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Innovation, Vibrancy & Dynamism - 7 days in Silicon Valley

So…let’s be honest. How much do Scottish entrepreneurs really know about the Silicon Valley start-up ecosystem? As an innovative breed of human beings who are keen to push boundaries, one thing is for sure we’re certainly keen to know more! We’ve all heard talk about how great the “Valley” is and how companies can achieve multi-million dollar investments that are on an eye watering scale in comparison to what we generally see here in Scotland.

As the MIME Technologies team spent seven days and seven nights packing our diaries in Silicon Valley (a prize won at Scottish EDGE Round 10 finals), we gained a fascinating insight into the world’s most prominent start-up ecosystem. We joined Entrepreneurial Scotland, 2017 Saltire Fellows, whom after spending 9 weeks at Babson College in Boston had come to Silicon Valley to learn about innovation, scale and growth. On our trip we visited successful companies such as LinkedInGoogleIntelJabil and Coherent as well as newer software start-ups such as Lever in downtown San Francisco. We even banged into Cameron Graham from Scottish start-up StoriiCare in a San Mateo coffee shop…..we sat down and talked - after all they say innovative things happen in the coffee breaks!

In just one week we learned so much it would simply be rude not to share our insights, relevant to anyone who is part of or provides support to the Scottish start-up ecosystem:

1.   Let’s do something we thought we never could!

'Change or improve the world in a way that others don’t feel is possible' is the mindset of an innovative entrepreneur in Silicon Valley. This approach attracts investors. It’s not necessarily about the product you have now; it’s about where you are heading to and the team you are heading there with.

“What IS the state of the art?” “What IS the next big thing?" Californian start-ups need to be infected by the thinking of new innovation…the zombies are terminated pretty quickly.

Of course, technology is driving the boom and the air of certainty that Silicon Valley is creating the future. The ecosystem has ironically shifted from “silicon” to “software” including med-tech, bio-tech and fin-tech, which is akin to a good proportion of the start-up sectors we see in Scotland.

Successful entrepreneurs leave their technical or scientific egos at the door. They are expected to have one foot in their technology or science and the other firmly in business. Start-ups are not treated as a “science experiment”. As an entrepreneur in Silicon Valley the vision is to do something you thought you never could.

2.   Mission driven entrepreneurs that outperform

These people will work harder, try harder and never give up. Customers want to buy from companies with these types of people. On day one of our trip we had an appointment with Better Ventures, a Venture Capital firm based in Oakland, who exemplified this “mission driven” theme perfectly.

Better Ventures back “entrepreneurs who want to build a better world”. They focus heavily on investing in the team and aligning their money with their values. Often they look for evidence of social impact that is intrinsic to the product.

As we undertook visit after visit it was without doubt evident that striving to outperform was almost intoxicating. In Silicon Valley you HAVE to be mission driven; a half way house is not an option.

3.   Share the same DNA

Cultivating an inclusive workplace means that people want to work with people that share the same mission / values and companies want to work with companies that share the same organisational DNA. This was very evident when we visited Lever, a recruitment software start-up that has recently raised $30 million to transform hiring by providing a better way to form, grow and sustain teams of talented people. Lever's Chief Marketing officer spoke about the importance of building the right culture and team. Leading by example 50% of their staff are female and they have a strong female presence within their engineering team.

The team at Lever provided quick and easy examples of how to make a new team member feel “at home”.  They provide new staff with a welcome gift, via online tools where staff contribute via video clips which are then shared with the new employee on their first days at work. These examples of team building “nuggets” made us reflect on the company values that we want to adhere to in our start-up.

4.      Avoid “Innovation Tourism”

Incubators and accelerators are plentiful in Silicon Valley and indeed growing in Scotland, providing a crucial foundation for innovative seeds to be nurtured. Venture capitalists however do warn entrepreneurs to avoid the “innovation tourist guides”. These are organisations or mentor-ship schemes with general “thumbs up”, “happy clappy” support, drowning entrepreneurs with T-shirts and discussing the importance of company logos.

EVERYTHING in Silicon Valley is competitive. The most successful entrepreneurs have accessed the right high calibre mentor-ship. These schemes focus on repeatable and scalable business models - investors are more comfortable to take bigger risks on entrepreneurs or teams of talent applying this approach.

On our last day we met with Draper Fisher Juvetson (DFJ), their Operating Partner has spent her life immersed in the Silicon Valley ecosystem as an entrepreneur, corporate executive, Venture Capitalist and educator. Her advice on avoiding the innovation tourist guides was to “always understand the business model of those mentors or organisations that support you.” If they charge you heavily from the outset, are they really committed to supporting your business? They may offer fancy incubator space for your company…great… but if they do not provide the networks, ongoing support or expertise then effectively they drown your company to fill their own books. Do they tell you to focus on your customer and solving your customer’s problem? If not, why not?

So choose wisely (there is choice in Scotland albeit on a smaller scale than Silicon Valley) and importantly make the most of those who offer domain specific expertise that suit your company best, whether that is med-tech, fin-tech or the food and drink industry, the principles remain the same.

After a whirlwind week that was the sheer vibrancy and dynamism of Silicon Valley, we returned home with smiles on our faces. Not only had we made important connections for MIME Technologies, but we gained a reassurance that…(thus far)… we have made the right choices for our own high growth journey when it comes to forming a team of innovative minds, accessing supportive training and mentor-ship. We also however learned crucial take home lessons about company value, continuous traction and venture capital.

Of course, we could have blogged about how to raise funds, given that Silicon Valley accounts for one third of venture capital in the United States...but that’s a whole other story for when we are a little less jet lagged!


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