The San Francisco Bay Area is a global powerhouse at launching startups that go on to dominate their industries. For locals, this has long been a blessing and a curse.
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On the bright side, the tech startup machine produces well-paid tech jobs and dollars flowing into local economies. On the flip side, it also exacerbates housing scarcity and sky-high living costs.
These issues were top-of-mind long before the unicorn boom: After all, tech giants from Intel to Google to Facebook have been scaling up in Northern California for over four decades. Lately however, the question of how many tech giants the region can sustainably support is getting fresh attention as Pinterest, Uber and other super-valuable local companies embark on the IPO path.
The worries of techie oversaturation led us at Crunchbase News to take a look at the question: To what extent do tech companies launched and based in the Bay Area continue to grow here? And what portion of employees work elsewhere?
For those agonizing about the inflationary impact of the local unicorn boom, the data offers a bit of reassurance. While companies founded in the Bay Area rarely move their headquarters, their workforces tend to become much more geographically dispersed as they grow.
Headquarters ≠ Headcount
Just because a company is based in Northern California doesn’t mean most workers are there also. Headquarters, our survey shows, does not always translate into headcount.
“Headquarters location can often be the wrong benchmark to use to identify where employees are located,” said Steve Cadigan, founder of Cadigan Talent Ventures, a Silicon Valley-based talent consultancy. That’s particularly the case for large tech companies.
Among the largest technology employers in Northern California, Crunchbase News found most have fewer than 25 percent of their full-time employees working in the city where they’re headquartered. 1 We lay out the details for ten of the most valuable regional tech companies in the chart below.
With the exception of Intel, all of these companies have a double-digit percentage of employees at headquarters, so it’s not as if they’re leaving town. However, if you’re a new hire at Silicon Valley’s most valuable companies, it appears chances are greater that you’ll be based outside of headquarters.
Tesla, meanwhile, is somewhat of a unique case. The company is based in Palo Alto, but doesn’t crack the city’s list of top ten employers. In nearby Fremont, Calif., however, Tesla is the largest city employer, with roughly 10,000 reportedly working at its auto plant there.(Tesla has about 49,000 employees globally.)
Unicorns Flock To San Fran, Workers Less So
High-valuation private and recently public tech companies can also be pretty dispersed.
Although they tend to have a larger percentage of employees at headquarters than more established technology giants, the unicorn crowd does like to spread its wings.
Take Uber, the poster child for this trend. Although based in San Francisco, the ride-hailing giant has fewer than one-fourth of its employees there. Out of a global workforce of around 22,300, only about 5,000 are SF-based.
It’s unclear if that kind of breakdown is typical. We had trouble assembling similar geographic employee counts at other Bay Area unicorns, mainly because cities break out numbers only for their ten largest employers. The lion’s share of regional unicorns are San Francisco-based, and of them only Uber made the Top Ten.
That said, there is another, rougher methodology for assessing who works at headquarters: job postings. At a number of the most valuable Bay Area-based unicorns — including Airbnb, Juul, Lime, Instacart, Stripe, and the now-public Lyft — a high number of open positions are far from the home office. And as we wrote last year, private companies have been actively seeking out cities to set up secondary hubs.
Even for earlier stage startups, it’s not uncommon to set up headquarters in the San Francisco area for access to financing and networking, while doing the bulk of hiring in another location, Cadigan said. The evolution of collaborative work tools has also enabled more companies to add staff working remotely or in secondary offices.
Plus, of course, unicorn startups tend to be national or global in focus, and that necessitates hiring where their customers are located.
Take Our Jobs, Please
As we wrap up, it’s worth bringing up how unusual it once was for denizens of a metro area to oppose a big influx of high-skill jobs. In the past couple years, however, these attitudes have become more common. Witness Queens residents’ mixed reactions to Amazon’s HQ2 plans. And in San Francisco, a potential surge of newly minted IPO millionaires is causing some consternation among locals, along with jubilation among the realtor crowd.
Just as college towns retain room for new students by graduating older ones, however, it seems reasonable that sustaining Northern California’s strength as a startup hub requires locating jobs out-of-area as companies scale. That could be good news for other cities, including Austin, Phoenix, Nashville, Portland, and others, which have emerged as popular secondary locations for fast-growing unicorns.
That said, we’re not predicting near-term contraction in Bay Area tech employment, particularly of the startup variety. The region’s massive entrepreneurial and venture ecosystem keeps on producing valuable newcomers well-capitalized to keep hiring.
We looked only at employment at company headquarters (except for Apple). Companies on the list may have additional employees based in other Northern California cities. For Apple, we included all Silicon Valley employees, per estimates by the Silicon Valley Business Journal.
Numbers are rounded to the nearest hundred for the largest employers. Most of the data is for full-time employees only. Large tech employers hire predominantly full-time for staff positions, so part time, whether included or not, is expected to reflect only a very small percentage of employment.
Cities list their 10 largest employers in annual reports. We used either the annual reports themselves or data excerpted in Wikipedia, using calendar year 2017 or 2018.
Illustration: Li-Anne Dias.
To understand how we analyzed employment statistics in this analysis, view the methodology section below. ↩