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Illustrations: Sisi Yu

How Remote Work Could Destroy Silicon Valley

The tech industry is built on serendipity. If workers flee the Bay Area, what’s left?

There may be no richer Silicon Valley lore: It was 2004, Mark Zuckerberg’s summer of craziness. At 20, he and five buddies had rented a Palo Alto home, where they partied and wrote code for Facebook. One day, as Zuckerberg and the guys were strolling the neighborhood, he saw a familiar face. It was Sean Parker, the co-founder of Napster, the music sharing service. By coincidence, Parker, at loose ends and contemplating his next move, was staying at his girlfriend’s parents’ house, just up the street from the Facebook pad. The very next week, the big-thinking, smooth-talking Parker moved in with Zuckerberg and began introducing him around Silicon Valley. By the end of the summer, he had paved the way to Facebook’s first big investment — $500,000 from Peter Thiel.

Perhaps no phenomenon is more studied, marveled, and desired in the world of high tech and science than the mystery of serendipity.

In 2002, eBay paid $1.5 billion for the resulting startup — Paypal, making the two men and several partners rich. Over the subsequent years, Paypal vets including Thiel, Elon Musk, and Reid Hoffman went on to found YouTube, Tesla, SpaceX, LinkedIn, Yelp, and Palantir.

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In Palo Alto, the median home now costs $3.2 million. In nearby Mountain View, it’s $1.7 million, and in San Francisco $1.8 million. In other words, the Valley has priced out almost anyone not making high six-figures, and even many of them.

In the years before the pandemic, talent in San Francisco and the Valley were already conflicted about whether to stay, increasingly exasperated by the cost of living. The concentration of highly motivated creators has produced enticing jobs, but also driven up prices. In Palo Alto, the median home now costs $3.2 million. In nearby Mountain View, it’s $1.7 million, and in San Francisco $1.8 million. In other words, the Valley has priced out almost anyone not making high six-figures, and even many of them. The temptation has been to flee elsewhere, and some tech talent had already been doing so.


Dozens of startups and legacy companies are trying to solve the serendipity crisis. Among them are Gather, a Silicon Valley startup, and Hopin, a U.K. company, both of which see the answer in conference apps.

Until Covid-19, Big Tech seemed to be pulling out all the stops to engineer more serendipity. In recent years, Google had spent an estimated $120 million on celebrity architects, designers, and builders to construct the Googleplex, its Mountain View headquarters, and another $1 billion for an adjoining office park. Facebook had laid out $300 million to add a new main building at its headquarters for 3,000 employees, outfitted with its own Redwood forest, a 3.6 acre rooftop garden, and multiple restaurants. Apple had spent about $5 billion for Apple Park, a circular, four-story building designed by Jobs for its 13,000 local employees. In all the cases, the idea was to create more and more chances for people to run into each other and start trading ideas.

If serendipity’s explosive impact in creating the tech world as we know it has been biased in practice, a question is whether anyone should be vexed over its possible diminishment.

Dozens of startups and legacy companies are trying to solve the serendipity crisis. Among them are Gather, a Silicon Valley startup, and Hopin, a U.K. company, both of which see the answer in conference apps: You watch online talks, then — just as you would at a physical conference — you go onto a “coffee break,” a virtual room where you can “bump into” just about anyone else at the event. You can also sign up to be paired with people with whom you might have similar interests. “It’s like a coffee break at TED,” said Paul Saffo, a futurist at Stanford.


History’s creative hubs have been ephemeral — when Florence declined in the 16th century, it was not replaced by another concentration of artistic genius. The world simply went without.

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Written by

I am Editor at Large at Medium with interests in ferreting out the whys for the turbulence all around us. Ex-Axios, ex-Quartz, ex-WSJ, ex-NYT, ex-FT.

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Written by

Steve LeVine

I am Editor at Large at Medium with interests in ferreting out the whys for the turbulence all around us. Ex-Axios, ex-Quartz, ex-WSJ, ex-NYT, ex-FT.

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