10 thoughts
last posted March 11, 2015, 5:36 p.m.

3 later thoughts


Silicon Valley: Place or State of Mind?

There was a Fred Wilson blog post the other day that was in response to a Marc Andreessen tweestorm defense of Silicon Valley. In the post, he argues that Silicon Valley is "a mindset that is infecting large swaths of the global economy."

I find that view pretty easy to agree with and accept, but I have to say that I'm much more comfortable with the mindset than I am with the actual place. For me, there are other cities that I think fall into a similar category and that have very similar attributes.

In my nearly 30 years in tech, I've spent a lot of time either working for or with companies in Silicon Valley (SV). While the scale of the fervor around SV has waxed and waned over the years, one immutable perception of it has sort of been etched in my brain about it which is, that it's really no different in many ways to Hollywood, Nasville or any other place that's come to be regarded as a mecca for something.

Having worked to some extent in music and film, and extensively in tech, it's very easy to see the similarities among the three.

The best concentration of talent can be found in these "jeweled cities".

This is universally true in my experience. Thousands of extremely talented people flock to these jeweled cities for a variety of reasons, but not just because they're looking for their pot of gold. I would say that one of the more common reasons is simply because they want to be surrounded by lots of interesting work and other very talented people. Who wouldn't?

A great concentration of talent does not always result in either quality or original product.

In the film and music business, the term "sell out" is very often associated with Hollywood and Nashville. This is because a lot of people who go there feel that they need to sacrifice their artistic integrity to the Gods of Commerce in order to "make it". This sadly, is by and large true. People often find themselves taking jobs that they don't like or producing work that is unfulfilling just to pay the bills, which is understandable. Many more people just spend their time chasing the flock rather than trying to follow their own muse and develop something truly unique.

The unfortunate reality is that investors, whether they be in tech, music or film, have an aversion to risk. If you can convincingly position or pitch yourself as "the next" Taylor Swift, Steven Spielberg or Snapchat, you're probably more likely to get a meeting or even a deal than if you're pitching something that's completely out of the box and disruptive. I'm sure there would be a raft of people that would object to this assertion and claim the opposite it true. I'm not claiming that this mindset and behavior is an absolute, but I feel that it is closer to the norm.

This is not to say that originality can't or doesn't shine in these places. It does, and it often does shine very brightly,, it's just that when a crowd of people are shining mirrors in your face, it can be tough to tell which is the brightest.

Regarding the quality front, I know this one from personal experience in the tech space from at least three separate dealings with SV based companies. Perhaps the biggest example was when my first company was acquired in 1999 by a then SV and Wall Street darling just before its IPO. I was asked to run a portion of the field organization post acqusition and found the quality of the product to be so terrible, that I couldn't even bring myself to stay for the year it would take to vest the remainder of my shares. This is by no means to suggest that the quality of work in general in the Valley is terrible. That's not my point, my point is simply that being there with all that great talent doesn't guarantee a quality product.

You'll find a lot more failures than successes, but successes are almost always bigger.

There's a very simple mathmatical certainty that just comes from the sheer numbers of people flocking to these places; there's just not room for everyone to make it and more people will fail than succeed.

What adds to the buzz, allure and long term success of these jeweled cities is that when they do produce a hit, the effects can be far reaching and the rewards and impact huge. Just look at Google and Apple.

Some of the biggest disruptions and successes come from outsiders.

When Mutt Lang, the long time producer for big name rock acts such as AC/DC and Def Leppard took a little known country artist named Shania Twain under his wing and started producing her, the resulting wave of hits and the new sound he produced turned Nashville completely on its head. Lang's vision and sound paved the way for acts like Faith Hill, The Dixie Chicks and Taylor Swift to name a few. Country music was now no longer just the sound track for a blue collar, middle aged, predominantly male crowd. The revolution that Lang, a complete Nashville outsider started, opened up an entirely new market and demographic. The longevity of this shift was demonstrated to me last year when my production partners in New York revealed to me that the Country Music Channel demographic was now trending predominantly toward teenage girls.

It's important to note that while Twain was originally signed by a Nashville label before she met Lang,, it wasn't until Lang, the outsider, produced The Woman In Me that she began to achieve huge commercial success.

Facebook came from a kid in a dorm room in Cambridge Mass as did Dropbox and a host of others. It's difficult to know if Zuckerberg or Houston could have found the same success had they started in SV, but the fact remains they didn't. There's no question that their moves to SV helped propel them, but their ground breaking ideas were more the product of SV the state of mind vs. the location.

Even when the success comes from an outsider, the jeweled cities usually end up with the credit.

Invariably, through the lens of time, the fact that some of these major successes and disruptions came from outside the walls of the jeweled city becomes lost or murky and the city often end up with the credit. This only serves to fuel their mythic power and allure.

Since both Zuckerberg and Houston moved their efforts to SV so early in their development and took funding from mostly SV based VC's, the vast majority of the credit over time I'm sure will go to SV, even though they both benefited more from suckling the breast of SV than being nurtured in the womb of SV.

Stanley Kubrick, who came from New York and spent very little time in LA and produced the vast majority of his work in London, is to this day still viewed as a "Hollywood" icon.

Once Nashville realized that Mutt Lang wasn't some sort of rabid dog, and the freshness of his innovative approach overwhelmed the industry, the established Nashville crowd had no choice but to embrace, praise, and then start to try and emulate his sound wherever they could.

What's the point?

Someone once told me, "the clothes don't make the man." I think that you could also say in the context of this discussion, that the place doesn't make the artist or entrepreneur.. Certainly these places can and do inspire and influence, and they undoubtedly produce winners. I just think that people should understand that you don't necessarily have to be in one of those places to produce amazing work and achieve brilliant success. For some, they prove to be more of a distraction than the ideal location to hone their craft.

Kubrick was once asked why he chose to work in London as opposed to Hollywood. His reply was:

"Because I direct films, I have to live in a major English-speaking production center. That narrows it down to three places: Los Angeles, New York and London. I like New York, but it's inferior to London as a production center. Hollywood is best, but I don't like living there. You read books or see films that depict people being corrupted by Hollywood, but it isn't that. It's this tremendous sense of insecurity. A lot of destructive competitiveness. In comparison, England seems very remote. I try to keep up, read the trade papers, but it's good to get it on paper and not have to hear it every place you go. I think it's good to just do the work and insulate yourself from that undercurrent of low-level malevolence."

I think that there's more than a kernel of truth and wisdom in this that can also be applied to Nashville, and of course, Silicon Valley and I think it supports the idea that the state of mind for any of these jeweled cities can be an effective and sometimes safer construct than the actual place.

6 earlier thoughts