As I was reading The Atlantic article Silicon Valley Abandons the Culture That Made It the Envy of the World I kept flashing to the end of Anna Wiener’s awesome memoir Uncanny Valley. And it was no surprise to see this article in the Boulder Daily Camera titled Big tech in hot seat at congressional hearing at CU Boulder.
Readers of this blog and my book Startup Communities know that I’m a huge fan of AnnaLee Saxenian. She has a great quote in The Atlantic article.
This is a full reversal of the language that tech promoters used to sell Silicon Valley–style innovation and competitiveness for decades. Saxenian has noticed the change in how the Valley describes itself, or at least in how the dominant firms do. “Advocacy of the small, innovative firm and entrepreneurial ecosystem is giving way to more and more justifications for bigness (scale economics, competitive advantage, etc.),” Saxenian wrote to me in an email. “The big is beautiful line is coming especially from the large companies (Facebook, Google, Amazon, Apple) that are threatened by antitrust and need to justify their scale.”
Margaret O’Mara, who wrote The Code: Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America, also has a good reminder.
“The story the Valley told about itself has been very much a small-is-beautiful story since the 1970s,” O’Mara told me. “It has a politics—this Vietnam-era rejection of the military-industrial complex, rejection of the mainframe, Big Business, Big Government, big universities.” This led people to take risks and launch new projects and firms. Entrepreneurs from all over the world migrated to a place where people understood why they wanted to start companies. And the idea even embedded itself right near the heart of the Valley, at Google. The company’s slogan, “Don’t be evil”, had a particular meaning when it was adopted around the millennium. In the classic Valley mind-set, “evil is bigness of all kinds,” O’Mara said.
The techlash is in full bloom and Silicon Valley is in the center of it. Ironically, of the three public companies that have > $1 trillion market caps, one of them (Microsoft) is headquartered in Seattle, which is definitely not part of Silicon Valley. Oh, and Amazon … Nonetheless, it’s part of the pending mess that is going to hit all of society very hard in the next few years, as the collision between the various factors—and factions—around innovation are going to be profound.
I expect historians will look back on this time with curiosity. They will wonder why there is such a huge disconnect between what is said. what is wanted, and what is done. Here are a few recent artifacts to ponder.
And, in case you thought the government was the solution, here are a few more to read.
Every time someone tells me they are going to “change the world” or “put a dent in the universe”, I think to myself, “For better, or for worse?”
I read Emily Chang’s book Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boys’ Club of Silicon Valley the day it came out. Yes – I stayed up until after midnight (way past my bedtime) reading it.
It’s powerful. I bought a bunch of copies for different people and I recommend every investor and entrepreneur in the US read it. While there are a handful of salacious stories (some of which were covered in excerpts that were pre-released), the overall arc of the book is extremely strong, well written, and deeply researched. Given Emily’s experience as a journalist, it’s no surprise, but she did a great job of knitting together a number of different themes, in depth, to make her points. She also uses the book to make clear suggestions about what to do to improve things, although she holds off from being preachy, which is also nice.
Interestingly, I’ve heard criticism, including some that I’d categorize as aggressive, from several men I know. There doesn’t seem to be a clear pattern in the criticism, although some of it seems to be a reaction to several of the specific stories. In one case, I’d categorize the criticism as an effort to debate morality. In another, I heard an emotional reaction to what was categorized as an ad-hominem attack on a friend of the person. But I haven’t been able to coherently synthesize the criticism, and interestingly I’ve only heard it from men.
As I’ve been marching slowly through historic feminist literature recommended by Amy, I realized that I had read three contemporary books in the last few months that materially added to this list. In addition to Emily’s book Brotopia, I read Sarah Lacy’s book A Uterus Is a Feature, Not a Bug: The Working Woman’s Guide to Overthrowing the Patriarchy and Ellen Pao’s book Reset: My Fight for Inclusion and Lasting Change.
While Sarah and Ellen’s books are written from deep, personal experiences, I thought all three books were important, very readable, and bravely written.
The hyperbolic headlines are once again accompanying the articles about Silicon Valley. A Sunday NY Times article titled Silicon Valley Is Over, Says Silicon Valley kicks off what I expect is another wave of this. It references a recent Wired article titled Everyone Hates Silicon Valley, Except Its Imitators,
Go read them all and then tune back in here. I’ll wait.
