Lessons from Silicon Valley

I spent some time in Silicon Valley last week to attend the Startup Grind conference in Redwood City. It was a fantastic two-day conference with a number of founders and CEOs of VCs and tech businesses speaking such as Box, Stripe, Qualtrics, Airbnb, Airtable, Sequoia, YCombinator plus the former US CTO Megan Smith and Google CMO Lorraine Twohill. I learnt such a lot from this trip I thought it would be good to share some of the main points.

The culture amongst the founders and CEOs is incredibly open

I was really surprised how down-to-earth and open all the speakers were. They shared so many of the lessons they had learnt, including their failures and things they would have done differently. There were people on stage who had sold businesses for multi-billion dollar sums and were humble, inspiring and ready for the next challenge.

Culture and processes are key

There was much made about culture, process, focus and execution. Processes – not something always associated with startups – was referred to as the “operating system” of a business, a catalyst which allows you to scale faster. Clearly organisational culture is very important too, often mirroring the founder’s personal ways of working and values. Some founders were hyper-disciplined (one founder had her EA hold her to account on the time she spent against her planned activity), all were excellent communicators of vision and priorities but most of all my key learning was that you should be authentic and bring people together around a common set of values.

In relation to this, Joe Gebbia of Airbnb spoke about how important it is to hire based on values. Clearly, people embody the culture and values of your organisation. It took Airbnb three months to hire one of their first engineers as they had documented their values and wouldn’t compromise until they found the right candidate. Imagine how impatient you would be to get someone on board? However, not compromising clearly determined their culture and therefore their success.

Ultimately if you hire the right people for your values, implement efficient processes and build great products with the right Product/Market fit, execute on a distribution strategy and iterate as you learn whilst maintaining cashflow and growth you can build a great business!

There’s a lot to learn from failure

There were quite a few lessons on the failure of startups and established businesses. Common issues leading to failure included:

  1. Teams ignoring the reality of their product – there should be no taboos talking about product issues.
  2. Leaders not really and deeply understanding their businesses.
  3. Neglecting emergent opportunities and basing decisions on what has worked well in the past when the market has changed.
  4. Avoiding changes to team composition. As businesses scale people can’t always grow in their role and there are different skillsets at required different stages of growth.

Diversity and inclusion is an important objective for many startups

Diversity of founders and investment in social startups was a key theme at the conference, there was a clear sense that technology can help to fix certain issues in the world and close the gap between the rich and poor. A good example was Shift7, Megan Smith’s startup, which is looking to unlock the collective genius of community to transform people, places and systems. Rather than a computer-based AI this is about harnessing the collective intelligence of the world and driving inclusivity through tech solutions.

There are loads of fantastic people working on great ideas

Over the two days I spoke with many amazing startups, entrepreneurs and investors. From a retail point of view the guys at Uncrowd had a brilliant solution looking at customer behaviour, measuring friction and reward points during the customer journey – a true step up from personas and NPS. I spent some time with the Pak-US exchange trip, a contingent of Pakistani entrepreneurs who are fostering links with Silicon Valley tech firms to develop the Pakistani tech scene. I was really impressed by their entrepreneurship and passion for what they do. Finally, the guys at Growthmentor have an excellent platform giving online access to mentors who can guide startups through their growth journey.

Silicon valley is huge!

I’ve visited many tech offices offices in the UK and Europe – but travelling round Google, Apple and Facebook campuses is on a completely different scale. There are smaller cities in the UK! Apple is most of Cupertino, Google is taking over Mountain View, including fantastic leisure facilities and open spaces, and the Facebook campus at 1 Hacker Way is causing so much traffic that they are remodelling the junction on the freeway to cope! In all, these spaces are a pretty accurate physical embodiment of the scale of these mega-businesses.

In all it was a massively inspiring visit, I have learnt loads and made so many great contacts. It will certainly become a regular trip from now on!


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