Tech City won’t be the next Silicon Valley – but it can learn its lessons

Deborah Perry Piscione
WHEN people discover I’ve authored a book about Silicon Valley, without fail they ask: “Can the Valley be replicated?” The short answer is no, not exactly.

In 2006, I moved to Silicon Valley after being indoctrinated into the political culture of Washington, DC. I went from people asking me, “who do you work for?” (a determining factor in my status in DC power circles) to people in Silicon Valley asking me, “what’s your passion and, by the way, how can I help you?” It was a deep culture shock, to say the least. And it’s Silicon Valley’s culture that permeates every facet of the area’s innovative success.

For six years I sought to answer the question of whether Silicon Valley was carefully planned or an accident of history. Beyond the obvious facets of a relatively enterprise-friendly tax system and the space for companies to expand and contract, the answer was striking: the Valley’s entrepreneurial culture emerged because of decades of forward thinking, planning and investment – decisions that reflected the values of a few educational and business leaders.

It began when Leland Stanford created Stanford University in 1891, mandating that science be the vanguard of the university, as Stanford believed that science provided “direct usefulness in life.” He also carefully crafted an environment for collaboration, and not only directed that university buildings be designed in “quads” – encouraging different people with different interests to come to a central courtyard to talk to one another – but also required university leadership to be a borderless partner to surrounding industry. He encouraged his faculty to get involved in city planning and to establish relationships with local businesses.

Before Silicon Valley even had its name (it was branded in 1971), the “Traitorous Eight” – defectors from the company Shockley Semiconductor – spun off to start a new semiconductor firm in 1957, Fairchild Semiconductor. This move laid the groundwork of Silicon Valley’s spin-off culture, where you can work at a firm one day and open up a competitor next door the following day.

Another of their lasting legacies was their attitude towards their employees. The “Traitorous Eight” came from the US East Coast, and held a disdain for its entrenched hierarchy. They recognised that everyone in a company -- from the administrative assistant to the chief executive -- plays a role in the company’s success or failure, and they alleged that individuals should be trusted and valued through flat management, equity in the company, and benefits.

Silicon Valley is not just a geographic location, but a mindset. And while the place cannot be exactly replicated, the mindset can. So what can you do if you are Tech City in London? Here are five key characteristics of the Silicon Valley culture that can be adopted (provided leadership is willing to be bold and committed):

First, value people. Recognise that every single person – from the cleaner to the chief executive – contributes to the success or failure of your company. Silicon Valley management is flat; they are team players, not gate keepers. And most importantly, you must provide equity ownership and deferred compensation, because that is how you show you value your family.

Secondly, value ideas. Ideas are the prized commodity in Silicon Valley. There is a mantra that no idea is crazy, and anything is possible. But ideas best flourish when there is an open, trusting and collaborative environment.

Thirdly, take risks and accept failure. Silicon Valley thrives on risk and feels that failure is part of a human experience that makes you smarter. Business models go out the door in Silicon Valley, as revenue is not necessarily the immediate concern. Value creation is. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram were about capturing the world’s eyeballs first, and revenue later.

Fourthly, innovate. Let go of old ideas. Provide an environment that fosters innovation, recognising that people are often more creative outside the office – not everyone can flourish sitting in a cubicle from 8am to 6pm. You don’t have all the answers, so you must reach out to your customers for their input.

Finally, think of yourself as a start-up. Startups are lean, hungry and open. They have no legacy to tie themselves down. They question everything – not asking “who do you work for?” but “is there a better way, and by the way, how can I help you?”

Deborah Perry Piscione is a Silicon Valley-based entrepreneur, and author of Secrets of Silicon Valley: What Everyone Else Can Learn from the Innovation Capital of the World (Palgrave Macmillan)