What London can learn from Silicon Valley
London should stop trying to replicate Silicon Valley's infrastructure and instead try to learn from its culture, argues William Channer
“If you want to change the world, then you need to be here in San Francisco.” Those were the blunt words of Tristan O’Tierney, the co-founder of Square. As we sat outside in the afternoon, enjoying the crisp breeze, he pointed directly above my head and said: “That’s where Jack Dorsey lives. That’s where Square started, in his apartment, just the three of us.”
That was in 2009. Square is now a company of 225. It raised $100m last year and has Richard Branson as one of its investors. My surprise at the progress of Square was also accompanied by a keen sense of frustration. Why can’t we replicate this astounding growth in London? What ingredients are we missing?
The following is a recollection of my conversations with founders and thought leaders in San Francisco and Silicon Valley. I was desperate to know if this was the place to be for a tech entrepreneur.
The Valley is obsessed with the next big thing. It has no respect for the small. Mike Maples, the founder of venture capital firm Floodgate, uses the term ‘Thunder Lizards’, which encapsulates the idea of start-ups changing everything. As I interviewed Mike in his stylish office, opposite us a photo of him with Barack Obama, he explained: “Although you may have an idea that makes good business, I’m only interested in the game-changers.”
London seeks to invest in businesses with a proven business model. We are attracted to businesses that we understand. It is this desire to understand that holds us back. Our understanding is tied to the past. However, in the Valley not knowing the answer is OK. Experimenting is OK. The business model is secondary. People in the Valley want to change the world first.
Willing to help
Many people in the start-up scene in San Francisco and Silicon Valley have witnessed the rise of their peers. People here don’t underestimate each other and so are more willing to help. This is not pure altruism. It just makes business sense.
One founder who moved from London to San Francisco explained how in London people are not willing to connect. Everyone is busy trying to make it big. People in the Valley understand the importance of relationships, meeting for coffee and dinner. Sharing ideas is business, even if nothing immediately comes to fruition. People here like to plant the seeds of opportunity.
Risking it all
Many other cities have tried to replicate Silicon Valley, London being the main culprit. We assume that if we invest in the right infrastructure this will give birth to innovation. But providing office space, white boards and free WiFi is not sufficient. Silicon Valley is not a model with variables that can be measured. It’s something more than that. It’s intangible. It’s an attitude. It’s an outlook that only its inhabitants possess. They have skewed expectations. One founder told me that he can only see the upside. “If I fail, so what? I’ll move back in with my parents and do it again.”
People here are gamblers not entrepreneurs – and they’re willing to put everything on the line. Most are playing to win big. One founder told me that in the early stages of his start-up he was in so much credit card debt that he wished he could have just gone into a coma, as he was faced with an unbearable period of uncertainty.
Silicon Valley is not Apple, Google or Facebook. It’s two broke hackers, coding round a kitchen table working on an idea that others deem crazy.
Defying the odds
I was excited by the notion that the computer undergraduate I had met at Stanford that day could well be the next big name in the Valley. My thoughts were punctuated by the sound of footsteps running in pursuit of a departing bus. I turned around and could see a girl running. Any intelligent person could have seen that running was pointless, she was too far away to catch the bus. But she kept running, convinced that she would get it. The bus slowly pulled away. The bus left her.
Quite recently in London, I saw a man look back and notice that his bus was approaching and so he promptly decided to run. He had time. If he kept up his running pace he could beat the bus to the bus station and catch it. But something happened. He stopped running when he realised the bus had caught up with him. Instead of running faster he stopped. The bus left him. He slowly strolled to the bus stop and looked at the time schedule.
These two similar but very different episodes sum up what makes the Valley different from London. People in London are resigned and careful. In the Valley, the thrill of the unknown is a worthwhile risk – no matter how big or small.
In summary, the three points I would like to make are this:
1. London, stop trying to copy Silicon Valley’s infrastructure; instead, let’s try and learn from its culture. 2. If you want to build a successful business, location is not important. 3. If you want to change the world then location is. You need to be in San Francisco or the Valley.
My next article will explore the best ways to secure a visa allowing you to move to San Francisco and the Valley.