California Dreaming: key learnings from the Valley

Kirsty Irvine, Johnston Carmichael
Prior to departure I really wasn’t sure what to expect from my visit (that was done in conjunction with FutureX’s Silicon Valley Scale programme: once a year this brilliant entrepreneurial organisation takes a group of British start-up founders to the region to see how it’s done across the pond). Sure, I knew of many global tech companies that were founded in & around the Bay area: Apple, Twitter, Salesforce, Uber, PayPal to name but a few, and I’d heard all about the culture, the pace, the vibe and how dramatically different it was to Scotland, but many myths abound about the Valley so I was intrigued to see it with my own eyes and hear directly from those operating and living right in the thick of it.

And see & hear I certainly did. Over the course of five days FutureX put on a jam-packed itinerary that ranged from breakfast with tech founders, workshops at Stanford Uni, a masterclass on ‘billion dollar thinking’, meetings after meetings with bankers, investors, advisers, and dinner with some of the movers & shakers in the San Francisco tech scene.

I took pages upon pages of notes: my brain felt like it was rapidly expanding with the learning osmosis that took place sun rise to sundown. I was welcomed, challenged, contradicted, and energised. This is my attempt to capture a few of the key themes that came out of an unforgettable trip.

key lessons

  • Accepting failure: some start-ups fly, many more flop but it was emphasised - both by the Department of International Trade and the Peace Innovation Lab at Stanford University - that the stigma around failure doesn’t exist here and that’s what makes the Valley is so different. Failure can show you’re innovating, that you’re constantly pushing the boundaries: even in failure there is opportunity. Keep an inventory of how you failed, why you failed, and how you recovered so you can take those learnings into your next role. Eric McAfee (entrepreneur, venture capitalist, and philanthropist) said that even after 40+ years in the business his number one quality in a CEO was persistence.

  • Transience: people move a lot in the Valley. It is extremely common to switch roles after a few years or to come to California to build a network, raise funds, then move on. But if you’re a British founder wanting to scale a business in the US then you must commit to being here. In the early days that should be every 4-6 weeks to build those connections and if you’re looking to raise, then it’s full time: top tech law firm Wilson Sonsini told us that a lot of investors expect founder presence. If you’re doing BD and making sales, then consider hiring someone who has experience in the Valley and intimately knows the US market. 

  • Warm connections (and good coffee): everyone we met spoke about the power of warm introductions when raising funds and to maximise the power of your network to achieve this. Chris Neumann from Panache Ventures told us that warm intros are the investor preference as it helps them to filter accordingly. If you don’t have a mutual connection then the more you can do to stick out the better: get a place on reputable accelerator which can give you leverage, establish comms with another founder in a VC’s portfolio, follow an investor on LinkedIn and comment on their posts. We were also that it’s true, CEOs hang out & work in coffee shops a lot and deals often made over a flat white- so as a founder you need to be here to get a feel for that cadence (and embrace the caffeine). 

  • Drop the reserve: people may be open but are very time sensitive so pick up the phone, be direct with your ask, and hop in the Uber and travel to them. This is perhaps the biggest cultural adjustment for Brits with our layers of polite reserve, but Wilson Sonsini emphasised that when approaching investors there’s not as many rules as one would expect. No one is going to shout at you (sure, they might ignore you) and that you get ahead in this game by being assertive. Both tech founders spoke about being constantly on the phone: people pick up here and like calls. Cameron from StoriiCare told us he keeps a database of everything a VC said to him: when you’re pitching day in day out it’s vital to keep that record.

  • Imposter syndrome: two tech founders, both Scots who have relocated over to CA, discussed this. Finbarr Taylor, founder of Shogun told us that ‘taking your business to scale can be a sea of rejection’ and that as a CEO you have to accept harsh feedback and constantly adapt. He recommended having an external coach who will give you a robust report card and to constantly look at your team: hire people who are more experienced than you, who are better than you, who you’ll learn from as it will give you the 360 view. 

  • Emotional Intelligence: perhaps one of my favourite insights over the week came from Executive Recruiter for Apple. When asked about what traits he looks for when hiring he said ‘it's people who have a high IQ and a high EQ - Apple will always get high IQ applicants but we want the emotional intelligence too’. He went on to explain that this combination means people can deal with ambiguity and flexibility which is essential as road maps often change. Apple wants people who, even if very senior, are still all about the detail: they're not hands off management, they want to know what’s going on many levels down. 

There is no blueprint to Silicon Valley: some have tried, and most have failed, to replicate it elsewhere in the world.

However, although its model may be unique, the remarkable mindset that exists in this blue skied, ‘the world is your oyster’ corner of the earth can still taken, tweaked, and implemented closer to home. 
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