I read with great interest a NY Times Sunday Magazine cover story about Silicon Valley’s youth problem, written by a young Harvard computer science grad. While this story presented Yiren Lu’s personal impressions and experience, it also revealed a few things: 1) the more things change, the more they remain the same, and 2) how success can create blind spots and hinder fundamental and ultimately, positive and beneficial changes. What insights can you glean from the perspective of an aspiring founder?
First, an observation: the more things change, the more they remain the same.
We human beings are birds of a feather; we like to congregate. We like to do what our friends do—pursue what they pursue, including taking up the same sports or embarking on the same career path and industry.
So it’s not remarkable to see that 2014 Silicon Valley is flushed with young grads from elite schools—like Ms. Lu and her friends—who want to work for a sexting app startup because their friends are doing it, and it’s all the rage. At the height of the 1990s dot-com days, Silicon Valley was flushed with young grads from elite schools who were helping one another and also competing with one another for hot jobs at various Internet startups.
It is also not remarkable that there is a rift between the old guard (seasoned entrepreneurs) and the new guard (the latest startup darlings and aspirants). The youth of the dot-com days also didn’t quite relate to their old guard. I know; I worked for a wireless startup filled with 20s and 30-somethings. Our VP of marketing had hired an ‘older’ consultant to help us with research. I don’t recall her name. She was knowledgeable, professional, and personable. I enjoyed talking with her, and I also remember thinking that she stood out a bit because of her age. It’s funny now that I am ‘older,’ I don’t see myself as old.
Nor is it remarkable that once again, venture capitalists are selling ideas that don’t work. The Harvard grad mentioned a text dialogue with a startup engineer who wrote, “Never before has the idea itself been powerful enough that one can get away with a lacking implementation.” Never before? Not quite. Anyone with dot-com experience or who followed the late 1990s boom will remember those who came and went: Boo, Webvan, Flooz, Kozmo, Pets, Worldcom, eFrenzy, Excite, Xigo, to name a few.
Or perhaps it is remarkable that venture capitalists didn’t learn any lessons from the last dot-bomb—and again are selling ideas that don’t work to people who missed the last successful IPO runs.
If you’ve been following Silicon Valley’s activities, you’ll note the different time periods, the different players, and the same patterns.
When an industry has achieved such mega successes as Silicon Valley, it is easy to stick to the same business model, the same settings, the same work culture and dynamics. It is easy to continue to apply the same formula—as well as to believe in its greatness.
Why change when you’re in the driver’s seat? Why change when you get to dictate what the rest of the world should consume, should aspire? Why change when your aspirants are bending over backward to do whatever it takes to become successful like you? There’s no incentive to change at all, no incentive for self-reflection at all.
Mega successes can create blind spots because if you keep focusing on your same ‘winning’ path, you don’t pause to examine what’s dysfunctional until that becomes a big issue. You certainly don’t need to get on other ‘paths’ to obtain the view from another perspective.
Second, what are Silicon Valley’s blind spots? I’ll focus on a few that I believe are relevant insights for aspiring founders.
What is remarkable is that for all of its cutting edge / think-outside-of-the-box reputation, Silicon Valley is still willing to live with the old guard / new guard disconnect, as well as the gender imbalance.
Their ‘startup’ leaders have not seen the need to create a diverse and collaborative culture that bridges the age gap and the gender gap. A work culture that takes advantage of both the experienced (including measured enthusiasm) as well as the unseasoned (including high energy, unfettered enthusiasm) will help workers benefit from the different perspectives, skills and talents. They haven’t bothered to address what could be an intellectual, creative and financial gold mine, especially when they care so much about their ROI.
Another blind spot that the people who are drinking from the same water cooler don’t see is the need to correct the belief (and the myth) that the business idea itself is so powerful that there’s no need for in-depth research, planning and implementation.
I have interviewed or worked with a few dot-coms that were so in love with their business idea, that they created a cult-like culture, and everyone who joined the team bought into it: from selling business cards online, personalized stock portfolio, personalized bookmarks, street views, software as a service, etc. The 1990s dot-com founders of these ‘powerful’ ideas did not see any of those ideas transformed into profitable businesses because of poor execution.
Anyone with historical insight as well as common sense will know that two or two dozen individuals across the globe can come up with the same idea at any one time; it’s the execution that matters, and matters in the long run. Ideas without proper execution will remain in the ‘unrealized potential’ mode.
And how can these insights help you as you plan for your new venture?
When you start your company, it may make sense to start with who you know—and most of the time, it’s someone who shares your similar background, skills, and interests. But as you expand your operations, step away from the bird-of-a-feather mindset; be open to tapping into diverse backgrounds, talents and skill sets.
It may require a lot of thought, research and experimenting to create such a ‘cross-cultural’ culture, but the benefits are multi-fold. Not only will you have a smarter and more culturally savvy workforce, you will also reduce operational inefficiencies (thanks to seasoned managers who already know what works and what doesn’t instead of inexperienced professionals), and foster fresh ideas and perspectives (thanks to the enthusiastic untrained eyes who don’t have the baggage from past experience that may hinder innovation)—all of which shall contribution to growth and expansion more steadfastly.
The rest of the world is more connected than ever, and needs products and services that are aligned with their environments and cultures. And companies that employ both men and women, young and old, individuals with diverse cultural backgrounds, left-brained and right-brained, will produce richer products and services.
As I mentioned above, you may have a powerful idea, but it is not the idea itself that will lead you to success, unlike the myth that is being perpetuated in Silicon Valley. It is what you do with it. So be honest, be pragmatic and be self-aware. Don’t buy into an idea and create a vision with shoddy implementation. You’ll be wasting your time and energy, as well as those involved.
Here’s the NY Times article about Silicon Valley’s Youth Problem.
© 2014-2015 My-Tien Vo