The ways of Silicon Valley

May 10, 2013

In 2006, my husband and I jettisoned the Washington, DC lifestyle—rife with political rants and power plays—and we entered into the open and inviting ecosystem of Silicon Valley.  Both milieus are full of Type-A personalities, but we quickly realized that the similarities ended there.

Engineers work at Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., Thursday, April 25,  2013. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Engineers work at Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., Thursday, April 25,2013. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Not long after we arrived, I went into deep culture shock.  When I’d meet someone, rather than ask me who I work for, they would ask, “How can I help you?”  Individuals I barely knew would invite me for a hike, open up their Rolodexes, and within a span of days or weeks, I would be face to face with some of Silicon Valley’s most prominent venture capitalists, entrepreneurs and investment bankers.

I kept waiting for the shoe to drop, but it never did.  They were just doing things the Silicon Valley way.

Less than seven years after our arrival, I had successfully built out three companies along with the help of my co-founder, and I am convinced that had I stayed on the East Coast, this would have never happened.  A chance meeting with an angel investor led to her $5 million investment in our ideas, which had yet to be crafted into a formal business plan. The investment was made after little more than a series of conversations upon which a relationship was eventually built—one based on openness and trust.

In addition to creating entrepreneurial ventures, I spent the next six years questioning what made Silicon Valley the place it is.  I pondered its secrets and wondered what the rest of the world could learn from it.  So, what are a few of Silicon Valley’s most valuable secrets?

First, the Valley is more than a geographic place, it’s an entrepreneurial mindset.

People here, whether or not they call themselves entrepreneurs, tend to think of themselves as if they were a startup, questioning the status quo, turning things upside down and constantly rethinking possibilities.  Like startups, they lead lean lives, are constantly hungry and open and they are not tied down by traditions or legacies.  In Silicon Valley, no matter the sector or kind of organization—whether they’ve been around for 5 months or 15 years—people let go of old ideas.

This Oct. 11, 2011 file photo, shows the exterior of Netflix headquarters in Los Gatos, Calif.  (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma, File)
This Oct. 11, 2011 file photo, shows the exterior of Netflix headquarters in Los Gatos, Calif. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma, File)

It does not matter how you contribute to the ecosystem, Silicon Valley is about breaking from the norm and disrupting processes that are antiquated and inefficient and, thus, seeking a better way. To this end, a number of companies, including Netflix and Evernote, have adopted an unlimited vacation policy so that employees can determine how much time to take off. The flexible policy gives them the autonomy to work from other venues, places where they might be more creative, such as a beachside resort, and at the hours they find themselves to be most productive.

Entrepreneurship is highly regarded in the Valley, of course, but there is also a recognition that entrepreneurship isn’t for everyone.  There are idea people, and then there are people who execute on someone else’s ideas. This is one of the region’s most valuable secrets. Every single individual doesn’t have transformative ideas.  Some people understand that it’s their role to nurture others’ ideas into the next big company or product.

Take the case of Marissa Mayer, who once claimed that she had a desire to be in a work environment where she could be surrounded by the smartest people she could find. Upon earning a bachelors degree in Symbolic Systems and a master’s degree in Computer Science from Stanford University, Marissa started the interview process with dozens of companies, including McKinsey & Company.  She decided that her interviewers at Google were the most brilliant of all the individuals she had met with, and she agreed to become the startup’s twentieth employee. For Mayer, there was never a desire to build something of her own, and while she still took a degree of risk not entirely dissimilar to that of an entrepreneur, her risk paid off enormously.

In other spheres of influence, such as Washington, D.C. or New York City, the main measures of success are power or money.  In Silicon Valley, the motivations are more authentic.

Before Silicon Valley even had its name (which was coined in 1971), the “Traitorous Eight”, eight defectors of Shockley Semiconductor, spun off to start a new semiconductor firm in 1957 called Fairchild Semiconductor.  This move largely laid the groundwork of Silicon Valley’s spin-off culture—one where you can work at a company one day and open up a competitive company next door the following day.

Another of their lasting legacies was their attitude towards how their employees should be treated.  The “Traitorous Eight” held a disdain for the East Coast’s entrenched hierarchy. They recognized that everyone in a company—from the administrative assistant to the CEO—plays a role in the success or failure of a company. They also alleged that individuals should be trusted and valued through flat management, equity in the company and employee benefits. Eventually other companies in the Valley began to adopt these practices.

Google expanded into the stratosphere with the belief that creativity should be nurtured, not squelched. Early on, executives realized that innovation and creativity do not come from sitting in a cubicle from 9 to 5. They fostered a work environment more consistent with the way Bay Area employees live their lives—outdoors and healthy. Creativity, as a result, started to flourish.

Which gets me to the final secret: in order for companies to succeed, employees should be treated like the valuable assets they truly are.

(credit: Heidi Alletzhauser)
(credit: Heidi Alletzhauser)

Deborah Perry Piscione is the author of “Secrets of Silicon Valley: What Everyone Else Can Learn from the Innovation Capital of the World,” by Palgrave Macmillan.

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