A Visitors Guide to Silicon Valley

If you’re a visiting dignitary whose country has a Gross National Product equal to or greater than the State of California, your visit to Silicon Valley consists of a lunch/dinner with some combination of the founders of Google, Facebook, Apple and Twitter and several brand name venture capitalists. If you have time, the President of Stanford will throw in a tour, and then you can drive by Intel or some Clean Tech firm for a photo op standing in front of an impressive looking piece of equipment.

The “official dignitary” tour of Silicon Valley is like taking the jungle cruise at Disneyland and saying you’ve been to Africa. Because you and your entourage don’t know the difference between large innovative companies who once were startups (Google, Facebook, et al) and a real startup, you never really get to see what makes the valley tick.

If you didn’t come in your own 747, here’s a guide to what to see in the valley (which for the sake of this post, extends from Santa Clara to San Francisco.) This post offers things to see/do for two types of visitors: I’m just visiting and want a “tourist experience” (i.e. a drive by the Facebook / Google / Zynga / Apple building) or “I want to work in the valley” visitor who wants to understand what’s going on inside those buildings.

I’m leaving out all the traditional stops that you can get from the guidebooks.

Hackers’ Guide to Silicon Valley
Silicon Valley is more of a state of mind than a physical location. It has no large monuments, magnificent buildings or ancient heritage. There are no tours of companies or venture capital firms. From Santa Clara to South San Francisco it’s 45 miles of one bedroom community after another. Yet what’s been occurring for the last 50 years within this tight cluster of suburban towns is nothing short of an “entrepreneurial explosion” on par with classic Athens, renaissance Florence or 1920’s Paris.

California Dreaming
On your flight out, read Paul Graham’s essays and Jessica Livingston’s Founders at Work. Then watch the Secret History of Silicon Valley and learn what the natives don’t know.

Palo Alto – The Beating Heart 1
Start your tour in Palo Alto. Stand on the corner of Emerson and Channing Street in front of the plaque where the triode vacuum tube was developed. Walk to 367 Addison Avenue, and take a look at the HP Garage. Extra credit if you can explain the significance of both of these spots and why the HP PR machine won the rewrite of Valley history.

Walk to downtown Palo Alto at lunchtime, and see the excited engineers ranting to one another on their way to lunch. Cram into Coupa Café full of startup founders going through team formation and fundraising discussions. (Noise and cramped quarters basically force you to listen in on conversations) or University Café or the Peninsula Creamery to see engineers working on a startup or have breakfast in Il Fornaio to see the VC’s/Recruiters at work.

Stanford – The Brains
Drive down University Avenue into Stanford University as it turns into Palm Drive. Park on the circle and take a walking tour of the campus and then head to the science and engineering quad. Notice the names of the buildings; Gates, Allen, Moore, Varian, Hewlett, Packard, Clark, Plattner, Yang, Huang, etc. Extra points if you know who they all are and how they started their companies. You too can name a building after your IPO (and $30 million.) Walk by the Terman Engineering building to stand next to ground zero of technology entrepreneurship. See if you can find a class being taught by Tom Byers, Kathy Eisenhardt, Tina Seelig or one of the other entrepreneurship faculty in engineering.

Attend one of the free Entrepreneurial Thought Leader Lectures in the Engineering School. Check the Stanford Entrepreneurship Network calendar or the BASES calendar for free events. Stop by the Stanford Student Startup Lab and check out the events at the Computer Forum.  If you have time, head to the back of campus and hike up to the Stanford Dish and thank the CIA for its funding.

Mountain View – The Beating Heart 2
Head to Mountain View and drive down Amphitheater Parkway behind Google, admiring all the buildings and realize that they were built by an extinct company, Silicon Graphics, once one of the hottest companies in the valley (Shelley’s poem Ozymandias should be the ode to the cycle of creative destruction in the valley.) Next stop down the block is the Computer History Museum. Small but important, this museum is the real deal with almost every artifact of the computing and pre-computing age (make sure you check out their events calendar.) On leaving you’re close enough to Moffett Field to take a Zeppelin ride over the valley. If it’s a clear day and you have the money after a liquidity event, it’s a mind-blowing trip.

