Is Seattle a Business-Friendly City or the Center of Unfair Workplace Culture?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because how Seattle goes, so may the rest of the country.
By OZY Editors
Seattle is physically far away from most of the rest of America, but it may be the closest example of the ideal modern American city. What’s not to like? It is family-friendly, clean and sporty, and has some of the best schools in the country. And of course, it is home to a bustling tech scene that includes giant older companies like Microsoft, powerful veterans like Amazon and the buzziest startups around. Because of these reasons, even Silicon Valley folks are moving to the Emerald City to push forward the startup economy.
Despite all the success, however, the city has recently been talking about the rise of unfair workplaces. In a New York Times investigation, Amazon was accused of promoting a destructive culture in which a back-channel technology allowed colleagues to unfairly downgrade one another’s performance, and for engaging in general workplace insensitivity. The conversations likely follow along two binary options: Should tech companies driving the city economy improve the expectations of their human resources, or should the hard-charging companies be celebrated for emotionally challenging their workers to get the most out of them? The answer to that question by the leaders of Seattle companies will likely affect others around the country.
So if you’re thinking about moving to a new city for work or play, it’s time to think about those issues. Despite any reservations, it’s worth taking a look at this Northwest jewel.
The Investor Helping Seattle Take on Silicon Valley
Matt Mcllwain is the managing director of the top venture capital firm in Seattle, Madrona Venture Group, and is a perfect example of the type of entrepreneurial personality helping the city to stay on the edge of innovation. As a kid in college, he sold homemade board games to local businesses, and as an adult he helped industrial-based companies develop strategies to adopt new technology. At Madrona, Mcllwain has helped bridge the old and new business worlds to $1 billion in assets, including an early investment in Amazon. Now, he’s investing heavily on new cloud and data technologies, which may be risky.
Early-stage investing, though, can have its troubles. It’s more difficult to assess shots at success, and the spaces McIlwain chooses are incredibly clouded, er, crowded. Vasant Dhar, a professor at NYU Stern Business School who specializes in data and cloud technologies, says it’s likely to be three or four years before clear winners emerge in these worlds: “There’s a huge opportunity, but also huge amounts of uncertainty.” Oh, and then there’s the bubble, of which McIlwain is acutely aware (he arrived at Madrona within mere weeks of the most recent tech bubble burst).
The IT Race to Disrupt the Moving Industry
The moving business was one of those paper-and-pen industries left behind by tech entrepreneurs, but that has changed recently. Several new companies, including Dolly, Wagon, Buddytruk and Bellhops, have all come up with interesting takes on the moving economy. But it may be Seattle-based Ghostruck that ends up leading the pack. Managed by its trim, Buddy-Holly-glasses-wearing Nathanael Nienaber, Ghostruck’s GPS-enabled, app-driven business is poised to take a chunk out of the $14.5 billion moving industry economy.
Nienaber says the idea for Ghostruck struck while he was working for a different kind of moving business, Georgia-Pacific, one of the largest shipping companies in the country. That’s when he says he discovered that about a quarter of the trucks on the road are completely empty, returning from a drop-off. They’re known as ghost trucks in the biz. Enter Nienaber’s secret algorithm, which assesses the weight and dimensions of an object — say, your boxes of college textbooks or that unwieldy couch you inherited — from a blurry cellphone pic and sets a price the mover can either accept or reject. For his part, Nienaber won’t disclose the details of exactly how it works, or how much in revenue or profits the business is generating. But he says there are patents for the program, and Ghostruck recently managed to raise $2.2 million and is considering expanding its 10-person business to service cities like New York and Boston later this year.
How Seattle’s Likable and Successful Mayor Is Changing the City
Seattle is at the vanguard of not only tech, but also social change. Current Mayor Ed Murray has not only one of the highest approval ratings in the country (with a whopping 70 percent), but also a background and policies that have proven very surprising. Murray is the first married gay to be elected head executive of a major American city, and recently passed the country’s first minimum wage law. But it hasn’t been easy getting to this place — it has taken personal guts combined with good timing.
As it turns out, Murray says he’s felt the loneliest in his career on one of the issues closest to his heart: gay marriage. Back in 2007, many of his colleagues wanted to push it through the legislature. Murray, who worried it would fail and draw backlash, thought slow and steady was the better strategy. “No one in my community was supporting me,” he remembers. … In the end, incrementalism won out: Same-sex marriage was passed in Washington via referendum in 2012, and Murray was elected mayor the next year.
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