London Versus Silicon Valley By Tech Entrepreneur Liz Rice
This is a guest post by Entrepreneur Liz Rice, Vice President of Thrutu. A London native, she is now based in Palo Alto.
It’s not hard to see why people like California – perfect weather, oceans and mountains easily accessible, and a multi-cultural melting pot that means every type of cuisine is available practically around the corner. But why is it so attractive to build a start-up here?
I’ve had the pleasure and privilege of living and working in Palo Alto, building and launching a brand new product – a mobile app called Thrutu, that makes it really easy to share photos, locations, contacts and more while you’re talking on the phone – here in the heart of Silicon Valley. As a veteran of a few successful (and not-so-successful!) start-ups in the UK, it’s interesting to compare the two cultures and business environments. Seriously, the weather makes a difference. Doesn’t everyone feel more optimistic and energetic when they wake up in the morning to sunshine and blue skies?
It seems that everyone here is an entrepreneur. I joined a running club, and found that half the members have a day job, but also have a start-up project that they work on at evenings and weekends. The UK has an amazing music scene because every other kid is recording their own stuff in their bedroom; in Palo Alto everyone’s spending their spare time hacking some new social network variant.
Downtown Palo Alto is full of nice cafés and restaurants, punctuated by start-up offices. It’s pretty exciting to walk around and see names of companies you’ve heard of – either because they’re well-known, or because you just read about them in Gizmodo or Techcrunch. It makes start-ups seem a lot more real, and you feel like you’re part of a community. Even in Silicon Roundabout things are much more spread out (and often more anonymous).
Even if they aren’t within walking distance, you’d be hard pushed to name an internet company, that doesn’t have an office within an hour’s travel of where I’m sitting now. That makes it a lot easier to co-ordinate meetings, which could well be a factor in why things seem to happen faster around here.
Over the last few years a vibrant start-up scene has definitely developed in London – you can go to some sort of networking event every day of the working week, and it’s improving all the time. But the community is still pretty small in London, and while it’s nice to see friendly faces, some events do feel more like cliques. In Silicon Valley there don’t actually seem to be so many broad, open-invitation start-up events – they tend to be a lot more specialized and focussed.
For a few months our team incubated at Sequoia’s offices on Sand Hill Road. It’s an amazing place to hang out - the investment certificates on the wall in reception pretty much document the entire history of global technology and internet businesses, and you can find yourself bumping into any number of seriously interesting people. For an embryonic business, incubating at a VC gives you easy access to incredibly useful advice from really experienced people – and a lot of useful introductions.
People talk about the Valley as if there is a glut of amazing engineers looking for work, but that hasn’t been our experience. We have been surprised how hard it is to recruit really talented people here, presumably because demand is so high. The really difficult thing, though, is parsing people’s resumés – we have seen numerous folks who have had incredibly impressive-sounding roles on wildly exciting products, but in person turn out to be barely able to string together a coherent sentence / line of code. However, people are more willing to take a gamble with their careers. In the UK I’m sure that more people worry that their parents might disapprove if they joined a start-up rather than a nice, steady job.
I’ve seen several talented people get snapped up as Entrepreneurs In Residence by VC companies as soon as they became available from a previous role.
I’m sure that EIRs exist in Europe, but seems that the VCs here are more willing to invest in an individual, even if they don’t yet have a product or business plan, simply based on their track record.
Obviously this gives the entrepreneur time and space to work up an idea without worrying how to put food on the table, but the interest from a VC also makes it easier to recruit people to the team early.
Based on the small sample of my experience, it feels like there are no more women in leadership roles here than there are in Europe. Apologies to anyone I’ve forgotten, but I think I’ve met one female tech start-up founder, out of dozens, and any women in senior positions have been in marketing or design. So far, we have had a roughly similar proportion of women applying for our technical job openings as we do in the UK.
It’s a lot easier to arrive at work in the morning with a positive attitude if you don’t have to travel by Tube! That said, I’m fortunate enough to walk to work here, and maybe I’d feel different if I had to spend time on 101 every day…
Could we recreate Silicon Valley in Europe? We have universities every bit as demanding and effective as Stanford. We have a growing community of investors, and ever-increasing numbers of meetups, hackathons and start-up hub initiatives. We have the weather in places, the proximity to other businesses in others. The challenge is that all these factors aren’t co-located as they are here. Now, if we could just devise a way to get more sunshine in London…
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