Buried deep within the NYT article is an admission. “Complaints about Silicon Valley insularity are as old as the Valley itself” followed by an anecdote about Jim Clark moving to Florida during the dotcom era. Blink twice if you don’t know who Jim Clark is; blink once if you downloaded Netscape from an FTP site somewhere when it was still called Mosiac. And, blink three times if you realize that Netscape is now owned by Oath, which is a subsidiary of Verizon, which is headquartered in New York, and is the merger of Bell Atlantic (Philadelphia), NYNEX (New York), and GTE (which, awesomely, bought BBN, created GTE Internetworking, spun it off as Genuity after the Bell Atlantic merger, which was then acquired out of bankruptcy by Level 3 (Broomfield, Colorado – adjacent to Boulder) which is now owned by CenturyLink (Louisiana)). Blink four times if you are still here and followed all of that. Kind of entertaining that Netscape led us to Monroe, Louisiana.
Now, go read Ian Hathaway’s post titled Silicon Valley is Not Over. He nails it.
Dan Primack waded in with a tweet.
The “Silicon Valley VCs moving to the Midwest” story is a bit like your friend saying after a vacation to a tropical island: “I might just quit my job and live there forever.”
It’s not happening.
— Dan Primack (@danprimack) March 5, 2018
It’s worth clicking through and reading the comment thread. It’s delightful.
Silicon Valley is not over. Over 100 years since its notional inception, it’s a fascinating and amazing ecosystem. But it’s also not the only place you can create technology companies. I’m sitting in a hotel in New York and, according to a recent article from Bloomberg, New York Will Never Be Silicon Valley. And It’s Good With That.
The real story is that you can create startups, and thriving startup communities anywhere. Imagine the NYT article was titled “In a Moment of Introspection, Silicon Valley VCs Realize That There Are Tech Startups Outside of Silicon Valley.” Nah – that wouldn’t get as many clicks.
There are two great fictional TV series about technology and the computer industry that each have now had three seasons. The one everyone knows about is Silicon Valley. The lessor known one is Halt and Catch Fire. They are both dynamite but for different reasons. And, after three years and some reflection on my part, HCF decimates Silicon Valley (which is mostly a challenge to my friends who have writing credits.)
The foundational difference is that HCF is about the history of the personal computer industry (starting in the early 1980s) while Silicon Valley is a contemporary satire of today’s Silicon Valley.
While contemporary satires can be awesome (like Silicon Valley is), there is no sense of perspective. Since you are generally watching it unfold in real time, after three years you don’t get the historical arc, unless you go back and watch from the first episode. And, when you do, the first few episodes fall short, for a variety of reasons including the writers are getting their satire in gear while figuring out all the other pieces. Basically, it’s really challenging to get started – so in a lot of ways Silicon Valley has it harder than HCF.
Even just the titles tell you this. We all know what Silicon Valley is (or at least we think we do). But, without looking it up, do you know what Halt and Catch Fire refers to? I’ll give you a hint – notice my TLA for it (HCF). I’ll give you another hint – it has something to do with Motorola. And Intel. And the IBM 360. Go read the Wikipedia page on HCF – it’s got the whole story – but the punch line is “The mnemonic HCF is believed to be the first built-in self-test feature on a Motorola microprocessor”
Silicon Valley’s version of this is Hooli. But if they wanted to get it really right, it should have been something like Hooley since the better name would have six letters in it.
There are 100s of these embedded in each show. Watching the opening of Silicon Valley, with the animated Uber and Lyft balloons muscling each other out, is fun. The Twitter golden parachutes are cute. But even though it gets regularly updated, there are quickly artifacts that are out of place. It’s the challenge of current verses history.
Ok – pesca-pescatarian stays with me and I’ve told Dick Costolo that every board meeting at Chorus should include this option.
Shows like these get an awesome chance to have characters that are either direct historical references, historically inspired references, syntheses of historical characters, or completely fictional characters. Each has both, but HCF does the synthesis character much better. And, as part of it, they took on some gender stereotypes in an extremely powerful way through two of the lead female characters.
Finally, as someone who lived in Dallas in the time frame that the first two seasons of HCF unfolded (full time as a senior in high school and then in the summers when I was going to MIT) they just fucking nailed it. While Dell and CompuAdd were in Austin (anyone remember PCs Limited) and Compaq was in Houston, another clone maker (Five Star Electronics) was in Dallas and at least one of the Compaq early players (Kevin Ellington) came from TI in Dallas where he was previously the head of the team that created short lived but excellent TI Professional Computer.
In contrast, while I’ve spent a lot of time in Silicon Valley over the last 20 years, I’ve never lived there and don’t feel an emotional attachment to it. I’m a participant, but it’s not “of me”, whereas Dallas is.
All that said, they are both awesome shows that now have enough time in them (three years of episodes) to be worth a watch from start to finish! And, for bonus points, watch the documentary Silicon Cowboys.
This is the best quote I’ve seen all week. It’s from Greg Sands post on TechCrunch titled The Real Silicon Valley.
