Silicon Valley – Week 5

November 28, 2011

It was Thanksgiving this week, which is a time most Americans spend with their family, enjoying a long weekend which Thursday and Friday off work. After a hectic few weeks I enjoyed a more relaxed week, with less meetings and events, so got more work done as a result. The day after Thanksgiving I worked out of 500 Startups, and it was very different to a usual weekday, just a few teams working, and I think nearly all of them non-American!

Here are some beautiful “fall” photos I’ve taken in the last week, although yesterday in Palo Alto it reached 19 degrees!

Silicon Valley – Week 4

November 21, 2011

Some of the highlights of this, my fourth week:

It was Y Combinator interviews this week in Mountain View so I met up with a couple of London startups who were lucky enough to make the shortlist. At least one of them got selected as well; lucky them! The day before the interviews GrubWithUs (itself a YC startup) had scheduled a few dinners with Y Combinator alum, which gave prospective candidates the opportunity to find out first hand what the interview process and the accelerator itself is like. It was my first experience with GrubWithUs¬†and I enjoyed it, and I think I’ll definitely go along for another startup themed dinner.

On Wednesday I was at Rocket Space in San Francisco for an event entitled “Common Mistakes Founders Make”, presented by Peter Levine, the newest partner of rock-star VC firm, Andreessen Horowitz. On the way in I noticed someone had scrawled on the noticeboard, beneath the title of the event: “attending too many networking events”. Ha! In fact Peter’s advice largely centered around (hiring and firing) people, as from a survey he’d done of 50 startup founders and VCs, 60% responded they had made mistakes in this area, making it the by far the most common mistake admitted to in his research. I wish I’d heard his content a few years ago, before making many of the mistakes myself. But I suspect, particularly for hiring and firing, it’s one of those things that you only learn by through your own personal experience.

Most evenings I have been attending some kind of event, and on Thursday I attended the launch of the Box Innovation Network at a trendy warehouse in the Dogpatch area of SF. I was really keen to do that as I was keen to hear from and meet Aaron Levie, their 27 year old founder and CEO. (Remember the name because you’ll hear a lot of it in the decades to come). Box began as a college project in Aaron’s dorm room 6 years ago and has now raised over $190M in funding and is growing ridiculously fast. I think it’s a good example of how startups and investors here in the valley think big. 4 weeks in and I am definitely thinking bigger. (Aaron and his co-founder Dylan Smith also disprove the stereotype that all college grads are interested in building is yet another photo sharing app).

Then, on Sunday I attended a Startup “Ice Breaker” where approximately 40 people came together to pitch their ideas for startups, and try and build a team. I’ve participated in a couple of these types of events and they really are a good way to learn about building startups, test your ideas and meet potential co-founders. If you are thinking of doing a startup this type of event should be an essential step.

Finally, on Sunday evening went to see Steve Jobs: the lost interview, which has been showing all week at Palo Alto’s independent cinema, The Aquarius. I’m reading his biography right now, so it was great to see this 70 minute unedited interview in full, and be able to observe his reactions as well as what he said (and did not say) in response to questions. I was struck by the mission he saw was his to fulfil: that creating great products was about improving the world, and making art. He said that in different times his team of A players would have been creating great art, music or poetry instead of building the Mac, and he reinforced what I’ve heard from so many CS grads now, that the ability to program is something that improves your ability to think. The interview was from 1995, and yet he was arguing that software was going to impact every aspect of our lives, and hoping that every child would get taught how to program at school.

Thanksgiving is coming up so expecting a less hectic week this week, and hope to catch up on email, as well as take care of some stuff that’s taken a back seat to all the meetings and events.

Silicon Valley – Week 3

November 14, 2011

Lots of meetings this week, two of which went very well indeed! Particularly enjoyable was meeting a VC for the first time who I had previously only spoken to by phone. We sat outside at Starbucks off Sand Hill Road enjoying the sunshine at 10am in the morning; it was so hot I had to take off my jacket and sat there in a t-shirt. I love California!

As well as lots of meetings I’ve been attending many networking events in the evening, which this week included on Monday, a Startup Grindmeetup featuring an interview with Jeff Clavier of SoftTechVC.

