For the past 5 years, I have been involved with startups, and now running my own one.
I began by helping some founders in the mobile ecosystem when I was at the Symbian Foundation, before starting my own advising firm. In London, I used to live in Shoreditch, considered the startup neighbourhood. There, I have seen the evolution of the “New Business Industry”.
Moving to Helsinki, I realised that although there was a lot of interest and drive to develop that sector, it was still in its infancy. Through my career at Nokia, Symbian Foundation and Rovio, I was lucky to visit the Valley 3 times a year on average for the past 5 years. I managed to connect with local entrepreneurs, some I can now consider as friends. Thanks to Helsinki and London, it is possible to understand some of the mechanics behind the success of the Silicon Valley.
In this post we can only touch the surface, but there are many books dedicated to the Valley.
The Silicon Valley is a mystical place for most of today’s tech entrepreneurs. It has developed not only into the most successful innovation centre but also into a money making machine, and a really well oiled Star factory.
But what makes it so unique?
Why is it the biggest centre for innovation?
What are the challenges for other wannabe Tech centres?
The Silicon Valley is located in a unique environment. Spanning from San Francisco to San Jose, it offers access to various climates. The sun is shining almost all year round, with clear seasons. San Francisco, because of the bay, is quite chilled, never too hot, thanks to the wind. The southern you go, the warmer it gets. Mountains are quite close with Lake Tahoe, with over 10 different resorts. The climate supports not only a more positive attitude, but it also offers opportunities for various outdoor activities.
Such a contrast with London, where you can often read on social networks about the rain, or Helsinki with its cold/darkness. More than the climate, the land available further down the valley has offered opportunities for expansion.
Companies that would start in a small office, or even a garage, could grow rapidly to capture the market, all within a few miles of their previous location. Apple, Google or Facebook, to look at the latest high growth companies, have expanded their offices to a whole campus.
Such expansion is also possible at the outskirt of the city, where the decay of manufacturing job has left empty industrial buildings waiting for a new life. Zynga has capitalised on that, and is established in a large building in the outskirts of the city.
We can’t speak about the Valley without mentioning Palo Alto, home of the Packard Garage, place where the valley was “invented”.
A lot of “notable people” live in the city. The most relevant aspect in the establishment of the Silicon Valley as a tech centre is Stanford University. At the forefront of education, technology and business, Stanford has been setting new standards semester after semester.
Although some successful entrepreneurs are dropouts, or graduated from other universities, Stanford provides a lot of the talent that these entrepreneurs need to develop their businesses. And they are young, eager to grow and learn, willing to put the extra hours to succeed. The average age in new businesses is lower than in traditional businesses.
Climate, land, resources are key elements, but there is something more to the place.
During our trip with Orange last week, we visited over 20 companies. We spent time driving up and down the valley, discussing with entrepreneurs, visiting incubators and accelerators. We were a group from various places in the world: France, UK, Australia, China and Finland (although I am not Finnish, I have lived there 8 years).
Some had already visited the valley, but none of us had been on such an intensive trip. Discussing with my fellow travellers, I realised that for some of them it was a shock. The culture was radically different from what we were used to.
Everything was happening really fast, talking with people was easy, sharing ideas was essential and failure was part of the day to day life. From entrepreneurs to investors, the message was clear: if you want to make it happen, you can. If you’ve given your best and you failed, learn fast and try again.
It is hard to build such a culture from the ground up, and I have always wondered if in the end, the Silicon Valley was only possible in California, where only the true American pioneers managed to get to, furthest away from “New Amsterdam” and furthest away west they could go.
Could it be that their tenacity is the legacy that made the Silicon Valley what it is centuries later?
Of course, one thing that still remains to discuss is money. But money is a byproduct of the culture. Pioneers started with nothing, built products, and sold them, creating an economy of innovation.
From one innovation to the next, this economy has fuelled itself, attracting more talent, talent that is innovation savvy, willing to experiment, creating a market for innovation, generating capital, capital that could be invested in new innovation, building a virtuous cycle.
As said earlier, this post is only scratching the surface, but one thing that is clear, is that in order for places like London, Helsinki, Berlin or Paris to catch up on innovation, the key might just be the culture.
With the economic crisis that Europe is going through, the access to information, and a bit of dreams, we might see a New Order of European entrepreneurs, getting out of their comfort zone and going beyond their cultures to build pockets of innovation across Europe, supporting younger generations to transform their cultures to grow and build the future.