Startup Survival Guide: Maslow's Pyramid Revised

For as long as I can remember, anyone with a passion for building a tech company from the ground up would have to head west. Silicon Valley was where the money, talent, and exits were. But what do startup founders really need?
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For as long as I can remember, anyone with a passion for building a tech company from the ground up would have to head west. Silicon Valley was where the money, talent, and exits were.

But what do startup founders really need? And where can they best meet those needs?

I've spent some time with Maslow's hierarchy of needs, modified for the specific needs of a startup, and the results may surprise you.

Maslow's pyramid goes like this; Physiological, Safety, Belonging-Love, Self-Esteem, and finally at the top of the pyramid, Self-Actualization.


The Physiological is basic needs; food and shelter. No doubt that in the past the Valley had the Alley beat in this regard. But in just the past two years, the growth of the incubator community has provided young startups with a powerful alternative to heading west. With communities like General Assembly, Hive 55, and co-working spaces like New Work City and WeWork Labs, the basic needs of a roof and a place to access WiFi are now available for entrepreneurs with an idea and a small team.

Next up the pyramid, Safety. Here Maslow puts security, stability, and freedom from fear. Interestingly, startups need a somewhat different mix. Certainly they need a safe city, which we have. But they also thrive on the fear that a competitor, or changes in the market will get ahead of them. Entrepreneurs are driven by the pace of innovation, the opportunity to lead rather than follow the market. Here, New York's community of excellence in all fields (Fashion, The Arts, Finance, Education, Media) creates an environment that is driven to win. So safety yes, but freedom from fear, no way.

The next layer is Belonging. Here's a place where I think New York beats the Valley hands down. New Yorkers are part of a larger whole. There's a sense that we're together building great things. My friends in the Valley describe a far more isolated, dog eat dog, every man (or woman) for himself world. Don't get me wrong - New York is competitive, but it's collaborative too. Just look at the NY Tech Meetup - or the Video Meetup that I organize. Amazing groups of people come to learn, share, support and cheer on winners. New York is a community, and membership is open to anyone who wants to belong. The Valley, not so much.

As we reach the top of the pyramid, we arrive at Self-Esteem. Maslow's category calls for recognition and respect. Here New York's Startup Community is blowing the doors off of the west coast. New York is proud of its own, and the growing media and social media footprint of New York can't be denied. Trade shows, conferences, gatherings, internet and social media weeks. There's no doubt that in the past, the Valley's geography and narrow focus on tech made it the place for startups to take root. But today, New York has reached a tipping point, and now you can find a startup at every Starbucks and as the growing tenants in large portions of the city. Increasingly, we're the new face of the city.

So, now we've reached the top of the pyramid - Self-Actualization. Love this category. Self-Actualization is the pursuit of inner talent and creative fulfillment. Startups are in it for all the right reasons. To change the world, to put a 'dent in the universe', to turn ideas into action, to prove that they can see around corners. To literally see the future and build it. Here New York has a massive head start to anywhere else on the planet. A diverse, vibrant, fast moving, intensely social urban landscape that provides an ideal test bed for new ideas and a launch pad for new companies.

Maslow's pyramid, modified for Startups, calls for an ideal environment of support, challenge, support of basic needs, and the ability to strive for excellence and achievement. Looked at this way, New York beats the Valley hands down.


In my next post, I'll shift from the needs of Startups to the math of how the market is changing. The past year has seen a dramatic shift in resources and dollars from West to East, and I'll share how the dollars are flowing.

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