Next to Moffett Field is Lockheed Missiles and Space, the center of the dark side of the Valley. Lockheed came to the valley in 1956 and grew from 0 to 20,000 engineers in four years. They built three generations of submarine launched ballistic missiles and spy satellites for the CIA, NSA and NRO on assembly lines in Sunnyvale and Palo Alto. They don’t give tours.

While in Mountain View drive by the site of Shockley Semiconductor and realize that from this one failed company, founded the same year Lockheed set up shop, came every other chip company in Silicon Valley.

Lunch time on Castro Street in downtown Mountain View is another slice of startup Silicon Valley. Hang out at the Red Rock Café at night to watch the coders at work trying to stay caffeinated. If you’re still into museums and semiconductors, drive down to Santa Clara and visit the Intel Museum.

Sand Hill Road – Adventure Capital
While we celebrate Silicon Valley as a center of technology innovation, that’s only half of the story. Startups and innovation have exploded here because of the rise of venture capital. Think of VC’s as the other equally crazy half of the startup ecosystem.

You can see VC’s at work over breakfast at Bucks in Woodside, listen to them complain about deals over lunch at Village Pub or see them rattle their silverware at Madera. Or you can eat in the heart of old “VC central” in the Sundeck at 3000 Sand Hill Road. While you’re there, walk around 3000 Sand Hill looking at all the names of the VC’s on the building directories and be disappointed how incredibly boring the outside of these buildings look. (Some VC’s have left the Sand Hill Road womb and have opened offices in downtown Palo Alto and San Francisco to be closer to the action.) For extra credit, stand outside one of the 3000 Sand Hill Road buildings wearing a sandwich-board saying “Will work for equity” and hand out copies of your executive summary and PowerPoint presentations.

Drive by the Palo Alto house where Facebook started (yes, just like the movie) and the house in Menlo Park that was Google’s first home. Drive down to Cupertino and circle Apple’s campus. No tours but they do have an Apple company store which doesn’t sell computers but is the only Apple store that sells logo’d T-shirts and hats.

San Francisco – Startups with a Lifestyle
Drive an hour up to San Francisco and park next to South Park in the South of Market area. South of Market (SoMa) is the home address and the epicenter of Web 2.0 startups. If you’re single, living in San Francisco and walking/biking to work to your startup definitely has some advantages/tradeoffs over the rest of the valley. Café Centro is South Park’s version of Coupa Café. Or eat at the American Grilled Cheese Kitchen. (You’re just a few blocks from the S.F. Giants ballpark. If it’s baseball season take in a game in a beautiful stadium on the bay.) And four blocks north is Moscone Center, the main San Francisco convention center. Go to a trade show even if it’s not in your industry.

The Valley is about the Interactions Not the Buildings
Like the great centers of innovation, Silicon Valley is about the people and their interactions. It’s something you really can’t get a feel of from inside your car or even walking down the street. You need to get inside of those building and deeper inside those conversations. Here’s a few suggestions of how to do so.

  • If you want the ultimate startup experience, see if you can talk yourself into carrying someone’s bags as they give a pitch to a VC.  Be a fly on the wall and soak it in.
  • If you’re trying to get a real feel of the culture, apply and interview for jobs in three Silicon Valley companies even if you don’t want any of them. The interview will teach your more about Silicon Valley company culture and the valley than any tour.
  • If you’re visiting to raise money or to get to know “angels” use AngelList to get connected to seed investors before you arrive.
  • Never leave.

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College and Business Will Never Be the Same

Education is what remains after one has forgotten everything he learned in school
Attributed to Albert Einstein, Mark Twain and B.F. Skinner

There are 4633 accredited, degree-granting colleges and universities in the United States. This weekend I had dinner last night with one of them – a friend who’s now thePresident of Philadelphia University. He’s working hard to reinvent the school into a model for 21st century Professional education.

The Silo Career Track
One of the problems in business today is that college graduates trained in a single professional discipline (i.e. design, engineering or business) end up graduating as domain experts but with little experience working across multiple disciplines.

In the business world of the of the 20th century it was assumed that upon graduation students would get jobs and focus the first years of their professional careers working on specific tasks related to their college degree specialty. It wasn’t until the middle of their careers that they find themselves having to work across disciplines (engineers, working with designers and product managers and vice versa) to collaborate and manage multiple groups outside their trained expertise.

