Like many small businesses, my company was upended by the pandemic. My New York City office no longer made sense, as most of my clients were operating remotely. I found that I could run my design firm from my basement in New Jersey, connecting through videoconferences that proved to be just as effective as in-person meetings.
All of a sudden, ZIP codes meant zero. Anybody could work anywhere. With that in mind, my wife and I undertook a life experiment. We packed our cars, rented temporary housing and office space, and returned to my hometown for a month to see what would happen.
I called it the Pittsburgh test.
We had left Pittsburgh 29 years ago when a newspaper strike put our jobs at risk. We were expecting our first child and needed job security that our employer couldn't guarantee. We both ended up with positions at the Detroit Free Press, and then The New York Times. I went on to work at Time magazine and then started my own company, helping companies like AT&T, Chase, Google, and Amazon tell better stories.
I wanted to make sure my own story resonated, so I created a website. I placed ads in local media, wrote newspaper columns, did a radio interview, and plastered cartoon versions of my face all over town. My caricature appeared in office windows, on cardboard masks and colorful socks handed out to complete strangers, and on a billboard along one of the city's busiest thoroughfares.
I had no idea what to expect from the Pittsburgh test. Over the years I had returned for short visits to see friends and family, long enough to take in a Steelers game or take down a Primanti's sandwich, but not enough to truly experience what it would be like to go home again.
The results surprised even me.
My wife and I immediately fell back in love with Pittsburgh. Its three rivers frame a vibrant city where companies like Google and Facebook have opened large offices. Innovation abounds, with dozens of robotics companies reinventing the way people move from place to place, construct buildings, and perform surgeries. Homegrown companies like Duolingo and Aurora have made their presence known on Wall Street through IPOs and SPACs.
Quality of life was another factor. Bike paths have made it possible to pedal anywhere -- I covered 100 miles my first weekend and even rode to a Pirates game. (They won!) When traveling by car, it seemed that no destination was ever more than 10 minutes away. We enjoyed incredible meals with friends and family, often at significantly better prices than what we were used to paying in New York City.
Two weeks into the Pittsburgh test, we were sold. We bought the sixth house we visited, a townhouse on the South Side within walking distance of dozens of restaurants and a five-minute commute from my new office at One PPG Place. For the same cost as an interior WeWork space in Times Square, I was able to rent a 31st-floor downtown office with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Pittsburgh's Golden Triangle.
My marketing campaign helped me to connect with many Pittsburghers -- entrepreneurs, inventors, investors, educators, former colleagues and classmates, and more than a few strangers. Their stories inspired me to sell my house and move to Pittsburgh, to be part of an ecosystem powered by major universities, some of the world's most recognizable companies, and hundreds of companies that you haven't yet heard of but most certainly will.
I even had the chance to meet with Pittsburgh mayor Bill Peduto, who responded to an invitation to meet under my billboard for a photo shoot. Just as the message on the billboard reverberated with Pittsburghers, it calls out to any small-business owner anywhere considering a dramatic change of scenery.
Go Big AND Go Home, it said. As I've learned from the Pittsburgh test, it is truly possible.