Michael Arrington

The day after I was at Founder Showcase, where as well as a bunch of interesting startups, (my favourites were Xuropa, OpenSignalMaps, Client Magnet and BlueSeed) there was an interview of newly minted VC, Mike Arrington. Unfortunately the emcee couldn’t seem to help himself and didn’t give Arrington the opportunity he deserved to talk. Disappointing.

Then, on Wednesday I was at Founders Den in San Francisco for a discussion sponsored by Second Market about attracting and retaining talent in Silicon Valley. I’m well aware of the challenges of finding engineers here, but even so, was surprised at the lengths recruiters have to go to to find talent. It was said that Google are offering $140,000 base salary and a $40,000 sign on bonus for new Computer Science graduates.

I spent a few days in San Francisco this week, and have grown to really quite like Caltrain, despite it’s shortcomings. I like its single seats, interesting views, and as a Brit, I am amazed at how cheap it is. ¬†Although you don’t quite arrive in the city centre – thanks to Google Maps for Android – I’m quite comfortable travelling across SF on the bus network as well. (Although that’s not such an enjoyable experience).


Finally, on 11/11/11, as well as Veterans Day and Nerd New Year, the Startup Digest crew celebrated their second anniversary. As a former curator I was invited and we had an amazing dinner at one of San Francisco’s best steak restaurants. Chris McCann and Brendan McManus launched Startup Digest just two years ago and since then it has become a must-read curated list of the best startup events worldwide.

Silicon Valley – Week 2

November 7, 2011

During my first ten days I enjoyed the Indian Summer, but as everyone said it would, winter arrived, almost overnight! Temperatures dropped by around 10 degrees celsius within just a day or two, and I even saw some rain.

Hacker DojoThis week I started by trying to find somewhere to work in Palo Alto, but right now there’s no coworking space in the town, so I’ve joined up with Hacker Dojo in Mountain View. It’s cheap for the bay area, and although I’ve only met a few of the 300 members so far I’ve had some interesting conversations. Only two problems with the Dojo: it’s a rather unappealing industrial shed with few windows and it’s not the easiest place to access without a car, but nonetheless, it has good wifi, good people, and lots of space to work.

I’ve been setting up networking lunches with LetsLunch as a way to broaden my network as well as going to some evening events such as 106 miles, Hackers & Founders and The Alchemist Series, to learn and network.

Purely for learning, I went along to one of Stanford’s Entrepreneurial Though Leader Seminars which this week was by Marten Mickos, the former CEO of MySQL.

Marten gave a great talk in front of a completely packed auditorium, and he gave some wonderful insights into the real-world of a CEO:

“Entrepreneurialism is a belief system. Believe in yourself and what you do.” But he added, “You need someone who believes in you, even more than you do, and reminds you you are capable when you have self-doubt”. He talked of walking up in the morning and frequently questioning himself. This is similar to some very successful entrepreneurs I’ve heard talking about their fear of being “found out”.

MySQL was a tiny European company taking on the mighty Oracle, and he gave this advice: “If you are a disruptor you must be bold and make fun of your competitors”, and gave the example of them awarding Oracle “partner of the year” at their annual conference. An Oracle representative had to reluctantly shuffle on stage to accept the award.

Mickos also talked at some length about company culture, and the unique dispersed workforce at MySQL. He really believes in the distributed workforce, and says overall the benefits outweigh the disadvantages. But although a majority of their employees worked from home, “company culture is what drives and defines a business. Strategy without culture is meaningless”. To help bring people together they would do things like hold virtual Christmas parties over IRC.

IMG_7750_2332 Stanford Theater marqueeFinally, worthy of mention was a trip on Saturday night to the glorious Stanford Theatre on University Avenue in Palo Alto. It’s really hard to describe how wonderful this beautifully restored neo-classical cinema is! They even have a Wurlitzer organ and it’s quite a sight to see this and the organist rising from the floor as the curtain came down at the end of the show. He even played the theme tune from the movie we had just seen (Jason and the Argonauts). Link to Silicon Valley: it was none other than David Packard’s charitable foundation which bought and restored the Stanford to its former glory.