This type of education made sense in design, engineering and business professions when graduates could be assured that the businesses they were joining offered stable careers that gave them a decade to get cross discipline expertise.

20th Century Professional Education
Today, college graduates with a traditional 20th century College and University curriculum start with a broad foundation but very quickly narrow into a set of specific electives focused on a narrow domain expertise.

Interdisciplinary and collaborative courses are offered as electives but don’t really close the gaps between design, engineering and business.

Interdisciplinary Education in a Volatile, Complex, and Ambiguous World
The business world is now a different place. Graduating students today are entering a world with little certainty or security. Many will get jobs that did not exist when they started college. Many more will find their jobs obsolete or shipped overseas by the middle of their career.

This means that students need skills that allow them to be agile, resilient, and cross functional. They need to view their careers knowing that new fields may emerge and others might disappear. Today most college curriculum are simply unaligned with modern business needs.

Over a decade ago many research universities and colleges recognized this problem and embarked on interdisciplinary education to break down the traditional barriers between departments and specialties. (At Stanford, the D-School offers graduate students in engineering, medicine, business, humanities, and education an interdisciplinary way to learn design thinking and work together to solve big problems.) This isn’t as easy as it sounds as some of the traditional disciplines date back centuries (with tenure, hierarchy and tradition just as old.)

Philadelphia University Integrates Design, Engineering and Commerce
At dinner, I got to hear about how Philadelphia University was tackling this problem in undergraduate education. The University, with 2600 undergrads and 500 graduate students, started out in 1884 as the center of formal education for America’s textile workers and managers. The 21st century version of the school just announced its new Composite Institute for industrial applications.

(Full disclosure, Philadelphia University’s current president, Stephen Spinelli was one of my mentors in learning how to teach entrepreneurship. At Babson College he was chair of the entrepreneurship department and built the school into one of the most innovative entrepreneurial programs in the U.S.)

Philadelphia University’s new degree program, Design, Engineering and Commerce (DEC) will roll out this Fall. It starts with a core set of classes that all students take together; systems thinking, user-centric design, business models and team dynamics. These classes start the students thinking early about customers, value, consumer insights, and then move to systems thinking with an emphasis on financial, social, and political sustainability. They also get a healthy dose of liberal arts education and then move on to foundation classes in their specific discipline. But soon after that Philadelphia University’s students move into real world projects outside the university. The entire curriculum has heavy emphasis on experiential learning and interdisciplinary teams.

The intent of the DEC program is not just teaching students to collaborate, it also teaches them about agility and adaptation. While students graduate with skills that allow them to join a company already knowing how to coordinate with other functions, they carry with them the knowledge of how to adapt to new fields that emerge long after they graduate.

This type of curriculum integration is possible at Philadelphia because they have:
1) a diverse set of 18 majors, 2) three areas of focus; design, engineering, and business and 3) a manageable scale (~2,600 students.)

I think this school may be pioneering one of the new models of undergraduate professional education. One designed to educate students adept at multidisciplinary problem solving, innovation and agility.

College and business will never be the same.

Lessons Learned

  • Most colleges and Universities are still teaching in narrow silos
  • It’s hard to reconfigure academic programs
  • It’s necessary to reconfigure professional programs to match the workplace
  • Innovation needs to be applied to how we teach innovation

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Startup America – Dead On Arrival

For its first few decades Silicon Valley was content flying under the radar of Washington politics. It wasn’t until Fairchild and Intel were almost bankrupted by Japanese semiconductor manufacturers in the early 1980’s that they formed Silicon Valley’s first lobbying group. Microsoft did not open a Washington office until 1995.

Fast forward to today. The words “startup,” “entrepreneur,” and “innovation” are used fast, loose and furious by both parties in Washington. Last week the White House announced Startup America, a public/private initiative to accelerate accelerate high-growth entrepreneurship in the U.S.  by expanding startups access to capital (with two $1 billion programs); creating a national network of entrepreneurship education, commercializing federally-funded research and development programs and getting rid of tax and paperwork barriers for startups.

What’s not to like?

My observation. Startup America is a mashup of very smart programs by very smart people but not a strategy. It made for a great photo op, press announcement and impassioned speeches. (Heck, who wouldn’t go to the White House if the President called.) It engaged the best and the brightest who all bring enormous energy and talent to offer the country. The technorati were effusive in their praise.

