A few weeks back, after an unpleasant exit from a job I have described as “the worst fit of my professional life,” I began to suspect that moving back to my hometown had maybe been a mistake. The edge is off the pain now, but I’ve continued to think about my relationship with the city I grew up in and what kind of future I have here, if any. I’m not packing the pick-up yet, but nothing has convinced me I’m wrong, either. Time will tell, I guess.
I had an important realization today as I was writing an e-mail to an old friend back in Denver. We hadn’t talked in awhile, so he was catching me up on the old neighborhood (going to hell in a handbasket, apparently) and asking about life in God’s Country (his words, not mine). In trying to articulate what’s wrong about me and Winston-Salem, I was thinking, as always, about my skills and strengths and how this market really doesn’t seem to need them. Or if it does, it doesn’t seem to realize it needs them. Not that it matters – both situations pay about the same.
Then it hit me. As I noted in my e-mail:
Moving back here turns out not to have been the winning endgame I’d hoped for, sadly. For all its growth in areas like biotech research, W-S remains W-S in a lot of important ways. I’ve never been able to squeeze a damned penny from this town, and even now, working my butt off with consulting and freelance projects left and right, it’s all from somewhere else. Denver, Jersey, Charlotte, Boston. No work in Winston-Salem and none on the docket. I have a couple promising leads and at least one awesome connection here, but even the great opportunities that he’s pointing me to are mostly in other markets.
So I have accepted that there’s no room in this economy for me. The basic issue is that I’m an innovation marketer. I’m all about think-forward, and once you get past the biotech sector (which is tech innovation, but it’s very structured and conventional in many ways, with bureaucracy and process that’s very familiar to a manufacturing town) there’s not much call for unconventional thinking.
A-ha. That’s it.
Winston-Salem was built on manufacturing. Industrial processes top to bottom. I initially heard all about the booming biotech thing here and thought “hey, tech innovation. That’s me!”
But it’s not. Despite the absolute science fiction dream that’s emerging in places like the Piedmont Triad Research Park, that world is maybe even more structured than the old industrial base. The process of raising venture capital funding is very prescribed. Development of biotech puts you through a series of incredibly strict phases before you get anywhere near the market. The big money required to start and develop these kinds of projects is so massive that it inherently ties you to pretty large entities. And the whole shooting match has its roots and boots in the Wake Forest University/Bowman Gray Medical Center complex. Big organization. Academic organization. Despite all the innovation it presides over, it’s still an old-style bureaucratic organization (although PTRP seems a bit less strapped in than some programs are). There’s pretty much zero spontaneity in the machine. It’s high-tech, but to use the formulation of one of my old CEOs, it’s a godzilla, not a gazelle.
And for better or worse, I’m a gazelle. I’ve gotten that way out of necessity – when you can’t get in the door of the big companies (which I couldn’t when I was younger), you learn to evolve, to react quickly, to turn on a dime. You get resourceful and you cultivate a knack for innovation or you die.
This was a real epiphany for me. Despite the fact that Winston-Salem has begun very successfully transitioning itself from dying manufacturing base into promising tech center, it has seized on tech opportunities that leverage the city’s collective psychology – conventional, process-driven, big-focused. (There are small start-ups in the pool here, but they’re surrounded by a larger support structure that lets them achieve efficiencies they couldn’t otherwise. So they can play bigger than they are, I guess I’m saying.)
So in a way I’m back to square one. I’m a guy in a market that’s not really built for me.
Well, this is a theory to think about, I guess. Stay tuned…