Monday, December 3, 2007


It's been over three years since Christine and I moved to the Bay Area. We love it here. The wealth of outdoor activities, the weather, friends we've made, and the work that we do. We like how a fair amount of the people are unpretentious here. In NYC, the wealthy tend to flaunt their money. In Silicon Valley, you might never know a multi-millionaire by appearances.

Also the first question many people ask in NYC is, "What school did you go to?" Harvard? UPenn? This is to gauge your possible social status. In Hong Kong the first question is, "Where do you live?" Mid-levels? Discovery Bay? This is to gauge your wealth. Outside of conferences and tech seminars, I haven't experienced a common question that people ask to measure others by. But there is a shadiness in Silicon Valley that I have come to experience in my three short years here.

One interesting characteristic is how many people tend to overstate their relationships. This is a different experience from growing up in the Midwest where you generally state if someone is your friend or acquaintance. In Silicon Valley, everyone is good friends with everybody. So you might hear, "Mike Moritz? I'm friends with him. Great guy. Really great guy..." (met him once at a conference.)

"Ron Conway. Yeah, I got an email that his nephew is sick..." (random email forward about "a prominent angel investor's" nephew.)

"Larry and Sergey? I'm good friends with them. I knew Larry from Michigan..." (sat in an engineering course with Larry and 300 other students)

This characteristic also transfers into stated business relationships.

"Yeah, Cisco is our partner for an upcoming project. Huge deal for us..." (startup is a bronze sponsor of a trade show while Cisco is the platinum sponsor)

"Microsoft has just signed up to be our channel partner. Our sales team is very excited." (just signed up on Micrsoft's adCenter to advertise their startup's products)

I was speaking with one of my friends, who is a movie director, about some of these encounters I had.

He replied, "I bet it's nothing compared to the movie industry. You get this down in LA all the time. You don't know how many producers I've met who say they know this person or have an 'in' with this company... Then you find out that the person they 'knew so well' was only one email conversation.

As one of my mentors told me a while back, 'Hollywood is the one place where you mix Ivy Leaguers and the scum of the earth, but the music industry is where you get the scum of the earth and the scum of the earth.'"

I have wondered what drives people to tell such lies or exaggerations because the world is so small and you're bound to meet someone who is actually good friends with your "supposed" friends and knows that you are not. Or meeting a person who knows someone at the company and division you supposedly have a partnership with. I wonder if these people follow George Constanza's worldview where he tries to keep separate social circles but inevitably panics when his worlds collide!

Another common conversation I have encountered is this odd obsession with whether your startup is "venture-backed." It has gone beyond my ten toes and fingers the amount of times I've heard someone emphasize the words "venture-backed" to me.

"Yes, I was at so-and-so company, which was VENTURE-BACKED."

"I worked at this VENTURE-BACKED startup a few years ago..."

"So was your startup VENTURE-BACKED?"

Through my ten fingers and counting, I was bewildered by this obsession. It seemed to me that it was a bunch of peacocks showing their feathers to other peacocks. From my small world and experience, I assumed that if you're doing a startup that you would be backed by someone whether an angel or VC.

So in a typical conversation where I would explain my background, I would simply state, "Yeah, I was involved in a couple startups..."

A fair amount of times, this would be a calling for people to ask me, "Where these venture-backed?"

It was like the scene out of Austin Powers where Fred Savages's character's mole gave Austin an irresistible urge to say, "Mole. Bloody mole!..."

Try this some time. If you simply say "startup," I estimate that it would be a two in ten chance (if the person doesn't know you) that they will ask "VENTURE-BACKED?"

Anyway, by the time this repeated conversation reached my toes, I realized that not all startups have funding from venture capitalists. Similar to the Hollywood scene where so many people have a movie script or "working on a cool TV project," there are people with a business plan or product without smart money backing them or even zero money. So my bewilderment died and I had to taper my amusement, but I still wondered about this drive for people to overstate relationships and trying to separate themselves from the "chaff."

From these encounters and the comparisons with Hollywood, I began to wonder if these characteristics were industry related or a general West Coast thing? Of course I am not stating that this is reflected by a majority of the people, but enough to recognize that these traits are more prevalent in Silicon Valley and Hollywood than in other regions.

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