I hope it succeeds. But I predict despite all of Washingtons’ good intentions, it’s dead on arrival.

Dead On Arrival
I got a call from a recruiter looking for a CEO for the Startup America Partnership. Looking at the job spec reminded me what it would be like to lead the official rules committee for the Union of Anarchists.

There are three problems. First, an entrepreneurship initiative needs to be an integral part of both a coherent economic policy and a national innovation policy – one that creates jobs for Main Street versus Wall Street. It should address not only the creation of new jobs, but also the continued hemorrhaging of jobs and entire strategic industries offshore.

Second, trying to create Startup America without understanding and articulating the distinctions among the four types of entrepreneurship (described later) means we have no roadmap of where to place the bets on job growth, innovation, legislation and incentives.

Third, the notion of a public/private partnership without giving entrepreneurs a seat at the policy table inside the White House is like telling the passengers they can fly the plane from their seats. It has zero authority, budget or influence. It’s the national cheerleader for startups.

The Four Types of Entrepreneurship
“Startup,” “entrepreneur,” and “innovation” now means everything to everyone. Which means in the end they mean nothing. There doesn’t seem to be a coherent policy distinction between small business startups, scalable startups, corporations dealing with disruptive innovation and social entrepreneurs. The words “startup,” “entrepreneur,” and “innovation” mean different things in Silicon Valley, Main Street, Corporate America and Non Profits. Unless the people who actually make policy (rather than the great people who advise them) understand the difference, and can communicate them clearly, the chance of any of the Startup America policies having a substantive effect on innovation, jobs or the gross domestic product is low.

1. Small Business Entrepreneurship
Today, the overwhelming number of entrepreneurs and startups in the United States are still small businesses. There are 5.7 million small businesses in the U.S. They make up 99.7% of all companies and employ 50% of all non-governmental workers.

Small businesses are grocery stores, hairdressers, consultants, travel agents, internet commerce storefronts, carpenters, plumbers, electricians, etc. They are anyone who runs his/her own business. They hire local employees or family. Most are barely profitable. Their definition of success is to feed the family and make a profit, not to take over an industry or build a $100 million business. As they can’t provide the scale to attract venture capital, they fund their businesses via friends/family or small business loans.

2. Scalable Startup Entrepreneurship
Unlike small businesses, scalable startups are what Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and their venture investors do. These entrepreneurs start a company knowing from day one that their vision could change the world. They attract investment from equally crazy financial investors – venture capitalists. They hire the best and the brightest. Their job is to search for a repeatable and scalable business model.  When they find it, their focus on scale requires even more venture capital to fuel rapid expansion.

Scalable startups in innovation clusters (Silicon Valley, Shanghai, New York, Bangalore, Israel, etc.) make up a small percentage of entrepreneurs and startups but because of the outsize returns, attract almost all the risk capital (and press.) Startup America was focussed on this segment of startups.

3. Large Company Entrepreneurship
Large companies have finite life cycles. Most grow through sustaining innovation, offering new products that are variants around their core products. Changes in customer tastes, new technologies, legislation, new competitors, etc. can create pressure for more disruptive innovation – requiring large companies to create entirely new products sold into new customers in new markets. Existing companies do this by either acquiring innovative companies or attempting to build a disruptive product inside. Ironically, large company size and culture make disruptive innovation extremely difficult to execute.

4. Social Entrepreneurship
Social entrepreneurs are innovators who focus on creating products and services that solve social needs and problems. But unlike scalable startups their goal is to make the world a better place, not to take market share or to create to wealth for the founders. They may be nonprofit, for-profit, or hybrid.

So What?
Each of these four very different business segments require very different educational tools, economic incentives (tax breaks, paperwork/regulation reduction, incentives), etc.  Yet as different as they are, understanding them together is what makes the difference between a jobs and innovation strategy and a disconnected set of tactics.

Go take a look at any of the government organizations talking about entrepreneurship and see how many of its leaders or staff actually started a company or a venture firm. Or had to make a payroll with no money in the bank. We’re trying to kick-start a national initiative on startups, entrepreneurs and innovation with academics, economists and large company executives. Great for policy papers, but probably not optimal for making change.

