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January 27, 2014

Opinion: After a recent visit to Seattle, one MIT MBA student impressed by our startups and football

Special to the Journal

'I knew about the creative work done by Seattle’s blue chip behemoths: Microsoft and Amazon. But I hadn’t appreciated the city’s thriving startup culture.'

--Brendan Mackoff,

first-year MBA student

During my recent visit to Seattle with MIT Sloan's Technology Club, the city impressed me as a vibrant, outdoorsy town with a dynamic technological ecosystem. And man, do Seattleites love their teams.

As a native of Boston — a city famous for its rabid sports culture — I have to hand it to Seattle, whose fans regularly cause earthquakes by cheering for their football team. (According to seismologists, Seahawks fans shook the ground under CenturyLink Field during the recent playoff game against the New Orleans Saints, causing the second Seattle fan-generated earthquake in three years.) Respect.

Fervent fans aside, what I found most striking about the city was its entrepreneurial spirit. Sure, I knew about the creative work done by Seattle's blue chip behemoths: Microsoft and Amazon. But I hadn't appreciated the city's thriving startup culture.

I visited Seattle as part of MIT Sloan's trek program, which offers informal, student-organized trips to cities and countries around the world. Treks — which involve company visits and networking opportunities with alumni and others — aim to give students an in-depth look at the city and the employment opportunities there. Recent treks have taken place in Japan, New York, Korea, Las Vegas, India, Silicon Valley and Turkey.

On our first day in Seattle, we visited Madrona Venture Group, a venture capital firm that specializes in funding seed and early-stage technology companies. Madrona organized a panel that included some of its portfolio companies and other local successful startups — all of which are recruiting MBA interns.

These included Zillow, a powerhouse in the real estate industry, Apptio, which provides on-demand technology solutions for managing the business of IT, Qumulo which offers data storage in an elastic cloud, Context Relevant, which has developed an intriguing machine learning software product and is a big data/analytics company, and Simply Measured, which does social media analytics for marketing companies.

Rover.com — which helps dog owners find homes for their dogs to stay in while they travel — caught my attention. When I first heard about it, I admit that I thought that the founders started it just so they could bring their dogs to work. During the presentation, though, the CEO, Adam Easterly, made a convincing argument that there is a $60 billion market for overnight pooch sitting.

After that, we headed to Redmond to visit Microsoft. With its sprawling green campus, replete with a giant soccer field, softball diamond and a food court filled with a myriad of lunch options, Microsoft seemed more like a university campus than a big corporation. The employees we spoke to were candid about their experience at the company and indicated there is a lot of room for creativity in their jobs.

On day two, we visited Groupon, the online coupon firm, which is not technically a Seattle-based company — its headquarters are in Chicago. But it has a sizable operation of about 200 people in the city: Groupon Getaways and Groupon Goods are run out of Seattle. During our tour, we really got a sense for how its employees work. It's a collaborative and open community: there is one giant conference room in the middle of the office surrounded by a grid of low-rise cubicles.

Company leaders told us the company is migrating to a mobile platform as more than 50 percent of its sales are happening over mobile devices. They also described how Groupon is moving from a push marketing strategy — taking the product to the customer — to a pull marketing approach of getting the customer to come to them.

Our last stop was Amazon, which has a compact campus in South Lake Union. Amazon is everything I expected it to be. Company leaders hammered home how much they're thinking about innovation. The company is data-oriented, consumer-obsessed and has a distinct bias for action. Oh, and the sweeping views of Lake Union from the roof decks are amazing.

Professionally speaking, Seattle seems like an ideal city. I could see myself working at a big, established company and still have the opportunity to work on cutting-edge stuff. I could also see myself taking a job with a small startup and having the chance to build a new industry or redefine an old one.

From a personal standpoint, Seattle also wins. The neighborhoods are cool and quirky and each has its own personality — from artistic Fremont, to student-y Wallingford, to the fisherman mecca of Ballard. The city is easy to navigate and everywhere I went, people were running and biking. Having hit a bar or two in Belltown, I can attest to the lively nightlife.

And you can even get lucky with the weather — we enjoyed three consecutive bright, sunny days. I hear summers are fantastic. Besides, having grown up in New England, I know better than to moan about the weather.

How about them Seahawks?

Brendan Mackoff is a first-year MBA student at the MIT Sloan School of Management and is pursuing a career in the tech industry. He recently visited Seattle with the school's Technology Club.

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