A Moniker to Put Us on the Tech Map?
By Mark Leibovich
The wired world is green with Silicon Envy.
First there was Silicon Valley, crescent of innovation -- and object of imitation. Now, from Silicon Beach (Florida) to Silicon Bog (Ireland), Silicorn Valley (Iowa) to Silicon Glen (Scotland), regional boosters everywhere are settling on names intended to "brand" their cluster of technology companies on the silicon map.
Everywhere, it seems, except Washington.
It's not for lack of interest among members of the local technology community -- or, for that matter, lack of focus groups, brainstorming sessions and consulting fees. But for a variety of reasons -- feuding between companies, feuding between local governments, for a start -- Washington's high-tech industry remains without an enduring name.
In recent weeks, discussion in the area has surged again, prompted by news that the city of Los Angeles has just branded itself, with suitable Hollywood fanfare. Mayor Richard Riordan appointed a commission, the Los Angeles Media Roundtable, to coin a name for the city's batch of Internet, software and aerospace companies and it came up with "Digital Coast" after soliciting suggestions and poring over about 1,000 nominations. ("Silicon Sandbox" and "Silliwood" were among the rejects.)
Why bother? "You need a concise, clear name for credibility," said Kevin Wall, chief executive of the Los Angeles software company Box Top Interactive, who chaired Mayor Riordan's committee to find a name.
The names are rarely clever and usually derivative, but the reasoning behind them is simple: A high-tech identity projects cutting-edge aura to attract technology companies, venture funding and engineers.
"There is tremendous value to brand your area for whatever high-tech exists," said Keith Dawson, an Internet marketing consultant in Massachusetts who chronicles these regional efforts on his "Siliconia" Web site. The site includes 46 names associated with 56 locations around the world -- there are three "Silicon Mountains," four "Silicon Islands" and seven "Silicon Prairies."
One puny strip of multimedia companies in Northern Australia is billing itself "Billy-Can Valley," a billy-can being Australian bush equipment used for making tea on an open fire).
The idea, said Dawson, it to "capture something about the region and bring a fleeting smile."
Some succeed, some don't.
Tech boosters say the rush to siliconization reflects a spirit of cooperation among technology companies that does not exist in other industries.
"The vision of the stand-alone factory is a dead business model," said Shayne Gilbert, president of Silverweave Interactive, located in downtown Boston's newly coined "Cyber-District."
But why can't Washington settle on a name? People involved in the debate say it reflects the splintered orientations of local high-tech leaders. Local technology companies cross divergent industries (biotechnology, telecommunications, custom computer systems systems integration firms and new media shops) and geographic jurisdictions (Virginia, Maryland, the District). They also reflect an old and new guard of technology entrepreneurs.
"From a technology point of view, the region has multiple personalities," said Ed Bersoff, chief executive of BTG Inc., an active member of the Northern Virginia technology region. Likewise, much of greater Washington's technology community is in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs, which have long had a love-hate relationship with Washington itself.
"When people think Washington, you'd like them to think of more than the current government issue or Monica Lewinsky," said April Young, outgoing executive director of the Potomac Knowledgeway project, a Reston network of technology entrepreneurs.
On one hand, the nation's capital is the region's most recognizable feature and many believe the city should be embraced in a name ("Tech Capital" and "Capital Corridor" have been suggested); on the other, some feel any reference to the city equates to an old-thinking, process-oriented culture that is anathema to the freewheeling world of tech entrepreneurs.
When Jack McLean began his tenure as managing partner of the Greater Washington Initiative in 1994, he quickly grasped the difficulty of finding a name. At one naming session, someone proposed "Capital Concourse," which prompted a well-known local executive to dismiss the idea with a derisive epithet.
That kind of response has cropped up repeatedly over the years as the region has tried -- and rejected -- names. Such as:
Beltway Bandits: The original designation for Washington's technology entrepreneurs, the name referred to the consultants who built businesses on government contracts. Within this constituency, the name has pejorative connotations. Bill Holleran, communications director for the Northern Virginia Technology Council, has recently championed the variation "Beltway Bandwidth."
Mid-AtlanTech: Born about a decade ago, the name emerged from a name-the-baby contest commissioned by Washington Technology, a trade publication now owned by The Washington Post Co. It didn't stick, but the magazine sold handsome Mid-AtlanTech posters and netted about $50,000, said then-publisher Esther Smith.
Netplex: Fortune Magazine reporter Thomas Stewart invented this in a flattering 1994 story that hailed Washington's "transformation into a great center of technology for the next century."
Potomac Knowledgeway: The Reston organization paid a Boston consulting firm $25,000 to help generate this name in 1995. It was meant to incorporate both the organization and the region itself, and the terms "Potomac" and "Knowledge" were used to define the tech region's geographic and industrial boundaries.
Silicon Dominion: This was championed by former Virginia governor George Allen -- on national television, during the 1996 Republican Convention -- after he lured a few chip plants to the state during his administration. Siliconia also has recorded references to "Silicon Plantation" (from a 1995 story in the Newport News Daily Press) and "Silicon Seaboard" (for the Richmond area).
People who have been involved in branding efforts say the best-known regional names don't catch on by design.
"These tend to happen by fortuitous circumstance or as a result of an accidental act by the media," said Potomac Knowledgeway founder Mario Morino. "I doubt if anyone strategized to come up with Silicon Valley or Route 128," as Boston's high-tech cluster is known.
Indeed, the term Silicon Valley is often said to have first appeared in a 1971 article in Electronic News; and Route 128 was, and still is, just a highway that runs past a lot of technology companies.
Either way, Silicon is the hot metal in economic development circles -- even if the place doesn't actually manufacture silicon chips. Recently, Seattle has been dubbed Silicon Rain Forest, Wenatchee Valley, Wash. was called "Silicon Orchard" and Minneapolis-St. Paul "Silicon Snowbank."
"Everyone is trying to be the reflected valley," said Young. "It's like how all the girls are being called Diana now."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company