Rather than having our best and the brightest visit for a day, what we need sitting in the White House (and on both sides of the aisle in Congress) are people who actually have started, built and grown companies and/or venture firms. (If we’re serious about this stuff we should have some headcount equivalence to the influence bankers have.)

Next time the talent shows up for a Startup America initiative, they ought to be getting offices not sound bites.

Lessons Learned

  • Lots of credit in trying to “talk-the-talk” of startups
  • No evidence that Washington yet understands the types of entrepreneurs and startups; how they differ, and how they can form a cohesive and integrated jobs and innovation strategy
  • Not much will happen until entrepreneurs and VC’s have a seat at the table

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VC’s Are Not Your Friends

One of the biggest mistakes entrepreneurs make is not understanding the relationship they have with their investors. At times they confuse VC’s with their friends.

Lets Go to Lunch
At Rocket Science our video game company was struggling. Hubris, bad CEO decisions (mine) and a fundamental lack of understanding that we were in a “hits-based” entertainment business not in a Silicon Valley technology company were slowly killing us.

One day I got a call from my two investors, “Hey Steve, we’re both going to be up in San Francisco, lets grab lunch.” I liked my two investors. I’d known them for years, they were smart, trying to figure out the video game market with me, (in hindsight a business that none of us knew anything about and shouldn’t have been in,) coached me when needed, etc. Our board meetings were collegial and often fun.

We were just about to have a board meeting in another week to talk about raising another round of financing to keep our struggling disaster afloat. I had assumed that my VC’s were behind me. Thinking we were having a social call, I was completely unprepared for the discussion. (Lesson – never take a VC meeting without knowing the agenda.)

“Steve, we thought we’d tell you this before the board meeting, but both our firms are going to pass on leading your next round.” I was speechless. I felt like I had just been kicked in the gut and stabbed in the back These were my lead investors. It was the ultimate vote of no confidence. If they passed the odds of anyone in the entire country funding us was zero. I knew they had been questioning our ability to stay afloat as a company in the board meetings so this wasn’t a complete surprise but I would have expected some offer a bridge loan or some sign of support. (I finally got them to agree if I could find someone else to lead the round they would put in a token amount to say they were still supportive.)

“Is this about me as the CEO?” I asked. “I’ll resign if you guys think you can hire someone else you want to back.” They looked a bit sheepish and replied, “No it’s not you. You should stay and run the company. However, we realized that we’ve backed a business we don’t know much about, the company is a money sink and both our firms have no stomach for this industry.”

“But I thought you guys were my friends?!” You’re supposed to support me!! I said out of utter frustration.

VC’s Are Not Your Friends
I had just gotten a very expensive reminder. I liked my board members. They liked me. But while I was just seeing a single board member, I was just one of twenty companies in their current fund portfolio. Their fiduciary responsibility was to manage a portfolio of investments for their limited partners. And what they promised their own investors was that they would invest money in deals that would grow in value and achieve liquidity. As much as they liked me as the entrepreneur, they couldn’t throw good money after bad when they thought the deal went south.

I wish I could tell you I understood this all at the time. I didn’t. I was angry, took it personally for a long time (past the demise of Rocket Science) until I realized they were right.

While the best VC’s treat entrepreneurs like you are their most important customer, and they add tremendous value to your startup (recruiting, strategy, coaching, connections, etc.) they are not doing it out of the goodness of their hearts. Entrepreneurs need to understand that VC’s are simply a sophisticated form of financial investors who in turn need to satisfy their own investors. At the end of the day VC’s have to provide their limited partners with great returns or they aren’t going to be able to raise another fund.

If you succeed so do they. Great VC’s do everything they can to make you successful. But just like your bank, credit card company, mortgage holder, etc. they are not confused where their long term loyalty lies.

It’s not with you.

Postscript
The irony is 15 years later, no longer doing startups, these two VC’s truly have become my friends. We have lunch often, teach together and swap war stories of the day they pulled my funding.

It wasn’t an easy lesson.

Lessons Learned

  • You see one VC, they see 20 CEO’s
  • Don’t confuse your business with your VC’s business
  • Your interests are aligned if you both see the same path to liquidity
  • Don’t confuse being friendly with your VC’s with VC’s as your friend

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