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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39 Responses

  1. Silicon Valley is a great place if you want to start or work in a business that tries to make money like an oil company: a large group of failures that is occasionally offset by a big gusher. But, if you want to build a sustainable business that grows slowly, it’s hindered tremendously by the high cost of employees, housing, etc.

    You can easily make the case that Silicon Valley is a failure. For instance, the unemployment rate of Silicon Valley is 4 points higher than Austin. As you note in your post, San Francisco is a much more interesting place to live; people in Silicon Valley often go to Santa Cruz or San Francisco for the weekend because they are more interesting.

    For more reasons why people in Silicon Valley could be less enthusiastic about their home, see my blog post, Why Does Start-Up Chile Want to Mimic Silicon Valley?

  2. Steve,

    Great post, and a great tour! One other place I’d put in would be to tour the Embarcadero starting over at Pier 38. There’s a thriving hub of the SF Startup scene over there. It’s like looking at a replay of The New New Thing (and you get beautiful Bay Bridge Views)…

    Dave

  3. No Berkeley? :-(

  4. This is epic, thank you.

    One more: pretend you’re starting a tech company.

    Last April a friend and I bought plane tickets to SFO, with no plan and no existing contacts, to pitch my startup and flesh it out over a few weeks. We worked out of University Cafe, Del Doge, and Stanford. We were amazed at our ability to meet with people, pump them for feedback, and learn. We met VCs, entrepreneurs, coders, designers. Ultimately that concept wasn’t right, but the experience of feeding off the critical, creative energy was formative. I moved back as soon as I could, and now live here.

    Pretend you’re starting a company and been assertive about in meeting new people. Or better yet, actually start one. I can’t think of a better way to learn what Silicon Valley is all about.

    Thanks for this post.

    B

  5. Steve — this is a great tour. I think you have it exactly right.

    One thought: you say the area is “on par with classic Athens, renaissance Florence or 1920’s Paris.” Here’s a story I wrote for Salon a few years back digging into the oft used ‘renaissance’ comparison. It’s high asymmetric. And a decade later, very little has changed.

    http://www.salon.com/21st/feature/1998/03/cov_26feature.html

    Interestingly, when Vanity Fair profiled its 2010 ‘Media Establishment’ list last October — where the top five names all lived in or near Palo Alto — it called the city “the Rome of our nascent millennium.”

    http://www.vanityfair.com/business/features/2010/10/the-vf-100-201010

    It’s an interesting thought experiment to imagine ourselves as having more in common with imperial Rome, perhaps, than republican Florence.

    Simon

  6. I would add,
    Stop for lunch at the Bistro at Silicon Valley Ferrari on El Camino Real in Redwood City. Eaves drop on the conversations there.
    Stop and pick out your desired options on your Tesla at the Tesla dealer in Menlo Park.
    Visit what was formerly Ferrari Los Gatos and pick out which ride you need when you go public.

  7. Great tour, Steve! As someone who runs a startup out of Denver, this post is gold for the next time I venture out to the Valley. Thank you for sharing!

  8. That was the kind of an article I was hoping to find and finally did. I’m going to fly to Palo Alto from Moscow to the Deep Dive event this March and I know that you’ll be there teaching us some courses. Steve thanks for your blog, for your book, and for the opportunity to see you in the Valley and talk to you.

  9. Thanks for the shout out to http://www.hackersandfounders.com. I’ve been organizing the meetup in bars and restaurants in the area for the last 3 years, and it’s been a blast.

    One of the things that really frustrates me, though, is how many people move into the area and flounder, not knowing what “Silicon Valley” is, where to go, or what do to. This article is a great start.

    What I think Silicon Valley needs is a Welcome Wagon for new entrepreneurs. I’d love a chance to talk to you about it, Steve.

  10. Just add a Sunday run down to the Pier at Capitola and the newcomer will be all set.

  11. You are also welcome to drop by a Bootstrappers Breakfast, there are 7 a month in Silicon Valley: Palo Alto, Mountain View, Sunnyvale, Milpitas, Walnut Creek and San Francisco (2).

  12. great post steve. fun to be part of what is now history.

  13. Excellent piece Steve with some enormously practical and well informed advice. I’ll use it in my next lecture to post grads on public policy and industry clusters at St Andrews.

  14. [...] 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 [...] [...]

  15. Fun post, Steve. It reminds me of those posters from the 90’s that showed a map of SV with logos of all the big tech co’s on it. 3 quick additions:

    +Get on the “free lunch circuit” by making friends with people who work at Facebook, Twitter, Zynga, and many, many other companies who have (often excellent) in-house chefs

    +Take a left out of South Park and stroll the 2nd Street corridor in SF’s SOMA, which is getting white hot with startup activity (there are 954 startups in SOMA, compared to 263 in Palo Alto and 236 in Mountain View according to Crunchbase)

    +When you’re ready to sell your startup, come to the next http://www.StartupExits.com event to meet M&A teams from the companies most likely to buy you; the last had Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Yahoo; the next one on 4/28 will have LinkedIn, Intuit, Microsoft and Salesforce.

