Last week saw the brilliant Silicon Valley comes to the UK initiative take 17 fast-growing female-led enterprises to San Francisco, in partnership with the UK Trade & Investment and the British Consulate. This was a once in a lifetime trip for some ambitious UK enterprises with the aim of helping us try to understand some of the magic in the 'Valley's' water.
For most of the week I felt like I was on a visit to a Willy Wonka Factory. The week included trips to the Head Quarters of Google, Amazon, Linkedin, Eventbrite and Facebook and the chance to meet some entrepreneurial demi-Gods like Sheryl Sandberg, Julie Hanna and Aaron Levie. We also got to learn about some of the inspirational initiatives that are currently growing brilliantly and attracting major multi-million dollar investment such as Box, Huddle and Next Door.
So after this turbo-charged week of learning, I reflected on some key differences between Silicon Valley, and the UK's enterprise culture that perhaps hold some of our high-potential entrepreneurs back:
• Culture is everything - I know from my own work in organisational change that cultures often emerge organically and once they have been created they are very hard to break. If you truly want to change a company's culture, you need to be 'on it' every day.
Every successful founder that we met in Silicon Valley talked about the importance of creating a culture in the company where life and work needs to matter. These companies maintain an almost maniacal focus on culture, because it creates competitive advantage and is crucial for successful scaling. The best cultures are also 'open source' and sharing, and use creativity and innovation as a basis, such as Google's skunkworks, where employees can spend 20% of their own time developing ideas.
Developing a company culture need to be intentional, thought about and acted upon, and if you are not happy as a founder with your culture, then take a long-hard look in the mirror, as creating the culture is your principal responsibility. Cue cringeworthy self-reflection...
The best companies also put culture at the heart of the recruitment process and hire people that fit the values. Conversely, those staff that don't embrace or commit to the culture don't last long....
• It's hard, hard work - I've rarely met an entrepreneur from anywhere in the world that doesn't work flat out, but I do sometimes think that our 'X-factor' quick-win culture in the UK means that our aspiring, young entrepreneurs sometimes don't think that they will have to graft - or not truly graft. What struck me throughout the week in Silicon Valley is that not one of the start ups that we met doesn't think that once they've found the big idea that they are going to have to work unbelievably hard at it, and that's truly 24/7 hard, learning, refining and being big enough to admit when something isn't going to work.
We need to ensure in the UK that our schools and colleges are preparing would-be entrepreneurs for a culture of hard work, and that's where great initiatives like Founders for Schools come in. Without it, it's impossible to succeed.
• Painkillers, not vitamins - Brilliant entrepreneurial companies solve pain for people, they create solutions to problems that often don't seem to exist and make very complicated issues seem easy. This designing for resilience and planning for scale is what makes the Linkedin's of this world so exceptional. Those great entrepreneurial leaders know what the hypothesis is, why it will succeed and most importantly can explain it in 60 seconds.
Too often, I think that we play around the edges of entrepreneurship in the UK, creating work or businesses that temporarily might help a client, but that don't really zero into the core customer need. Constant and conscious improvement is essential and that goes for the CEO and founder too. None of the entrepreneurial legends that we met were born leaders, they might have a natural aptitude for entrepreneurship, but those that have got to the top have committed to be life-long learners. They have ridden out the pain of failure, constant feedback and cringe-worthy mistakes. Most of them have also signed up several mentors at a time to help them attack problems, to learn and successfully lead their companies.
• Don't get comfortable - The cliché that failure is a badge of honour in Silicon Valley is true. Failure is considered a learning experience and the entrepreneur that can ride through a failed endeavour will emerge stronger. San Francisco even started its own Fail Conference (which has now gone global) - where the initiatives that have not worked are shared openly.
In the UK I feel that our funders, investors and stakeholders are desperately afraid of risk and thus our entrepreneurs are often too fearful to admit to their mistakes, only seeing investors as potentially adversarial. Whilst UK-based funders and investors might talk the rhetoric of risk and innovation, their behavior is exactly the opposite and thus for the entrepreneur, it can be too easy not to challenge.
We heard often from companies in Silicon Valley about the concept of 'dog fooding', a term that has been adopted by the tech community. These companies eat their own 'dog food', to zone in on their product or service to ensure that it constantly improves. Increasing internal usage of a company's product or service is absolutely at the heart of its success or failure, and in the words of one Facebook employee dogfooding 'allowed the company to slow down and sort its s*** out'.
• Be generous - Part of the legend of Silicon Valley is the reciprocity of help and knowledge for entrepreneurs, It is this area for me, where the UK is depressingly at the opposite end of the scale from the Valley. Aspiring UK-based entrepreneurs often come across a culture of resistance, or fear, or even worse bitterness towards those that are successful. The infrastructure in Silicon Valley recognises that a business that is doing well helps everyone - the economy, investors, funders alike, and many entrepreneurs know that the potential to still fail can be very quick and real. You need friends around you, when things are going wrong, just as when things are going right.
Where we can help others in the UK we should try to - it's important for us all. Giving time is anyway just another type of philanthropy, and the best mentoring relationships are symbiotic helping mentor and mentee alike.
As I reflect on a terrific week, my favourite quote was one from Facebook:
'Nothing at Facebook is somebody else's problem'
...and as I reflect I realise that it is this very thought that lies at the heart of brilliant, entrepreneurial culture. In an ambitious business we need staff that take responsibility and help to build a great company. After all, leadership is about action not position, and it's this relentless drive to build great culture that means that for many, Silicon Valley really is paved with gold.