Amazon is looking, but where is your next innovation hub?

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Photo: Thinkstock/Satenik_Guzhanina
Photo: Thinkstock/Satenik_Guzhanina

Companies that want to set up a base in a new city should consider a few things first, says JWT Atlanta's head of innovation.

Must be nice when everyone wants to invite you to their party. Earlier this month, Amazon sent out an "RFP" to cities across the country as they began their search for the perfect place to build their second headquarters.

Since they’re planning on bringing as much as $5 billion in investment and as many as 50,000 jobs, they have the leverage to come to the table with a pretty specific wish list. The tech giant wants to set up in a city of over a million people, with stable business growth, good local transit options, an international airport and a university hub for recruiting. On top of this they’d like an ethnically diverse local population and are offering bonus points for sustainable infrastructure. Oh, and they’re looking for considerable tax incentives, which may be the most important thing of all, though no one wants to come straight out and say it. 

Now that cities with dollar signs in their eyes have submitted pitches, guessing what town might become Amazon’s future partner has become an entertaining parlor game for those in the business, tech, innovation and media worlds. The company’s pending expansion has also sparked an important conversation around what forward-thinking businesses should be looking for in a hometown, and how cities can make themselves more attractive to these kinds of suitorsl

Of course, there’s only one Amazon. Few other businesses besides Apple and Google are in a position to dangle billions of dollars and tens of thousands of jobs in front of city and state officials. But that doesn’t mean smaller companies shouldn’t consider shopping around to find their perfect home. The U.S. presents more opportunities in a multitude of sectors for large as well as small and medium-sized enterprises than it did a decade ago. 

As America’s established historic tech and business hubs like San Francisco and New York become less and less cost effective due to the skyrocketing cost of living in those areas and declines in incentive-oriented attributes, innovative businesses are smart to move or expand to unexpected places where their money won’t just go further, but the local government might even throw them some incentives. 

For those looking to kick start their growth and innovation practice by setting up a base in a new city, here are a few things to consider as you begin to work on "your deal."

Know yourself. Amazon might be working to take over the world by being all things to all people, but from reading their RFP, it’s clear they know exactly what their values are. They placed an emphasis on diversity, a talented local labor pool and sustainability, proving they aren’t only looking for a financial benefit from their new location, but for ways to support their company beliefs. This is "your deal" you are working on and for "your constituents."

Before starting a move or choosing a city, other companies should do a deep examination of their own beliefs, and ask how a new city could help them better live those values. Would you like to enhance visibility of a ceertain attribute of your company? Is the human element and how you take care of your employees important? Is job creation important to your company? All of these things can make the difference between one city and another.

You don’t have to follow growth, you can create it. Sure, lots of businesses are moving to places like Austin, Los Angeles and Denver, but that doesn’t make those places right or wrong for every company.

Look for seeds of growth, not the scraps left over by other players. This could be something specific like a university center doing innovative work in your field or the fact that a component you need for production comes from there. Or, it could be the spirit of the place—it’s civic pride, the work ethic of the people, it’s strategic location or a cool factor you can use for recruiting. Look at its airports, its transit systems and proximity to recreational destinations. These are all tools you can use to build your own success and perpetuate growth within the city.

Think about how you fit into the larger ecosystem. Innovation isn’t just about new ideas and creations, it’s also about learning from others and inspiring the development of further progress. Adding an HQ or moving value to a place where other companies are innovating, even in entirely unrelated fields, can open the doors to valuable learning experiences if you’re willing to be creative and collaborate. By strengthening the numbers of innovative businesses in a city, you are also helping to create the right conditions for growing a skilled talent pool. At the same time, you are hedging your bet by looking for partners with aligned interests. 

Embrace your new community. Asking for tax breaks or access to talent or infrastructure pipelines is smart business, but if you want the city you’ve adopted to thrive and create growth for your business, you need to give back. And not just to the city but also think about the state as a whole. Support educational initiatives that will lead to a more skilled workforce, do what you can for local causes, local and national parks, give to the arts. Everything a business gives back to their new home makes it that much more attractive to potential recruits and clients alike.

Right now there are dozens of small to medium-sized cities hungry for new business investment and innovation. With smart leadership in government and in Chambers of Commerce across the country, you’ll see adoption a lot easier than you might think it would be. A move to a smaller but established world-class business centers like Atlanta, Georgia, a unique technology center like Melbourne, Florida, or a quieter, more specialized state like Maine can come with enormous financial advantages and can breathe new life and ideas into a business brave enough to take a risk on starting out or adding somewhere new!

Charles Ogilvie is the Head of Innovation at J. Walter Thompson Atlanta.