Lessons from Silicon Valley

This New Year’s my fiancé and I traveled to the heart of Silicon Valley, to meet my new nephew. While for me the baby was the star attraction, my fiancé was equally enthralled with the wheeling and dealing of my brother-in-law, a senior lawyer in a law firm that has assisted such tech heavy-hitters as Google and Sun Microsystems with their IPOs and acquistions. And so between baby coddling sessions, I managed to tear myself away from our adorable new nephew long enough to join in their candid conversations about the lessons of Silicon Valley.

Having lived in Vancouver, my brother-in-law was passionate that the GVRD has all the critical ingredients to become itself, a booming Silicon Valley – yet has not developed the spark to ignite the mix…. Comparatively, the GVRD has great universities and colleges, is a great place to live, has a thriving economy with sophisticated investors ready to go – yet the leadership and long-term thinking has not emerged to integrate these resources sufficiently to achieve the hotbed of technological business seen in Silicon Valley. While certainly not a definitive (nor formally researched) thesis on incubating entrepreneurial innovation, I thought that the key ideas that emerged from our discussions were relevant for businesses of all sizes. Here’s a few:

Blur the lines. In Silicon Valley, Stanford University maintains close ties with the venture capital community and encourages research and development that has practical business possibilities, spawning such companies as Cisco Systems, Hewlett-Packard, Sun, Google and Yahoo!. While the mentality is changing in Canadian institutions about the many benefits (for students, businesses and society) of such collaboration, in the past these links were often discouraged due to an academic purist view that considered research tainted if it was skewed towards spinoffs. While scandals in the pharmaceutical industry illustrate the importance of separating research from business interests to some extent, purists often lose sight of the fact that without business-funded research, much of the life we take for granted today would not exist. Rather than advocating all or nothing approaches, business, government and academic leaders need to become more comfortable with diving into the gray zone, getting creative, and coming up with options for collaboration that maximize the strengths of each partner, minimize their weaknesses and, in so doing, leverage the highest benefit for the common good.

Compete – together. In a global economy, larger businesses are conscious of the economic necessity of looking beyond their borders in a literal sense. Closer to home, however, small and mid-size businesses (as well as individuals) need to stop focusing solely on developing internal skills and expertise to be more competitive in their industry. Instead, they must learn to adopt a wider view and identify long-term strategic alliances and partnerships by asking which other organizations have a similar or complementary mission, vision, product or service and challenging themselves to think about collaborating to maximize the strengths of all concerned. In a world where so many businesses are based on new technology and information, I keep myself out of the competitive mindset by remembering that even those who are offering the exact same product or service are helping to grow my business by increasing overall awareness in the marketplace.

Be willing to fail. The final thing that stood out for me about Silicon Valley was that, while there are many successes, there are even more failures. My brother-in-law had numerous stories of friends and acquaintances on their second or third attempt at startups. In fact, stemming perhaps from a ‘debugging’ mentality shared amongst truly geek entrepreneurs, business failures were considered merely steps towards success – to be implemented in the next version, Business 3.0, perhaps?

Entrepreneurial success is not just about good ideas getting adequate funding – it requires commitment, passion and ingenuity on the part of the entrepreneurs to follow through to success. Of course there are those “lucky” ones who were in the right place at the right time, but by and large business success anywhere still comes from complimenting one’s unique vision with the courage to persist until the dream becomes reality. For in the end, the main source of “financing” any dream is still the currency a person holds in his or her own heart.


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Feature image by Ed Schipul via Flickr. Some rights reserved.

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