By Alistair Shipley
People travel from around the world to become one of the rare, but legendary unicorns that embody the Silicon Valley dream. Nestled in the Northern California Bay area is an environment that can be described as a shaken beehive. For a young, inspired entrepreneur this little honeycomb can mystify, intoxicate, and even downright turn you into an addict searching for a technology fix. The aspiring entrepreneurial junky is me, Alistair Shipley.
This past Thanskgiving, I set off in my tightly packed blue Toyota Matrix. My destination? 500 Startups, one of the worlds top five startup incubators in the heart of Silicon Valley: Mountain View, CA. Since my first class in the Mount Royal Entrepreneur program there has been an allure to make my way to this technology utopia. When my boss asked if I would be interested in making the short-term move, it took me less then a split second to register the question and immediately reply with a “S#!T ya I’ll move!”. I knew the four months I signed on for would be an unforgettable learning experience.
I nearly drove until the sunrise the next day I was so excited to arrive in California (R.I.P. my poor little Pepe Le Pew friend that I upsettingly ran over while getting caught in a torrential downpour in Idaho). I spent my first catnap session in a Wal-Mart parking lot outside of the Tri-Cities in Washington. Let me tell you… I very much underestimated the expected temperature in October. Hopefully California would warm this little Canadian boy. After one disappointing excursion to Eureka California and an amazing sleep under the California stars on my second evening I was three hours away from my new home.
I woke at 3:00AM, expecting to make it to Mountain View in time for breakfast. At this point I had been traveling at break neck speeds, making sure that no time was wasted commuting when it could be better spent soaking up learning in Silicon Valley. Boy, was I in for a shock. At 5:00 AM and sixty miles out from my expected final destination I hit rush hour traffic. And I’m not talking Deerfoot Trail rush hour in Calgary. I’m talking rush hour where it seems like the entire United States population of three hundred million people is trying to sardine themselves into the Bay Area.
Finally around 11:00AM I made it to my humble sleeping quarters for the next few weeks. After experiencing first hand what a “California lane change” looks like I was fully ready to explore and get to know my surroundings. My California crib was a traditional hacker house. In Silicon Valley the price of living is so high that a booming opportunity to combat the increased flow of dream seekers was to setup hostel styled homes that bunked as many bodies as possible. These homes of continuous commotion run on lack of sleep, large doses of caffeine, and the orchestra of mashing keyboards and out of this world vocal terminology.
To set some context about me, I could not be further from the perceived Silicon Valley hacker persona. I’m far from even being technology capable and yet I found myself here in a hacker house. Within the first minute of crossing the house’s threshold I quickly realized I was no longer in the prairie city of Calgary. My first encounter was with a gentleman by the name of Shaunak (Shaun for short) who was attending a NASA conference because the company out of India he was part of was landing satellites with mirrors onto asteroids. Landing mirrors on asteroids for S#!T SAKE! Right then and there I realized I was going to be in for some lessons.
Growing up my father used to share this fun quote that he got a kick out of every day when he worked around the Winsport Olympic training facility, “if you think you’re the best come to our gym”. It often happens that when you swim around in a small pound you come to believe you’re a big fish. Well I was now swimming in the ocean and this place is packed with Megalodons. My goal in the valley was to become a remora and learn as much as I possibly could from all the giant sharks.
In the past three months many of the ways I’ve been impacted are indescribable. Here are three of the golden nuggets that I have taken away followed by questions I was personally asked.
Just get it out there - Quick and Dirty
Many of us suffer from “ugly baby syndrome”, we get so invested into protecting something that we have either created or been apart of that we avoid input or even exposing what we’ve done to the rest of the world. Down in the valley they have no time for this sort close-minded view. If you approach anyone with your idea, and I mean anyone, they will ask you how you tested your idea and proven a valuable offering. The Starbucks baristas are often culprits for questioning startup founders and they are relentless.
This is where the quick and dirty techniques come into play. Instead of investing a lifetime in order to create the “perfect product or solution” and missing the boat completely on what people actually want, there are often ways to imitate an idea and implement a beta test to receive feedback. This feedback can generally be gathered with no more then one weeks worth of work (rule of thumb). In the end this quick feedback may prove itself as a critical turning point. Were you truly onto something or not? In my opinion this is where a lot of the business world could strongly benefit. Getting input from a target audience before a launch of an idea can save time and money.
What can you do to get your idea out there faster?
Everyone has Opinions
In Silicon Valley it seems that everyone is willing to assist you if they can squeeze in the time. Unfortunately you find yourself often receiving some very conflicting point of views. Coming from a major Canadian city I’m accustom to hearing a lot of opinions, but not to the magnitude of Silicon Valley. Everyone here is so genuinely interested in your business that they want to leave their little mark on you and share yet another golden nugget that they learned from working with “X” billion dollar company. The majority of the time these golden nuggets are useful, but not always for you. Sometimes this information is more applicable for a friend and worth sharing. At the end of the day you will speak with a wealth of very intelligent people with different views and opinions, but you need to chart your own path and stay clear on your vision.
Which opinions matter to you?
The Power of your Network
As you wander the streets in Silicon Valley you hear about endless amounts of serial entrepreneurs that had sold one company and immediately grown another profitable business. Most people would relate this chain of success to the individual taking what they learned from one business and applying it to the next. This is in fact a huge part of it, but I would also argue that it was due to the network they had created. After watching founders doing seamless introductions for others that lead to business deals it reinforced the importance of getting to know people.
Creating a meaningful network can lead to helping hands and major business opportunities. Imagine no longer having to spend the time scanning through Google to find someone to answer a question, to fit a role or invest in your business. You already had just the right person in your phones contact list. Having that ability to call on a person is why your network is so powerful.
How can you create a more meaningful Rolodex of contacts?
Ironically I spent one third of my three points explaining that everyone has opinions. These opinions are my own. Silicon Valley is it’s own unique ecosystem, but I still heartedly believe that these three points are applicable anywhere. Feel free to take my thoughts with a grain of salt or perhaps share them.
This mystical, intoxicating and addictive beehive has been humbling, as well as an in your face learning experience. I strongly urge anyone that is looking to spark their inner genius to come and visit this technology utopia. If you plan on making the trip look me up.
Thanks for reading.
“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.”
― Mahatma Gandhi