Sunday, October 22, 2006

Proximity, ecosystems and Silicon Valley

If you're a young tech entrepreneur, move to Silicon Valley. The Times article I've excerpted from below is not exaggerating in any way. You not only have better access to venture capital in the valley, you have access to a whole ecosystem of other startups, entrepreneurs, technologists, attorneys experienced in startup issues, and big tech companies that are your potential acquirers. Note that both Google and YouTube are Sequoia companies. The article is also correct in pointing out that, beyond proximity and the ecosystem, the entire attitude toward risk is different in the valley. There's a startup culture. People have seen startups succeed, have seen their friends get rich, and expect to be able to do it themselves. That positive attitude can make all the difference. If, instead, you're cranking away in Minneapolis or Pittsburgh or even Boston or LA, dreaming of a sweet exit, it's just that much harder to believe that it's actually going to happen.

Lucky for me Eugene is only an hour flight from the bay area. But even that hour (and having to book a flight in advance) sometimes makes scheduling meetings a nightmare compared to driving from our Oakland offices down to Palo Alto.

FIBER networks cross the world. Data bits move at light speed. The globe has been flattened, and national boundaries obliterated. Yet in Silicon Valley, the one place that is responsible more than any other for creating the network technology that supposedly renders geography irrelevant, physical distance is very much on the minds of the investors who provide venture capital.

Meet the “20-minute rule” that guides fateful decisions in Silicon Valley. Craig Johnson, managing director of Concept2Company Ventures, a venture capital firm in Palo Alto, Calif., who has 30 years of experience in early-stage financings, said he knew many venture capitalists who adhered to this doctrine: if a start-up company seeking venture capital is not within a 20-minute drive of the venture firm’s offices, it will not be funded.

Mr. Johnson explained that close proximity permits the investor to provide in-person guidance; initially, that may entail many meetings each week before investor and entrepreneur come to know each other well enough to rely mostly on the phone for updates. Those initial interactions are fateful. “Starting a company is like launching a rocket,” Mr. Johnson said. “If you’re a tenth of a degree off at launch, you may be 1,000 miles off downrange.”

Capital and attention are lavished on entrepreneurs in the Valley as in no other place. Ten years ago, when Dow Jones VentureOne began a quarterly survey of where venture investments landed, one-third of all deals in the country went to the San Francisco Bay Area. Since then, the same share of deals has gone to the same place, almost without variation. Most recently, in the first six months of this year, Silicon Valley still pulled in 32 percent; the region with the second-largest total, New England, was far behind, at 10 percent.

...It’s convenient for venture capitalists to have entrepreneurs close by, but the reverse is true, too, said Allen Morgan, a managing director of the Mayfield Fund, which manages $2.3 billion in venture capital and is also on Sand Hill Road. Mr. Morgan made the case by pointing out that a prospective entrepreneur would, on average, need to have three to eight meetings with a venture fund before he or she was successful, but would have to go through a similar process with 5 to 10 firms before finding the one that approved the funding request.

Even if the process goes smoothly and requires only 15 meetings — the fewest possible, given the lowest range of possibilities — and even if most of those meetings are set up in advance, the time consumed in getting to Sand Hill Road, even using local highways, can be significant. The problem is that much worse when, as often happens, a meeting is called with just an hour or two of notice. “If you live in Santa Clara, it’s doable,” Mr. Morgan said. “If you live in Dubuque, it’s not.”

Entrepreneurs who live in Silicon Valley also find the technical talent they need faster than they can in any other place; they pay more for that talent, but speed is the sine qua non for success. Seth J. Sternberg, the chief executive of Meebo, an instant-messaging company in Palo Alto that is backed by Sequoia, described Silicon Valley with the fervent appreciation of a recent transplant from New York, where he had suffered three separate bad experiences with start-ups, none of which had attracted venture funding.

The ecosystem in Silicon Valley, Mr. Sternberg said, includes “incredible techies, who live here because this is the epicenter, where they can find the most interesting projects to work on.” The ecosystem also includes real estate agents, accountants, head hunters and lawyers who understand an entrepreneur’s situation — that is, emptied bank accounts and maxed-out credit cards.

“In New York, it would be extremely difficult to find a law firm willing to defer the first $20,000 of your legal fees,” Mr. Sternberg said. “Here, we got that. It’s a pretty standard thing in Silicon Valley.”

...Predictions of the Valley’s demise have become a perennial, said Mr. Morgan, the Mayfield venture capitalist. “Every five years, Time or Newsweek runs a story: ‘Silicon Valley is Dead,’ ” he said. “But Silicon Valley is bigger and more vibrant and better at creating companies than it has ever been.”

Silicon Valley is not “bigger” in a literal sense. In fact, it remains geographically contained by the Santa Cruz Mountains on one side and San Francisco Bay on the other. The physical features of the place help explain the Valley’s vitality.

MR. JOHNSON, the venture capitalist in Palo Alto, noted that the greater Los Angeles area also has a pool of talented engineers (working at aerospace companies like Lockheed, Northrop and Hughes) and great universities (notably Caltech and U.C.L.A.) and plenty of money to invest. “But in Los Angeles,” he said, “people are scattered across a wide area; everything is more spread out.”

It’s harder for entrepreneurs to meet with one another and with investors, he added. And that means connections take longer, deals move slowly, fewer companies are formed. “Like a gas, entrepreneurship is hotter when compressed.” he said.

1 comment:

Doug said...

The connectedness of the Silicon Valley is palpable. It takes XX% more work to accomplish the same relationship building, capital finding, networking living where I do (Iowa as a SoCal transplant for 12 months now)...but it's a LOT more fun and "easier" to stand out as someone who knows what the hell they're talking about. The big fish/smaller pond analogy works.

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