Greg is a long time friend and co-investor. I’m on the board with him at Return Path and he’s on the board with my partner Ryan at VictorOps. Along with my partners, we are all LPs in Greg’s fund Costanoa Ventures.
Greg’s post is great. Here’s the windup:
“Every time I hear people talking about unicorns, I think “all hat, no cattle” or “another person living in the land of style over substance.” I’ve found myself blurting out, “F$&@ Unicorns!”* twice recently, including when I was on a panel at Stanford School of Engineering on Entrepreneurship from Diverse Perspective. (Yes, I get the irony.)”
Go read it. I’ll be here when you get back.
It’s useful to recognize that the two companies Greg mentions in his post – Datalogix and Yokou (he was an investor in both) are not based in the bay area (Datalogix is in Colorado (in Westminster, between Boulder and Denver) and Yokou is in Beijing)), reinforcing the notion that “Silicon Valley” is a state of mind or a metaphor, rather than a physical place.
Last week a CEO in the bay area who I think is dynamite DMed the following via Slack.
“people don’t talk about what they’re making. all anyone talks about is raising money”
This is a nice link back to Greg’s post, where he quotes Jim Barksdale, the CEO of Netscape (Greg was the first product manager at Netscape.)
“Our purpose here isn’t to make money. Our purpose is to acquire and serve customers. Making money is the logical consequence of doing our jobs well, but it isn’t our purpose.”
I’ve got a post in me called Dragicorns that I haven’t had the time to get out of my head, but Greg’s reminder will suffice for today.
If you are an entrepreneur, focus on the purpose. Your purpose. And your company’s purpose. Once you stop doing this and start focusing only on the money you are fucked.
Amy and I had a very quiet weekend hanging out with each other, Brooks the Wonder Dog, and Super Cooper the Pooper. We like Memorial Day weekend – it always feels like the beginning of summer to us.
I read three books over the weekend. Since I was home, rather than reading on my Kindle, I grabbed some books from the infinite pile of physical books I have in my office. New stuff shows up every week – mostly business and entrepreneurship books, and the occasional “I think you’d like this” book. In addition, whenever I want something that isn’t on the Kindle, I just buy the physical book.
So this weekend was about startup communities with a bonus book on the startup visa tossed in for good measure.
The first was The Making of Silicon Valley: A One Hundred Year Renaissance. This book was written in 1995 and published by the Santa Clara Valley Historical Association so the updated subtitle should be “A One Hundred Year Renaissance – 20 Years Later.” Anyone interested in Silicon Valley, what it means, and how it came together should read this book carefully from cover to cover. There is so much shortened history out there, where the most extensive typically only goes back to Shockley, Fairchild, The Traitorous Eight, and the founding of Intel. The history is so much richer, the one page stories about the companies the shaped each era are just awesome, and the perspective of what 120 years really means for a the startup community that is undeniably the most robust in the world right now is very powerful. It also ends just as the rise of the Internet begins, so it’s the long arc of Silicon Valley is not overshadowed by the last twenty years.
The next book I read was Screw the Valley: A Coast-to-Coast Tour of America’s New Tech Startup Culture. I don’t like the title – it’s too intentionally provocative for my tastes because I’m not anti-Silicon Valley but rather pro-building startup communities everywhere – but the book is excellent. Timothy Sprinkle interviewed me early in his process and then set off on an almost one year trip across the US where he spent real time in Detroit, New York, Las Vegas, Austin, Kansas City, Raleigh-Durham, and Boulder. He writes extremely deep stories about each startup community, along with strengths, weaknesses, and things that are going on that shape them. I show up in a number of times, both personally along with references to my book Startup Communities, and Timothy does a nice job of using some of the concepts from Startup Communities to draw out major themes in each city. This is a great snapshot in time – right now – to show how startup communities develop anywhere.
The last book I read was The Startup Visa: Key to Job Growth & Economic Prosperity in America. Tahmina Watson wrote an extremely clear and easy to process book on the problem of the startup visa, why the US immigration system and visa process doesn’t work for entrepreneurs, why this matters, and makes recommendations about what to do about it. She also gives a nice history of the various bills in Congress, going back to S.3029 in 2010 (Lugar, Kerry) titled “The Startup Visa.” It’s disappointing that it’s five years later and Congress can’t seem to get a bill on the Startup Visa passed – or anything on immigration for that matter – but that’s life in government.
If you want a real punch line to the whole situation, read the short article from the NY Times Magazine – Debunking the Myth of the Job-Stealing Immigrant by Adam Davidson. Amy handed it to me on Monday and I said “I don’t really feel like reading another thing on immigration because I’m so annoyed by our lack of progress.” But then I did, and it was a great read.
