Some More Reflections On Silicon Valley
I wrote about my early impressions of Silicon Valley back in February this year. I have now been here for a little over four months now.
I wanted to expand on some of my initial impressions and jot down few new ones based on my observations and conversations so far :
There’s a lot of talk about how SF is a tech monoculture. It is true, no doubt. This is the most common talking point when you talk about SV with people outside of SV, of course. What’s often missed in this never-ending inconclusive conversation is how that’s a feature and not a bug. There’s a reason there’s only one physical location that is an epicenter of entertainment (Hollywood or LA) and finance (Wall Street or NYC) in the US. There aren’t multiple Bollywoods either. Having grown up in India and spent enough time in Rochester (NY), NYC, LA and SF, I do fully subscribe to the philosophy of "go where the action is" when you are young. Do it digitally until doing it physically becomes possible. Clustering effects are real, both offline and online. Of course, one does not need to move to SF to build a career in tech. NYC is on fire. But, the entire NYC vs SF vs Rise of the Rest debate in the context of tech is futile and never-ending. Of course, there is the very growing, visible and obvious issue that does and will hurt the golden goose. And, there are strong counterpoints to that too!
I have previously written about how there’s almost a perfect competition for having good habits, consuming knowledge and being helpful. Everyone is trying to model off of each other on the basics so that they can compete with each other on things that truly matter. Every competitive edge gets priced in and becomes table stakes very soon because of the rich networks and intense information/knowledge sharing online and offline. Naturally, there are limits on personal or organizational bandwidth, willingness and prioritization for everyone. Just like how big public companies being at the mercy of public narratives and quarterly results opens up room for startups to identify gaps and creep up on incumbents, it is easy to exploit what the most successful and sought after people here can’t do despite best intentions to make a name for yourself. It is so easy to build a lasting reputation in the eyes of outsiders by just being responsive, respectful & helpful (ie. asking their story, proactively making intros, etc). I used to think that one has to hit a certain threshold of success and influence to do so but that isn’t true. Helping those who most likely wouldn’t be helped by those with power and influence today is how up and comers build their networks here.
There’s a small set of folks in SV that get brought up universally in my conversations with well known people so far in SF for being brilliant and/or nice. Makes me realize how small tech community is, value of personal “brand”, and relationships-driven journeys here.
It is both understandable & surprising how spending some time doing anything at a recognizable, successful startup becomes a badge of honor & a credential for whatever one does next. The network & brand name gets weighted more heavily than personal competence. One reassuring thing about this credential is that there are new ones every 3-5 years unlike elite banks, consulting firms and big tech. Those old school credentials are badges of honor in SV too regardless of how meritocratic we might think SV is. Just look at backgrounds of people in venture! Big Tech, large private companies & platforms like YC have now become the new ivy league schools or career launchpads of tech. 2-3 year stint at them opens up exit options like angel investing & top startup gigs the way top tier investment banking does for prestigious buy side options.
As an outsider, in upstate NY, when I was studying SV, I was convinced that intellect is the number one factor that drives investing. Build knowledge base and things will come to you. Now, I’m in SV, I’m amazed by how wrong I was & how inter-personal dynamics drive so much. Of course, the savviest people are extremely intellectually rigorous. But, I underestimated how far one can get just on interpersonal relationships. This is one major thing that differentiates early stage technology investing from public market investors. Understandably so. The ruthless analytical rigor needed to do well in public markets is absent from early stage investing. There is so much room in early stage tech to excel using social skills. That has challenged my view of early stage investing the most.
It is interesting how much personal brands and past known success play a role in staying top of mind & attracting opportunities and people. Every time I ask an insider who are some early stage investors they like working with or are good at X, I get a small subset of the usual suspects. If the recommended folks don’t have an obviously good track record, the recommender has either worked with them in some capacity or they were top of mind because of online brands or recent encounter at some event. The consequence of this behavior gets reflected in the data.
One major realization so far has been the powerful influence of a well known or successful person vouching for someone (mainly due to interpersonal dynamics) who meets basic standard of competence. That person’s growth & reputation skyrockets. While it is always awesome to be on the receiving side of such endorsements, I am uncomfortable with the extent to which the endorsement outweigh hustle and competence. Of course, this isn’t limited to SV. I do my best to counteract this by promoting lesser known people who are really good at what they do (regardless of whether I am or would be friends with them) both publicly and privately.
Having a prepared mind isn’t about having strong opinions. This seems counterintuitive because the tech blogosphere and podcast-sphere is all about having an opinion on everything. The truly intelligent and savviest people I have met define having a prepared mind very differently. It is about knowing enough to know you don’t know enough so that you can ask quality questions and be a good sounding board.