Thoughts on Silicon Valley from a New Comer

[Post written for The Entrepreneur Handbook]

“It’s the place to be”, “there’s no better city to launch a start-up”, “everybody should go there at least once”. This is what I was often told in Paris about Silicon Valley. I wanted to go and see for myself during my gap year and I wasn’t disappointed, even if a few statements need to be watered down!

Silicon Valley stage

I’m passionate about tech and it’s been quite a long time I had thought about moving here, to discover this ecosystem which is the global center of tech innovation. Interning several start-ups for a year in San Francisco sounded like a good way to do so. Today, I work at NextUser and I live in SoMa, the neighbourhood where the HQs of Twitter, Zynga and Airbnb a few blocks from one another. This impressive concentration is a striking feature of Silicon Valley: talent and resources are all gathered in the same place. All this naturally creates entrepreneurial opportunities.

Startupers everywhere, all the time

You can meet passionate startupers every time of day here: in the morning at the Starbucks where half of the tables are used by freelancers working on their MacBooks, later at the coworking space, during afterwork tech meetups and even at dinners with friends.

There’s no other city in the world where you’ll find so many early-adopters for every possible tech trend – there are several meetups gathering hundreds of amateurs of bitcoins, health tech, wearable tech, etc. In order to meet other young tech enthusiasts and exchange about our projects I even launched our own meetup – Early Entrepreneurs – with a friend.

 

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One of the most famous places to meet other startupers in SF

For better or for worse , working in tech has become a norm in San Francisco. What is great about that is how easy it is to meet the people you’d have never met in Europe. For instance, you can’t imagine how excited I was when I met an engineer working on the fascinating Google’s Project Loon at the 1st party I went to… Today, after 4 months, my 1st and 2nd circles of connections count several dozens of founders of successful or promising start-ups. Most of them were or would be easy enough to meet if you ask them for a coffee. There’s a very positive mindset towards networking and it probably explains (among other reasons) why things can go so fast here…

Extreme competition and unique stimulation

It’s the risky and exciting part of Silicon Valley: there are very talented people here and everybody wants them. The talent war is impressive and makes salaries increase like hell. The average salary for a junior level computer engineer is more than 100k a year! And I’m not talking about the perks such as free lunchs, open snacks, gaming rooms, etc. The “acqui-hiring” is another trend showing how valuable teams of talented people are here: in order to bring amazing developers and designers all at once in your company (usually big ones such as Google, Facebook or Apple), you simply buy the start-up they have founded. None of them is more than 25? It doesn’t really matter – first counts skills and motivation here. It can even be a weakness to be more than 35 to be chosen for the most prestigious local startup accelerators such as the Y Combinator.

To overcome this talent war, some start-ups choose not to have their technical team in the region: build your sales team here in order to be able to meet several representative of the biggest tech companies in the same day but keep your developers far away from job offers!

On the other hand, this competition is extremely valuable as it obviously stimulates anyone who’s passionate about this field. I got that when at the end of the 1st hackathon I participated in a team demoed Google Glass-controlled drones… These people already live in the future, it makes it much easier to  build tomorrow’s technology. Such energy is priceless.

Techcrunch hackathon stage silicon Valley

The huge Techcrunch Disrupt Hackathon

A place to visit

Silicon Valley’s mindset towards innovation is unique. This place is definitely enriching for inspiration and encounters. I’d advise anyone seriously interested in tech to come here at least a few weeks in order to draw on this great wealth. Should you launch your start-up here? The answer is a bit more complicated. It’s the world cup: you can be the best in your country and get eaten in a few months by the sharks you’ll find here. The employees are less loyal, the VCs are more generous but so powerful… But if you succeed here, things can get very big very fast. Maybe the solution lies in mobility? Criteo for instance was founded in 2005 in Paris, then moved to Palo Alto to target the US market and eventually brought back their HQ to France last year, just before IPO.

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Stay Aware, Meet People, Build Projects: Some Advice For Students Interested In Tech Entrepreneurship

Mark Z.

Mark Zuckerberg

This advice was given to me by people I trust or it simply comes from my personal experience. Hope it will be helpful – would love to hear what you think about it.

Stay Aware

There are two complementary and inseparable ways to learn about tech entrepreneurship: from what you read and get taught and from your personal experience as a project founder. When it comes to learning resources, the Internet made it amazingly easy to have access to very high quality content. There’s so much knowledge at your fingertips today that it would be a mistake not to harness this new tool to the full. Here are a few resources I think you should consider using:

1. Blogs

The first category of blogs you should read to be aware of the latest trends are the tech news websites such as TechCrunchVentureBeat, Mashable or Hacker News. If you don’t live in the US, I would also look for local startup blogs – we have Rude Baguette or Frenchweb in France for instance.

The other category of blogs that are interesting to follow are personal blogs written by experts. Just to name a few, I really like those of Steve Blank, Paul Graham, Chris Dixon and Andrew Chen.

Look for the blogs you prefer on Google or on Quora, there are tons of lists and select a few ones you will really read. It could also be a interesting to look for less famous blogs where you can discuss thoughts with the author more easily.

To stay up to date, I usually subscribe to their newsletters or like their page on Facebook. You can also use an RSS reader such as Feedly that will gather all the articles on a single updated place. Another tool I’d recommend is Pocket to save interesting articles and read them later.

2. Twitter

Another must have for tech entrepreneurs. Two different points lie in Twitter to me: information and interaction. Information: get the latest news shared from people you value – friends, journalists, founders, investors, dreamers, etc. You’ll find lists of must-follow people on Google. Interaction: react to their tweets and start a conversation with them. As an example of the power of this platform, a good friend of mine organized a conference with the famous French blogger Loic Le Meur after getting in touch with him on Twitter.

