Recently an acquaintance at the next table in a Palo Alto, California, restaurant introduced me to his companions: three young venture capitalists from China. They explained, with visible excitement, that they were touring promising companies in Silicon Valley. I’ve lived in the Valley a long time, and usually when I see how the region has become such a draw for global investments, I feel a little proud.
Not this time. I left the restaurant unsettled. Something didn’t add up. Bay Area unemployment is even higher than the 9.7 percent national average. Clearly, the great Silicon Valley innovation machine hasn’t been creating many jobs of late -- unless you are counting Asia, where American technology companies have been adding jobs like mad for years.
The underlying problem isn’t simply lower Asian costs. It’s our own misplaced faith in the power of startups to create U.S. jobs. Americans love the idea of the guys in the garage inventing something that changes the world. New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman recently encapsulated this view in a piece called “Start-Ups, Not Bailouts.” His argument: Let tired old companies that do commodity manufacturing die if they have to. If Washington really wants to create jobs, he wrote, it should back startups.
Friedman is wrong.
Startups are a wonderful thing, but they cannot by themselves increase tech employment. Equally important is what comes after that mythical moment of creation in the garage, as technology goes from prototype to mass production. This is the phase where companies scale up. They work out design details, figure out how to make things affordably, build factories, and hire people by the thousands. Scaling is hard work but necessary to make innovation matter.