Silicon Valley is the epicenter of the startup world, but it’s also a valley of shattered startup dreams. Many international founders arrive with hopes of raising multiple rounds of funding and creating explosive growth, but most startups rarely “make it”. Silicon Valley has a unique culture that can be difficult to understand, not to mention the insane competition. The chances to grow a startup from idea to successful exit in Silicon Valley are lower than of a bartender in Los Angeles turning into Hollywood movie star.
Don’t Come to the US to Raise Money
You weren’t expecting that were you? Here’s a typical story: an international startup creates some momentum in its home country and eventually develops the desire to come to Silicon Valley for funding to start scaling growth. The startup spends a few months networking, meeting key people and decision makers. They generate lots of discussions, promises, expectations and advise. But no checks. The founders run out of money and return home disappointed. Sadly, this happens all the time.
Imagine going to a friends party with a goal to get laid. Approaching every attractive person with a direct request for sex is not going to be a very good strategy, not if you are looking for a long-term partner. The same thing happens to investors in Silicon Valley – they mostly want long-term fruitful partnership, not a quick flip. And they have a great selection of startups to choose from.
The primary goal for coming to Silicon Valley should be business development. Showing everyone around that you can actually deliver and achieve business results is the shortest way to an investor’s heart. Out of all the Silicon Valley bullshitters and dreamers, the real executors get all the attention.
There is plenty of money in Silicon Valley, but most of funding goes to local startups with strong connections. If you didn’t have the luxury of going to the same kindergarten with Steve Jobs, you need to earn your way into the community. Business development is the quickest way to do so.
Here are a few business development goals to set for yourself:
- Understanding the landscape and competition – are you reinventing the wheel?
- Filling your advisory board with people who can help in future, make good introductions and add credibility for conversations with investors.
- Find customer in US – this would add a lot of credibility to the startup, especially if you get a well-known name as a reference client.
- Finding distribution channels or reselling to partners who could open doors to the market.
- Doing PR to become more visible and evangelizing your business philosophy.
Silicon Valley’s All or Nothing Success
It’s win or lose here. Success in Silicon Valley is binary. The Valley thinks you’re a loser until you become a big winner. There’s no in-between. This isn’t the case in many other countries though, since in most places work-reward dependency is linear: the harder you work the more rewards you get. You can always find a specific level of comfort by working a certain number of hours.
European business culture is best explained by old Finnish saying: You don’t need to run faster than the bear to run away, you just need to run faster than that other guy.
Silicon Valley culture is different. All but the leaders are eaten by the bear. Simply put — you can’t be just a little better than your competition, you need to be the best.
Carlos Luis Zafon said, “You should only become a writer if the possibility of not becoming one would kill you.”
Only bring a startup to Silicon Valley if the possibility of not doing it would “kill” you. Do come if your goal in life is to become number one in the world at something. You need to be driven by a deep desire or purpose, and often times, you have to be a little crazy to do it.
Ask yourself: are you ready to suffer for the rest of your life just to succeed at what you currently do? People who want to work a little harder for the next few years to sell their company and eventually live on the beach almost always return home broke from Silicon Valley. The short game doesn’t work here.
The Biggest Mistakes You Can’t Afford to Make
A lot of people come to Silicon Valley with the same approach, idea, methods and templates. In some industries that can work well. If you bake old-fashioned cookies for your neighbors, you follow an ancient recipe – then that’s the deal. But if you want your cookies to sell around the world as the best cookie brand, only having a good recipe is not going to cut it.
By far the most successful people in Silicon Valley are the ones who think and do things differently. That’s what this place is all about. The innovative culture of Silicon Valley is strongly connected to the unique culture of San Francisco with tolerance to any deviations in gender, art, beliefs and culture. People are always trying something new here. Most of them fail, and that’s ok. But if you don’t try it differently, you never succeed either. This point cannot be overemphasized — think different.
Do Your Homework Before You Come
Start thinking about developing US business while you are still in your country. Build connections on LinkedIn. Study competition. Look for possible partners and advisors to meet when you arrive. Think of big ideas to test.
You can actually start building a local presence in US before your plane hits the runway at SFO. Here are a few easy things to start with:
- Change your profile (Facebook, LinkedIn) to show your location as San Francisco Bay Area and have your entire profile, and posts, written in English.
- Get a local phone number with (650) area code on Google or Skype.
- Find a friend with a local mailing address, or get into a club or virtual office that would allow for business use (no P.O. boxes!)
- Follow meetups and user groups of your interest to know what’s happening.
- Adopt your daily schedule to PST time zone.
- Build friends and business connections as if you would be here already.
How to Choose a Partner: Accelerators, Incubators, Hacker Houses and More
There are a lot of different “landing” options in Silicon Valley. You may find by going to meetups and pitch sessions, you want to join an acceleration program or an incubator. There are a lot of sharks and swindlers around trying to make some money from your dream, so be careful.
While venture capitalists are going to be hard targets to approach and rely on, accelerators and incubators could be a softer landing for an international startup founder. This is where you get clear guidance on what to do, as well as better access to the right people, resources and knowledge.
Accelerators normally accept startups in a certain time window (batches), so apply a few months in advance. Some of the best accelerators include Y-Combinator, 500 Startups and Founders Institute. But there are numerous industry-specific accelerators like SURGE Accelerator, FinTech Innovation Lab and Lemnos Labs.
Another alternative would be to join a club or hacker’s community, like Hack Temple. At these types of communities you partner with like-minded entrepreneurs and professionals to get quick access to the market through business development without giving away shares of your business.
Networking Like a Pro in Silicon Valley
You didn’t come all this way just to hop on a phone or Skype call with people in the Valley, did you? Make sure you are spending time one-on-one time with key decision makers and innovation managers. The reality is every person in Silicon Valley is one step away from a connection that can make or break your startup.
Even if you know nobody, it is simple to build new connections:
- Attend networking events. There are several of them happening every day across the Valley. Look on Meetup.com and Eventbrite for industry-specific functions. Exchange cards and invite interesting people for coffee.
- Reach out via LinkedIn, Angel.co, Silo, Meetup.com and other networking platforms.
- Be vocal and known with your thought leadership: write blogs, tweet, use any platform you have access to to spread your message.
This is a critical point — don’t be desperate and make every conversation all about you and your startup. There’s no bigger turnoff than someone who are only looking to help themselves.
If you want to stand out, create genuine relationships with people and play the long game. Make sure you do your homework before arriving and set up all your meetings for the first month so you’re ready to go as soon as you land. Those initial encounters will lead to more introductions and momentum — then off you go.
Enjoy the ride.
I find good ideas and people in internet and technology and help them grow into $100m companies that make customers, employees and investors happy.
Sometimes I do this myself, somethings I help other people do this better than me.
I serve as Director at GVA Capital – early-stage VC firm, helping great startups successfully go global.