychopath ward, gave them selvedge denim and Warby Parkers and electroshock therapy and a half a billion dollars, and told them to recreate Portland, except without all the dirty poors and weirdos. It’s a wretched Baudrillardian hyperreality of a culturally vibrant community. And it’s fractally goddamn stupid — every single individual facet of it is just as goddamn stupid as the whole thing, which is monumentally, colossally goddamn stupid. No wonder it’s already beginning to hemorrhage goodwill and momentum…which will tend to happen if you leave the redevelopment of a city to a bunch of incompetent self-promoting chancers who would rather get day drunk at the Gold Spike and play giant board games than actually consider the long-term implications of any of their half-baked ideas, much less bring them to completion. (Long-term implications like what might happen if you were to build a shopping mall out of poorly insulated steel shipping containers, with outdoor furniture made of polished bare metal and a children’s playground made out of steel equipment, in the middle of the hottest desert in the Western Hemisphere. Y’all have fun when summer kicks into high gear. Make sure to keep the first aid kits handy for the burn victims.)
Las Vegas is a city that is entirely and utterly about money, to the exclusion of anything else, and it makes its money by luring sociopaths and hucksters and developers with the souls of Barbary Coast whoremongers, and gives them the keys to the kingdom.
There are some remarkable people in Vegas, good people and smart people and talented people, many of whom I respect deeply and many of whom I love with all my heart; and they are almost all of them one step away from poverty and mired in depression at their inability to get anything done. They are marginalized by the people with money and treated with condescension and contempt by the local government. Just like me.
After fifteen years of hoping and trying to change Las Vegas, I am sick in my soul of it. The city is driving me to suicide, and I mean that literally. Though I love and adore my family and the self-created family of amazing people I have built in those years, I can’t take it anymore.
I had already decided to leave when my friend Goldie invited me to visit Yakima, where she had recently moved. I came up here expecting nothing but a week of relaxation. Instead, what I found was a blank canvas.
Yakima has everything I need to live and be happy, or at least as much as Las Vegas has: all the necessary retail and services, a couple of kick ass dive bars, and it’s a hell of a lot closer to Powell’s Books in Portland, which is where I want to go when I die, than Las Vegas is. And it has a few unique features that make it ideal for what I want to do.
For one thing, Yakima is cheap. I normally don’t feel comfortable talking about money in public, but I’ll put it to you this way: I did the math, and at the rates I charge for doing web design and development, I can afford to rent (or buy) a five bedroom farmhouse and cover all of my expenses by working approximately four days a month.
Let me repeat that. Four days a month.
If I chose to live in a smaller place — say, the size of where I live in Vegas — I could cut that back to two days a month. But I’m fine with that extra labor, really I am. And the work is there, for me, both from outside contracts and from local businesses who need coding and other tech work done.
What does that mean for me in real terms? It means I can devote the majority of my time to the project I want to work on: my book, my other writing…and all of the really cool technology ideas I’ve been keeping on the back burner for years.
It also allows me to start doing something I’ve been wanting to do for a while, which is to devote a large part of my time to researching and developing technologies targeted at working class people and the global economic base of the pyramid. One of the areas I plan to work in here is agricultural technology. Even in the past ten days, I’ve identified several key areas in agriculture – water irrigation, climate monitoring, and pesticide delivery – which are, if you’ll forgive the pun, ripe for innovation. And there is a lot of money here for that sort of thing. I’ve already been talking to potential investors, and literally every day I’m here I meet more people in the agricultural sector whose eyes light up when I tell them even my simplest, most rudimentary ideas.
And this is why I also want to put together an angel investment fund here that will offer seed money to startups, with the provision that they spend at least eighteen months in Yakima. From a purely financial standpoint, it makes sense to do a startup here. The cost of commercial real estate here is nothing. If I wanted to rent an entire building the size of the Emergency Arts building in Vegas, it would cost me roughly $1500 a month. That’s fifteen hundred dollars a month. I’m already talking to one local businessman who wants to turn one of his properties into a tech incubator. And the cost of living is absurd.
But does it make sense from a business perspective? Not according to an angel fund investor I met with in Portland. “Why would anybody want to live in Yakima,” he said, “when they can go to San Francisco and make $250K a year?”
But I think, with all due respect, that he’s wrong. (My response was: “Because they don’t want to spend $100K of that on rent and parking.”) I think he’s not seeing a large but nearly invisible demographic of the tech industry: people like me, who aren’t interested anymore in spending $2500 a month on a tiny studio in the Outer Mission, and spending all our time networking like lunatics and busting our asses just to eke out an existence, working for venture capitalists for whom we are just replaceable cogs in a money machine; people who want to get out of the bubble and just work, on things they care about, in a beautiful place where they can live like humans and not worker drones. Not everybody wants to play at being Mark Zuckerberg. Some of us just want to make amazing things that make people’s lives better, and be happy.
There’s an entire generation of folks who are ignored and treated with scorn by the tech industry: people in their mid-thirties to late forties who got into the Internet on the ground floor in the 90s. And while many of us are still technologically relevant and full of both ideas and experience, we’re treated like senile fools by the tech industry, despite the fact that high-growth startups are more likely to be run by CEOs in their fifties than in their twenties. But the tech industry loves twentysomething kids with no attachments and no life experience. Why? Because they’ll work like indentured servants for catered lunches and Nerf gun wars in the office, and the promise of becoming instant billionaires.
Look, I’ve been doing this for a really long time, and I’ll let you in on a secret: I know about the same number of people who’ve become millionaires from playing rock and roll as I do who’ve become millionaires by building startups.
There are plenty of incredibly talented, driven people who simply aren’t interested in playing the Silicon Valley game of pricks; people with families, people who value quality of life over running an endless race to which many are called and very few are chosen; people who aren’t driven by the lure of lunatic wealth, but by the desire to do good work and make a living from it.
And, I mean, it’s not like we have a global communications network that allows us to be in constant contact with anybody in the world, right? Plus it’s a $270 round-trip flight out of Yakima Airport to San Francisco, less if you’re willing to make the beautiful drive to Portland or Seattle. Being in Yakima is really not much more remote than being in a second-tier urban area like Vegas or Austin or Kansas City.
My vision is of a small hub here, working out of the beautiful buildings in downtown Yakima, maybe building affordable tech for the agriculture sector, maybe based around organic food or alcohol or even cannabis. People volunteering to teach tech classes for the Native Americans on the reservation or the Hispanic agricultural workers who make up 54% of the population here, people who work to make water usage more efficient, people who work to build technologies that we can share with and sell to the entire world. People who would rather devote themselves to the work they love rather than the work they have to do just to get by LA or San Francisco or New York. People who want to genuinely build a community and build the future, not just get rich and peace out.
So that’s why I’m coming here, and that’s what I want to build. And I want you to help me do it. Once I’m established and I begin putting together this tech fund, I’d like to host my friends and acquaintances from Vegas and elsewhere who’d like to come to Yakima and see if they share my vision. (You didn’t think I really needed five bedrooms just for myself, did you?) If you’re one of these folks, get in touch and we’ll figure out how to make it happen.
I will miss my friends and family in Vegas, but I really, truly believe this is the best possible thing I could do for myself right now…and even the thought of it fills me with a hope and joy I haven’t felt in years. I’ve wanted to change the world for my entire life; I think I can do it here.
Check you on the flip side.