President Obama last night had dinner at John Doerr’s house in Silicon Valley and for some reason I wasn’t invited. I wish I had been. Can you imagine Obama making small talk with Steve Jobs? This is an instance where Steve’s lack of an internal censor probably served the event well, or at least I hope it did, because when it comes to the dinner’s goal of stimulating innovation in America every Administration from any political party needs all the help it can get. I should know, because I’ve been working a bit with those White House would-be innovators, trying to get them in the right groove.
Remember Startup America is the name of the TV series on tech startups I’ve been making for most of the last year. Startup America is also the name of the recently-announced White House initiative on entrepreneurship. Interesting coincidence or brand hijacking?
It was, of course, just an interesting coincidence but I used it as an excuse to accuse them of brand hijacking. Wouldn’t you? So we’re literally moving toward the White House getting an IP license from me. I am not making this up. And it also means they are listening ever so slightly to my advice, because my Startup America is 14 months older than their Startup America and we’ve learned many lessons along the way.
So if you’ve been wondering what’s up with the Startup Tour and Startup America, this is the first of at least three announcements coming this week and next that will explain the next phases for both. Today’s announcement is that I am advising the Obama Administration on this topic. Weird, eh?
Here’s the sort of advice I am giving. There’s a great temptation if you have dinner at John Doerr’s very nice house to buy-in to the Silicon Valley innovation model — to attempt to replicate that in other parts of the country possibly with government assistance. But having visited tech startups in 20 states last year I can say with some conviction that it often won’t work, because the Silicon Valley startup ecosystem isn’t the American startup ecosystem.
This is the Silicon Valley innovation model: 1) get a bunch of really smart people and think up ideas for technology startups; 2) choose a dozen of the best ideas and throw some significant money at them for 6-12 months, and; 3) at the end of a year throw even more money at the two surviving ideas knowing that one of those will also be dead before its second birthday. Brainstorming–seed funding–A-round–success, and of course bloodshed along the way — simple as that.
This model works well in Silicon Valley, where everyone knows people who have worked for eight different companies in the last eight years. But for most of America the model doesn’t work well at all. That’s for three reasons:
1) There often isn’t enough technical talent or if there is, that talent is more risk-averse (or less cocky) than the Silicon Valley crowd.
2) There definitely isn’t enough risk capital outside hotspots like Silicon Valley, Boston or Austin or a few other places that are comfortable with a 90+ percent failure rate. Try that argument down at the bank.
3) The strongest difference between Silicon Valley and real America when it comes to tech startups is how the original idea comes to be. In Silicon Valley you decide to start a company then look for ideas. In real America you have an idea that eventually becomes a company.
That third difference may not sound like much but it is critical. Silicon Valley is a boomtown where everyone is looking for the next vein of gold. In the real America founders more often come up simply with ideas they love that morph over time into products. But since no accelerated, laser-zapped, steroid-boosted in vitro fertilization is involved, these ideas take longer to mature than they would be allowed in Silicon Valley, where success is measured in months, not years.
This doesn’t make provincial ideas any worse than Silicon Valley ideas; in fact they are often better. Nor does it mean those ideas go through more or less evolutionary steps on their way to eventual product maturity. Ideas are ideas. But not all ideas are also dreams, and most startup founders outside Silicon Valley are living the dream that is their technology, not the dream that is their startup.
The result is that companies outside of Silicon Valley start slower and grow both slower and more cheaply. Our Startup America companies were an average of six years old and had gone through in those six years an average of $40,000. Time is money, think about it. To do the same job in one year would have cost $240,000. To do it in six months would have cost $480,000. That’s Silicon Valley kind of money, but six-year, $40,000 money is Uncle Phil money.
So here’s the advice President Obama definitely didn’t get last night at John Doerr’s house. Replicating Silicon Valley in other places usually won’t work. Accelerating innovation isn’t the same as nurturing innovation. Debt financing is close to useless for startups (only ONE Startup America company used debt financing that wasn’t a home equity loan or credit cards). Friends-and-family money is key so find ways to encourage it, though that may not really make a difference. Slow nurturing builds good products, too, so don’t assume that a five year-old startup is a failure or penalize it simply for being five years old.
People who are doing what they love are generally doing good work.