Amy and I just got back from a great week off the grid in Paris. We were both exhausted and badly needed a break. When we want to get away from humans, we go to our place in Homer. When we want to lose ourselves in a big city, we go to Paris. We both are incredibly refreshed feeling and happy to be home with the rapidly growing puppy Super Cooper and his friend Brooks the Wonder Dog.
Before I left I did 15 minute interview on WGBH’s Innovation Hub program. I’m happy to do an interview with WGBH anytime they call given the number of hours of my life I spent listening to them during my twelve years living in Boston.
I listened to it on the ride home from the airport yesterday and thought it was one of the better short interviews I’ve done in a while. Enjoy!
Earlier this week I wrote a post titled The Religion of Silicon Valley. It was intended to be provocative and exploratory.
The comments were great and helped me think through this concept more (note: the comment counter is broken on the main page due to a plug-in conflict – we are trying to figure it out. The counter is correct on the post page…)
Then I wrote a post titled The Board Operating System. A few folks tied together the concepts of Religion and Operating System as an operative metaphor for Silicon Valley.
That stimulated a bunch of other phrases in my mind to use as metaphors. As I ponder them, I’m curious which ones fit or don’t fit, and why. Some phrases include:
If you are game to play and help think through this, comment away!
There has been a lull in the chanting that “Silicon Valley is the center of the tech universe.” I’m in Boulder for the next three weeks and I woke up pondering something Ben Casnocha said to me the last time we were together.
Silicon Valley is a religion, just like Crossfit is a religion.
This has stuck with me for a long time and I’ve read many posts about Silicon Valley through this lens. For a quick frame of reference test, try these three:
I’ve been trying to decide the best phrase to describe the phenomenon around Silicon Valley. All of the easy phrases – culture, dynamics, ecosystem – either feel wrong or are too limiting. Religion seems to be the one that works.
Since religion is a loaded word for so many people (including me), I went searching for a comfortable and expansive definition of religion to use that transcends human history and belief systems. I liked the Wikipedia definition of religion.
A religion is an organized collection of beliefs, cultural systems, and world views that relate humanity to an order of existence. Many religions have narratives, symbols, and sacred histories that aim to explain the meaning of life and/or to explain the origin of life or the Universe. From their beliefs about the cosmos and human nature, people may derive morality, ethics, religious laws or a preferred lifestyle.
Let’s change this to “The Religion of Silicon Valley.”
The Religion of Silicon Valley is an organized collection of beliefs, cultural systems, and world views that relate humanity to the order of existence. It has narratives, symbols, and sacred histories that aim to explain the meaning of Silicon Valley and/or to explain the origin of Silicon Valley. From their beliefs about the human nature, people may derive morality, ethics, religious laws or a preferred lifestyle.
That seems like it works. As an observer, but not participant, in Crossfit, this definition also seems to work for Crossfit. It also seems to work for Fight Club, which I watched recently at an offsite with Seth, Jason, and Ryan and we all agreed that it definitely does not pass the test of time.
Religions are incredibly powerful, but they have great weaknesses and limitations. Religious leaders are dogmatic. They are slow to change their fundamental beliefs and in some cases refuse to. Over time, some religious leaders alienate their subjects or try to control society through top down control. And, when religions clash, conflict and human extermination can be quite dramatic. Religious leaders are often overthrown after a period of time.
Metaphorically, this is a risk of the Religion of Silicon Valley. I’ve been saying for over 20 years that there are many different ways to create amazing companies. Recently, in my book Startup Communities, I asserted that you can create a startup community in any city in the world.
The Silicon Valley way is one of them, but not the only one. Today, it’s a powerful epicenter, just like Detroit was a powerful epicenter in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s even earning a place in America’s Arsenal of Democracy during World War II with its sister cities Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh. But the notion that the Silicon Valley way is the only way is a dangerous one.
I’m intrigued by people who say “the only place you should start a tech company is Silicon Valley.” I keep thinking that I’ll never hear that again, but I just heard it two weeks ago from an entrepreneur I met. He’s very accomplished and starting a new company not in Silicon Valley. He called me looking for an understanding about how to combat the argument he was getting from VCs he was talking to who said “the only place you should start your company is in Silicon Valley.” I was in New York on Friday for Techstars Demo Day and I saw evidence over and over again that the statement was false.
Religion often devolves into “my way is the only way.” I strongly believe in freedom of everything, including religion. I also believe you can learn an enormous amount from religions, even if you don’t subscribe to them. I’m sure this shapes my view that there are some amazing things about the Religion of Silicon Valley but some to be very careful of, or avoid entirely.
I like this metaphor a lot. I’m curious what reaction it invokes in you.