Last year my three co-founders and I left Cape Town to attend Highway1, PCH’s hardware accelerator program in San Francisco. We’ve been surprised by many things on our journey—here are 10 that have stayed with me.
Almost everyone I’ve met has wanted to help us succeed. "So, what's the best way I can help you?" is a frequent question in a first meeting. Advice is forthcoming and, for the most part, so are introductions to others who can help you.
People don't expect much in return except that you are responsive, courteous and punctual. If you win big, there will be plenty of opportunities to help them back or to help others in turn.
The pay-it-forward culture is the most distinctive characteristic of the Bay Area, and is its secret sauce.
The top investors, founders and engineers are a relatively small group, and they're constantly bombarded by opportunities—far too many to process. They rely on people they trust to help focus their attention on the most interesting opportunities.
If you'd like to meet a good investor, for example, you're going to need a warm introduction from someone they know. Cold calls/ emails/ tweets/ LinkedIn messages are unlikely to work—no matter how great we think our startups are.
A warm introduction looks something like: "Hey Jason, meet David! I think you'll find it valuable to meet because of x, y & z." And therein lies the key—for someone to introduce me, they have to believe it will be valuable for their contact. They're happy to help me out, but they're also nurturing their relationships and reputation.
If someone makes an introduction for you, be prepared and clear about what you want from the meeting, and say thank you after. Don't let them down by being discourteous. You need to nurture your relationships and reputation too.
Almost every company you'd want to work with—as a client, supplier, or partner—is here. And people are remarkably generous with their time and often happy to meet for a quick coffee.
Want to chat to a CPU supplier about their roadmap and about features you want? No problem—even though they've never heard of you and they're 1,000X your size. To them, an unknown startup in San Francisco might be the next unicorn and a great future business partner; an unknown startup on the other side of the world is less likely to be.
Any skill or experience you need, you can find here—no matter how specific. Need an expert in thermal design for equipment mounted on rooftops in the desert? Check. Now, as a startup you may not be able to afford the top people's rates, but I’ve found many more people here are willing to work for a slice of equity than elsewhere.
Sure, there are naysayers everywhere, even here. But people are less likely to scoff at your idea because it is too big or too weird. That's because there are loads of examples of successful startups with big and/or weird ideas: Airbnb, Snapchat and SpaceX, to name a few.
At home—where most of our success stories are more modest in ambition and scale—friends, family and advisors encourage you to be more cautious and perhaps aim a little lower: "You sure you don't want to just make an app?"
Here, no idea is too bold, as long as you have guts and a great team (and a plausible plan) to take it on.
As a founder here, you're competing for everything: funding, employees, apartments and a seat on the BART. And there is a shortage of everything, too. It's not uncommon to see 30+ minute queues for something as basic as decent coffee. As a result, pretty much everything is extremely expensive. (Some say unbelievably expensive. Believe it!)
This is the center of the technology world; there is so much you can do and there are so many people to meet and learn from. All the opportunities and activity make it a cognitively noisy environment.
Many distractions are easy to feel good about and rationalize as work, e.g. meet ups, lectures, conferences, pitch competitions, actual pitches, meetings with potential partners... but mostly these don't result in growing your business. You have to be ruthless with your time and focus on your business, while still preserving some level of serendipity.
Balancing focus and FOMO isn't easy.
Investors, prospective employees and everyone else see so many startups that they have to rely on pattern matching to make sense of them and rapidly decide how to focus their attention. Reducing your startup—full of its unique intricacies and potential—to the "Uber for X" or "Airbnb for Y" seems trite, but shortcuts like this helps others quickly understand what you're doing.
For example, when pitching, investors expect to receive information in a particular way: chiefly your most important and impressive points (usually traction) first. Save the lengthy background information for another time. Also, modesty is valued in some other business cultures, but confidence wins here.
Be mindful of what people expect. Be prepared. Be confident. Be brief.
I was skeptical for a long time. From the outside I put much of the hype around San Francisco and Silicon Valley down to confirmation bias, rationalization, favoritism, wishful thinking, or some combination of these things. After all, in this connected world that Silicon Valley helped to create, does geographical location still matter?
In short, yes. The ecosystem of capital and talent, the culture of risk taking and failure tolerance, and the opportunities in the Bay Area are far beyond what I've seen elsewhere. There’s nowhere you can learn and improve faster. And you need to be here in person to tap in.
There are many great cities to start a startup, but the Bay Area is special.
Every day we’ve met great people, stretched ourselves and learned a lot.
Looking back, I wish we’d come sooner.
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