    Nathan Beckord

  16. Hacker Dojo member here – thanks for the love!

    The Dojo is open almost 24/7, always with at least a handful of members around who would gladly give anybody a tour. Feel free to stop by at any time, bring your laptop (or gizmo), and start working on your project alongside others :) We have coffee.

  17. Superb guide. Thank you Steve.

  18. Hi Steve – I really enjoyed this post, it was really unique and really conveyed the uniqueness of Silicon Valley. I have never been, but after reading your article I really want to make a trip out there!

  19. Great piece. My addition: go to San Tomas Expressway or Matilda Ave. or Milpitas or Fremont and look for business parks with long lists of electronics companies or better yet, companies with their names above the door, all companies you’ve never heard of. Realize that the sexy IPO-VC side of Silicon Valley is only the top layer, and that below it are small electronics firms that don’t make much money and aren’t going to get rich on an IPO or M&A.

  20. Attend a SuperHappyDevHouse and surround yourself for a day with 600 coders all building projects and socializing.

  21. Great article – it will help me during my first weeks in the valley!

    Thanks also for the inspiring talk at the blackbox breakfast this morning.

    Best,
    Daniel from Germany

  22. [...] is on to something… and that’s a BIG endorsement.  In his recent post entitled a Visitor’s Guide to Silicon Valley Blank describes the Valley as being “about the interactions, not the buildings.”  He [...]

  23. Good list. I’d add visit Fry’s, the local electronics store and inspiration for many consumer ideas. Also Halted, a used electronic parts emporium in Santa Clara that is the supply room for many startups. And also see Techshop in Menlo Park where DIY culture spans from hobby all the way to business.

  24. Thanks Steve, I am heading to Oakland, San Fran and Palo Alto, for the next 2 weeks. I am looking for tech people and Angels this will help a lot :-)

  25. What are good resources to plan a tech week visit to Mountain View?…

    I found this great “tour suggestion” by Steve Blank: …http://steveblank.com/2011/02/22/a-visitors-guide-to-silicon-valley/…

  26. I have plans to visit silicon valley later this year…this is really cool…very helpful…thanks a million…

  27. [...] of the world. A little while ago, Bob Ell sent me another one of Steve Blank’s article about taking a tour of Silicon Valley, so that I could gain inspiration for my next big idea. Not a bad idea for a road trip, but I do [...]

  28. [...] A visitors guide to Silicon Valley – by Steve Blank [...]

  29. [...] or take a Silicon Valley tour, Steve Blank [...]

  30. I just came here for a few weeks in September for holiday and for Burning Man, but following your guide I ended up working for a cool startup in SF and decided to move here. Great post, thanks! :)

  31. [...] Blank offers a very good overview of the requisite stops during your Silicon Valley tour here:http://steveblank.com/2011/02/22…Note that Steve has worked in Chile before, so use a little networking to get on his [...]

  32. [...] us for dinner too), and we found some incredible resources on the web as well: The Wikipedia articleA Visitor’s Guide to Silicon Valley by Steve Blank (which published on 22nd Feb 2011 was perfectly timed)However, we want to make sure that we [...]

  33. [...] I did the things any young aspiring entrepreneur would do heading to SV for the first time, I read Steve Blank’s blog, read answers to questions about the Valley on Quora and sat down with friends and mentors who have [...]

  34. [...] in the industry happens so frequently, that Silicon Valley godfather Steve Black has put together a Hacker’s Guide to Silicon Valley. Some of the places listed on his map include: Red Rock Coffee and Caffe Centro. Yes, both have [...]

  35. [...] Blueseed CIOBlueseed CIOCheck out Steve Blank's excellent essay on visiting the Bay Area, h… (more) Sign up for free to read the full text. Login if you already have an account.Comment [...]

  36. [...] preparing for this trip I got inspired by among other’s Steve Blank’s “A Visitors Guide to Silicon Valley“, with great suggestions what (not) to do while visiting Silicon Valley. Despite his advice [...]

  37. [...] um blogpost do Steve Blank em que ele fala sobre os lugares a serem visitados no Vale do Silício, ele descreve Stanford como “The Brains of Silicon Valley” (O Cérebro do Vale do Silício). E [...]

  38. [...] um blogpost do Steve Blank em que ele fala sobre os lugares a serem visitados no Vale do Silício, ele descreve Stanford como “The Brains of Silicon Valley” (O Cérebro do Vale do Silício). E [...]

  39. “The Valley is about the Interactions Not the Buildings” Well… here’s more building :-) http://tocatlian.wordpress.com/2013/04/08/a-visitors-guide-to-silicon-valley-geekman-style/

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