Silicon Vegas?

A San Francisco entrepreneur sees a high-tech valley


Can the quirky, workaholic culture of high-tech innovation take up residence in downtown Las Vegas? That’s a question Michael Tchong— a media, technology and marketing guru—plans to answer
by summer.

Tchong, a trend analyst and inspirational speaker, moved here from San Francisco three months ago to create a social engagement research center wherein a new social networking website for businesses—think Facebook, LinkedIn, and Microsoft Office combined—would be born. His idea is to connect business people not only through the Internet, but also via conventions and meetups.

As a startup, Tchong’s research center would initially be modest, with a small number of employees. At the moment, he’s looking at property downtown and interviewing employees. Ultimately, he’d like to see 1,000 high-tech companies in our version of Silicon Valley, which he estimates could contribute $100 million revenue to the state in expenditures, taxes and fees in just a couple of years.

But why here?

“To start a new trend, you need to go where no one expects the trend to begin with,” he says.

Of course, there are reasons why the Valley isn’t already full of high-tech companies. Information technology and Web publishing employees comprise less than 1 percent of our workforce, according to the Center for Business and Economic Research at UNLV, meaning Las Vegas isn’t exactly a tech hotbed.

Thomas Nartker, who teaches software programming at UNLV, says it will be tough to attract talent. Big-name backing is essential, Nartker says. “If you could get Apple to open a major development office, that would be a start,” he says. “If he’s trying to invite a bunch of bright people to come to Las Vegas and they happen to be leaders of corporations leading in technology, that’s perfect. But if it’s just bright programmers, it’s not an exercise that will lead in the right direction.”

Nonetheless, Tchong sees potential in the empty offices and cheap real estate so prevalent here. And his background indicates he may be right.

As a “trendwatcher,” he is the founder and trend analyst of Ubercool. He also founded Interstellar, a consulting and media company, which launched an online market research site called CyberAtlas in 1996. He created the tech company Atelier Systems, raising $1.2 million in venture capital to launch a personal communication system that programs such as Microsoft Outlook still use today. Tchong also founded MacWEEK, the original Apple industry magazine, and speaks to audiences such as Harrah’s Entertainment, Newsweek, Toyota and Zappos about business trends.

He’s confident that his research center would help diversify the local economy, and Nartker concurs. “Software engineering is ranked as the top career for next five to 10 years,” he says. “We need more people in this field more than almost anything.”

By the summer, Tchong plans to have enough venture capital to start work on a social networking site for businesses that addresses frustrations with existing sites. His site might include easily navigable privacy settings and the ability to sort out potential contacts based on “social capital,” or what one person has to offer another in terms of business leads, for example. Contacts could be ranked based on this “social capital,” allowing users to easily filter requests.

“That’s the kind of principle that will rule in future social nets,” Tchong says. “How much do you have to offer?”

The research center will also devise new ways to draw business conventions to Las Vegas, he says. While the number of conventions held in Las Vegas dropped 7 percent over the past year, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, actual convention attendance is up by a sliver—2 percent. That shows potential, and he wants to develop advanced ways to measure convention revenues, attendance and statistic tracking.

Of course, in the ever-evolving world of information technology, there’s always the threat of existing empires. Tchong acknowledges the challenges, but remains optimistic. “Facebook could try to eat our lunch,” he admits. “But I just think more needs to be done.”

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