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A silicon rod. By Warut Roonguthai (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons from Wikimedia Commons
A silicon rod. By Warut Roonguthai (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons from Wikimedia Commons

What’s in a name?

Terman couldn’t help but cringe, just a little, when this invitation turned up in his inbox the other day:

WE ARE BACK, this time to celebrate 4th of July and all things that inspire us about Silicon Valley! (Perhaps some Hot Dogs & Budweisers might be on the Menu as well as a few Prizes to give out)

Before we go any further, it must be said that we should all go along to the Fourth of July event, of course. It’s certain to be fantastic, as previous Silicon Beach Brisbane events have been and will continue to be. Besides, the invitation has already been modified to remove the part about “Hot Dogs & Budweisers”. But the original wording in the invitation does highlight a wider point about the collective identity of the growing tech ecosystem in the Brisbane area.

A few days after getting that Silicon Beach invitation, PandoDaily ran an amusing article on the “silicon” naming fad. You know, the one where every local tech hub is bound by some unspoken law requiring the word “silicon” to appear somewhere in its name. Terman suggests a simpler moniker: shorten it to “silly” and be done with it. That would be no more unfortunate than branding your community after a tetravalent metalloid that almost certainly doesn’t feature in the innovations emerging from your tech scene. Silicon’s time as a hip metaphor for technology in general has well and truly passed.

Terman’s first encounter with the Silicon Beach label was as a reference to Santa Barbara’s nascent tech community in the late nineties. This merely prompted the question, “What else are beaches made of?” At least, Terman thought, that name’s been taken so nobody else will want to use it…

Whoops! Not only has that title since been claimed by a major Australian startup community (of which Silicon Beach Brisbane is a part), a number of other aspiring tech hubs around the world have used that name at one time or another. Shortly after the local media began using “Silicon Beach” to describe Australia’s startup scene in the late naughties, LA’s startup community came to be known by that moniker, too. It turns out that Brighton’s and Santa Cruz’s use of that name dates from prior to the turn of the millenium.

As the PandoDaily article reports, some members of the LA startup community have brought things to a head, calling for the Silicon Beach name to be ditched, and asking for some new name suggestions. “LA Tech” seems to be a front runner, which has a more authentic ring to it, though one would be forgiven for mistaking it for some kind of polytechnic university, like CalTech. As for Santa Barbara, it looks like they gave up on “Silicon Beach” a while ago. They’re now calling themselves, wait for it, “Techtopia“.

At a national level in Australia, the emergence of the Startup Australia group is a welcome development. Not only does it have a sensible label, it’s an initiative being driven by some of the best known people in the Australian tech landscape, and exists to take a proactive role in the growth of the domestic scene. It has a growing community over on Google+. As its name indicates, though, it is focussed on the startup part of the overall tech ecology. But that is perfectly reasonable; focus is a good thing.

Let us now turn our attention back to the local scene, and the Fourth of July invitation from Silicon Beach Brisbane. On top of the fact that Brisbane has no semiconductor industry to speak of and no beach (unless you count the fake one at South Bank), we’re now being told that celebrating startup culture means drinking watered down American beer and eating hot dogs. This was light-hearted and a bit tongue-in-cheek to be sure. But it’s also an example of the ingrained inferiority complex that so many tech communities around the world have towards the Valley and the US in general. The irony is that if you happen to find yourself in the Valley this July 4, you’re more likely to be chowing down a burrito or chili and drinking cerveza from somewhere south of Tijuana if not one of the local craft beers.

There are certainly many things to learn from Silicon Valley. It is, after all, the greatest hub of tech innovation the world has ever known, which is one reason why this column is named for one of the main progenitors of that tech ecosystem. But Terman does wonder if we’re taking notice of the things that count. This is a topic that will be explored in greater detail in future posts.

The tech community as a whole in the south east corner of Queensland will eventually find its own strengths, its own culture, its own unique voice and a fitting label. In short, it will discover its own identity. While it’s too early to say with any certainty, we can nevertheless make some educated guesses about the flavour of the self-sustaining tech scene that might emerge. Is it, for instance, just a coincidence that one of the most recent startup successes that the local scene can lay claim to deals with music, an industry that has a long and rich history in Brisbane? A little bit like finding product/market fit, this is going to be a process of discovery, and of doing. Those of us within the community should just get on with GSD, helping to ensure that enough great things emerge from it to make the ecosystem worthy of its own name in the first place. But give it time.

The first few startups to clear the boundary rope — we’re talking exits in excess of $100 million — will provide a decent indication of the shape the things to come, because it’s these big successes that have the major flow-on effects in any tech scene. It’s the organic, bottom-up creation of this multifaceted identity rather than the top-down imposition of a name that ultimately says what we are as a community. In the meantime, let’s celebrate the great things already happening in our back yard. We’ll certainly be doing that at TSJ.

In Brisbane’s case, if it really must have an “official”, self-determined label for its startup scene, avoiding the ubiquitous “silicon” metaphor seems smart. Terman suggests that name should say what it is and where it is. Something along the lines of Startup Brisbane, perhaps? What about the Gold Coast and other parts of the regional ecosystem? Leave your thoughts in the comment form below.

That which we call Silicon Beach by any other name would smell just a little sweeter.

(Note: Although a small outfit like ours might be also be accused of choosing a cheesy name for itself, the egg is confined to the faces of a handful of people, not an entire community. Thankfully, though, Terman is delighted to report that so far no eggs have been thrown in relation to our chosen name for this publication, but happily we have had a few roses.)

Image credit: A silicon rod. By Warut Roonguthai (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons from Wikimedia Commons