Twitter can also be used as a tool to get a general idea of people thoughts, interests and “influence”. For instance, I know people who always check out the Twitter profile of a potential hire before the interview. So I really recommend you join Twitter soon if you’re not on it yet, and stick to it even if you have difficulties in finding the point at first. Say hello by the way!

3. Quora

I fell in love with Quora quite recently and already learnt so much! The concept is pretty simple: people ask questions and other people answer or vote for the best answers. The credit system makes it the best knowledge-sharing tool I know today and if, I could, I’d spend hours and hours on it everyday. You’ll find a lot of stories, tips and great resources about tech entrepreneurship but not only.

The nice thing about Quora is that the Quorans community counts people such as Jimmy Wales (founder of Wikipedia), Dave McClure (500 Startups), Ashton Kutcher or Dustin Moskovitz (co-founder of Facebook – Zuck is also there but never answered a question yet). So you might get answers from them if you ask:

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If I had to hire someone, I’d definitely have a look at their answers on Quora.

I use Evernote to classify all the valuable information I get from all these different sources. It’s also a good tool to organize your thoughts and your projects. Don’t put heavy PDF files or high quality pictures on it and you should be ok with the free version.

Meet People

Having a good network won’t make you a great entrepreneur but most of the time a great entrepreneur needs a good network on the road to success. As a student, I’d say a good network is the combination of two kinds of people: mentors and partners. Mentors are people who will help you build your projects by giving you experienced advice and the contacts you could need. Here’s an interesting article about finding mentors. Partners are people like you, close to you, who you could launch projects with.

Try to meet as diverse people as possible, when it comes to skills, culture and personality – be it with your mentors or your partners. Differences come with opportunities and broaden your vision. Of course, it’s all about mutual help – the more you bring to the community, the more you’ll get from it.

To meet the local tech community, you should use Meetup and subscribe to the Startup Digest of your city if there is one. There must also be facebook groups you could join.

If you’re not satisfied by what you find out, just build your own gathering. You’ll find out quickly if other people felt the same need. That’s why I founded Start Me Up, the Entrepreneurs Student Club of ESCP Europe: we organized events and tried to bring an entrepreneurship mindset among the Master students of this business school. I also organized events with friends such as Students At LeWeb in London on June 2013 and I’m planning to gather young tech enthusiasts with Early Entrepreneurs in San Francisco. Each of these initiatives brought me wonderful encounters, some recognition and a lot of fun. You should definitely consider shaking the world around you too!

Build Projects

There’s no better way to learn how to launch a project than to launch your own projects.

Need ideas? Look for problems that matter to you and find innovative ways to solve them (when it comes to startup ideas, I recommend this great article by Paul Graham).

Need a team? Attend events and especially Startup Weekends and the like. If you’ve an entrepreneur spirit, you’ll definitely love these weekends. My advice: come with an idea to pitch – always a good exercise – and have developers in your final team. Building a prototype of the product in 54 hours is incredibly fulfilling. Two of my side projects in Paris were born in such events (Jukeo at a 3DayStartup and Feel at a Startup Weekend). Each time, I learnt a lot and met great people with whom I continued working on the product afterwards.

Need technical skills? Are you sure? Today, you can build basic websites without coding using Content Management Systems (CMS) such as WordPress, Strikingly or the wonderful Webflow.  You can also easily create prototypes thanks to these tools: Balsamiq for generic mock-ups and Pop App for mobile app “paper prototyping”.

These are great tools to begin with but, in the mid term, I’d advise anyone to learn the basics of computer programming. Software is eating the world and being able to build things on your own and to understand how all of that works is priceless. Again, there are plenty of ressources available online to learn how to code (Udemy, Codecademy, etc.). As any knowledge, it simply needs motivation, time and some passion.

Just two things to finish with:

Play it lean. If there is one book any aspiring entrepreneur should read it is The Lean Startup by Eric Ries. Eric Ries and Steve Blank (The Four Steps to the Epiphany) reinvented the way start-ups should be built.

In a few words: instead of working on your project for months and planning every detail, launch a “minimum valuable product” (MVP) that will enable you to get user feedback as soon as possible to know if you’re in the good way or not. Sometimes, people (me included) spend way too much time building beautiful websites while simple Google docs and forms would have done it.

You don’t need a beautiful website with tons of features working perfectly to discover if you are answering a problem that really matters to people in the right way – cf the success of the ugly Craigslist if you doubt about it… Launch a simple product soon, learn from its users, change what need to be changed and iterate. It actually doesn’t even have to be a product sometimes. As an example, The MVP of Dropbox was a 3-min video showing how easy and intuitive this service would be. This is how Drew Houston drove awareness around his product on Hacker News and got fast feedback. Here’s the story about it. Buffer also did a great job when it comes to testing ideas without product.

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Break things and have fun. Life is short. Try things that make sense to you. Never stop testing new ideas. Fail, learn, fail again, never stop learning. Share your experience to people. Listen to what they say, don’t necessarily do it. Don’t always be business focused about what you learn, who you meet and what you do. Open your life to serendipity. Break your habits. Be mobile. Go and discover the world. Be open and talk to people, they have so much to teach. Inspiration can be found anywhere. Go out of your comfort zone and be the change you would like to see in the world. (Ok that last one is from Gandhi, not me). Love what you do and be proud of it. That’s what I’m trying to do everyday.

 

– Article written for Entrepreneur Handbook.