Friday, November 14, 2008

It takes a long-tailed village

You are by now no doubt familiar with the concept of the long tail, the ability of the Internet to support the most microcosmic segment, specifically targeting (say) yellow VW microbus owners or people that walk their cats on leashes or whatever oddities you can assemble. But I found myself in a conversation this week about a very different aspect of the long tail, with a deputy city manager of a small community outside of Columbus. As in Ohio.

I was in Columbus on behalf of their chamber of commerce, to visit with hi tech companies, old and new, big and small. I know, I get to go on some great junkets as a journalist. At least it wasn’t Yet Another Vegas Trip. And I actually had a good time, even got to visit a few data centers (and you know how much I love being on a raised floor, breathing in all that A/C) while I was there.

Columbus has a lot going for it as an IT destination. Cheap power, smart people, big college talent pool, and some high-profile companies that employ thousands of IT workers, including Nationwide, OCLC, and others. But it was my briefing with Dublin’s deputy city manager, Dana McDaniel, that stood out.

Dana was talking to us about how Dublin was trying to woo various hi tech companies there. It wasn’t anything I hadn’t heard before. Clean, white collar business, blah, blah, well educated, yada yada, high salaried this and that. But then he started talking about the long tail, and how he wasn’t focused on the Fortune 1000 or any other big-ticket company that could be wooed there with big tax breaks and other public give-backs. “I want the long tail,” he told us. “I want the two guys in their garage that will eventually expand and become the next big win.”

Those firms are a lot harder to find, and once you find them, they are a lot harder to keep in town. To demonstrate that what he was saying wasn’t just the usual politico hot air: he actually helped a 4-person firm stick around and now they are a 20-person firm, on the second floor above a Starbucks. (And they allow Starbucks in their town, too!)

You need to have a lot of different things that have to do with quality of life, such as a business district that has multiple eateries and bars (and with a town named Dublin, you can only imagine the choices), congestion-free travel to and from work, and mixed residential-business zones so people can live close by the office, once they move out of the garage and down the street.

Yes, you need great Internet infrastructure, and Dublin has their fiber rings, their connection to bandwidth hotels, and is even putting together muni WiFi that will cover not just the business parks but its subdivisions too. They even built a business “accelerator” that will rent out offices to up-and-coming businesses and has a full complement of services and IT support techs that are on premises. Those are the good things, the necessary things even, that today’s community needs if they are really going to make a go out of having IT people stick around, and attracting more of them from places that are high-cost, high-hassle like the coastal cities where we usually think all innovation happens in this country.

But there are more subtle things happening too. And this is where that whole long tail mumbo jumbo starts to be more meaningful. Dublin can piggy-back on the larger Columbus metro area that can fill in the gaps with people who have the right specialized knowledge that can help run companies. The area has begun a series of informal meetups and unconferences to bring together nerds of all walks of life. There is the benefit of having a big college and a federal research lab nearby but not too close, so that Dublin canpick up some of the crumbs of the attention, federal grants, and research projects that come into Columbus but not get bogged down into chasing the big ticket science that OSU and Battelle need to keep their lights on. And it helps to have a solid series of IT training classes, that are offered by TechColumbus, the downtown incubator and entrepreneurial engine that has established a branch office in Dublin.

So yes, it does take a village, to coin a phrase, one person at a time. But the next time you hear an economic development guy praise the long tail, stop and listen, because they so get what the next decade of employment opportunities is going to be.

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About Me

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David Strom has looked at hundreds of computer products over a more than 20 year career in IT and computer journalism. He was the founding editor-in-chief of Network Computing magazine, and now writes for Baseline, Information Security, Tom's Hardware, and the New York Times.