Underdogs no more: NYC’s $125 billion tech ecosystem adds 45,000 jobs

April 4, 2014, 9:48 PM UTC
The image of New York tech workers as the outcasts of the city’s hierarchy is starting to shift.

FORTUNE — Unlike those tech workers over in Silicon Valley who live in a Google-bussing, Glass-wearing, Playa-sharing comfort bubble of soft landings and superhero universities, New York startups are toughing it out in the real world. Or so the trope has gone.

New York, a distant No. 2 to Silicon Valley, has “grit and grime”; it’s “real and raw,” according to a PandoDaily piece by Josh Miller, founder of Branch (a link-sharing service that Facebook acquired in January). Taking things a step further, Miller noted that being a startup founder in San Francisco “feels like being a banker in New York.” In other words, in the Valley it’s easier to work in tech — there, you’re the top dog.

Miller’s not the only one with this view. New York techies love to tout the fact that New York isn’t an “industry town” as a major reason for building a company here. Dennis Crowley, CEO of Foursquare, has said he likes the fact that he’s not surrounded by other techies in New York. And on Quora, a question-and-answer website, techies gush over such things as the ability to target products at people who “do not live/eat/breathe tech.”

But the image of tech workers as the outcasts and underdogs of New York’s hierarchy is starting to shift. Deals for companies such as Tumblr, Buddy Media, Makerbot, and Shutterstock are turning employees into millionaires, and early investors into stars. Hot commerce startups such as Warby Parker and Birchbox are enviable places to work. Well-funded media startups such as Refinery29, Vox Media, Complex Media, and BuzzFeed are snapping up all the writing talent that big media cut loose during the recession. And quintessential Brooklyn companies such as Kickstarter and Etsy have blended startup culture with indie culture in a way that no Valley company can replicate. Spotify is planning to IPO. Yahoo is even buying up all our failures.

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In short, tech is no longer the underdog in New York. It’s quickly becoming the top dog, and the numbers back that up. A new study released this week by Citi, Google, and the NY Tech Meetup Association for a Better New York shows the city’s high-tech ecosystem is made up of 291,000 jobs that are enabled by, produce, or facilitate technology, and generate $50 billion in total annual compensation. Tech accounts for 7% of New York’s workforce, placing it just behind retail, which comprises 8% of the workforce. The study also shows New York’s tech sector added 45,000 jobs over the last decade, growing by 18%.

New York tech is spreading its wings. Maybe we don’t even need a cheerleader mayor any more. Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration has said the city needs “a deliberate shift in policy” from Bloomberg’s very active tech-sector development projects. Here’s Alicia Glen, the Mayor’s deputy for housing and economic development, via the Daily News:

Our focus is on really nurturing and growing our own workforce,” she said. “That wasn’t the focus of the prior administration. It doesn’t mean they were bad people … it just means we want to really be able to make our connection between our overall growth and prosperity and making sure regular new Yorkers have a chance to participate in that.

As New York’s tech ecosystem comes into its own, many important question marks remain. For one, Tumblr’s sale wasn’t necessarily a big success for the ecosystem. And the jury is still out on Foursquare, New York tech’s poster child. The long-promised Gilt IPO is still just that. And other big tech leaders are grappling with valuation questions. Fab, for example, hit a major stumbling block last year.

New York has a long way to go to before it matches the Valley’s dominance of tech innovation. But the numbers show that, unlike prior go-arounds, the city’s tech ecosystem might be strong enough to sustain a few blows. In the aftermath of the dotcom bubble, most techies retreated to the advertising, fashion, and finance industries. Now growth looks sustainable and permanent. And that whole “underdog” thing is starting to sound dated.