Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Silicon Valley’s Pay-It-Forward Culture Drives Innovation

My first blog post at Privy.net is up! Check it out here or just read below:

Recently, the highly regarded serial entrepreneur and Stanford lecturer, Steve Blank, wrote a piece titled, “The pay-it-forward culture of startups”. Reading it allowed me to revisit a common question that is asked to so many people in Silicon Valley. What makes this area so unique as the entrepreneurial innovation engine to the world? Representatives from countries, cities and companies all over the world visit the halls of HP, Google, Facebook, Twitter and others every week to somehow bottle the special air we breathe here or the secret potion that’s poured into our water.

There have been numerous studies done on the rare combination in Silicon Valley of venture capital, major research universities and a large pool of engineering and entrepreneurial talent, but I really believe it is the intangibles that make Silicon Valley unique and foster an incredible amount of innovation. The tangible elements have been replicated, such as in NYC or Boston, but the intangibles are more difficult to replicate.

Steve Blank described the pay-it-forward culture and how it allowed a young Steve Jobs to be mentored by Bob Noyce, Founder and CEO of Intel, and how this helped in Job’s development to become the most influential CEO of the past decade. It is the ubiquity of this pay-it-forward culture that makes Silicon Valley unique.

What does paying it forward mean? Providing information and knowledge about how to build a technology company, how to raise venture capital, and the countless lessons learned from startup life. There are seminars and consultants that provide such knowledge, but an important fabric of Silicon Valley are the experienced entrepreneurs who are happy to pass down their experiences, mistakes, successes and any kernel of wisdom that they can provide to help others to succeed.

In other industries, regions in the U.S. or elsewhere in the world, it would be considered idiotic as a business practice but not here in Silicon Valley. Most people understand that it’s not the idea, but the execution that creates the bridge towards success. A common saying is that for every “brilliant” startup idea you have there are at least 10 other people thinking the same thing, so it becomes a race to execution.

Imagine traders on Wall Street sharing all their ideas openly or Hollywood producers sharing movie script ideas? I assume this rarely happens. The culture of investment banking in NYC and Hollywood in LA value information and ideas as a competitive edge more so than in Silicon Valley.

Another essential element that I believe helps to create this pay-it-forward culture is the notion that some or most of a startup’s success is driven by luck. You have to assume at least one if not all your competitors are just as smart as you, work endless nights like you and have no social life like you. So what is the difference? Luck. I remember reading a great op-ed by a serial entrepreneur during the late ‘90s. He had 5 successful exits (a few of them were hundreds of millions each for his coffers) and 4 failed startups, but in the end he attributed most of his success to luck and timing, which he stated he could not control. So even with some of the most arrogant entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley there is an underlying sense of humility.

After my first startup during my late twenties through all the hardships that my co-founders and I endured, I remember speaking with my colleague and close friend, Jimmy, about vowing to help other entrepreneurs as much as we could so they don’t suffer like we did. This first startup was based in Chicago and Seoul. It wasn’t Silicon Valley, but the startup experience created this pay-it-forward culture within me that resounds strongly to this day.

Since Silicon Valley is the startup Mecca of the world, I eventually moved here in 2004. There are factors that attract many technology entrepreneurs all over the globe to build their dreams here and this critical mass of like-minded people is what has made Silicon Valley unique.

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