Tag Archives: Silicon Valley

Steve Jobs: “Just Ask”

It’s a famous story for Silicon Valley and Steve Jobs fans. But I had never seen it told by the founder of Apple himself. It shows not only what an entrepreneur is but also the openness of the region at the time and probably still today… It’s nice and short… Watch it.

“I never found anybody that did not want to help me if I asked them for help”

Thanks to the student who gave me the link! 🙂

Silicon Valley 2018 : The Libertarians Have Replaced the Hippies

While Trump and Harari were in Davos, I visited Silicon Valley for the nth time. Even more than during my last trips in 2014 and 2016, I could feel the gap that has been created between the Silicon Valley that I discovered and loved in the late 80s and the one that exists today (and that I still love).

As one of my interlocutors mentioned, the Hippie generation – which Leslie Berlin describes in her Troublemakers and which until Brin and Page tried to democratize technology – has been replaced by the Libertarian self-interest of social networking that even Reid Hoffman will have a hard time to balance (see It’s time to change the culture of Silicon Valley). The skyscrapers climb in San Francisco, the poor had to leave or live in tents all over the bay, the venture capital funds do not perform as one might think, the unicorns might disappear one after the other, it takes 3 hours to drive from Berkeley to Palo Alto at 6am, one finds more founders than entrepreneurs according to Leslie Hook, and even Steve Blank is looking at a little less at startups and focuses more on innovation of government organizations.

This is a bit the “Querelle des Anciens et Modernes” and I am not sure Steve Jobs would pass the baton to this new generation when he said in 2005 [death] clears out the old to make way for the new. Some think that Silicon Valley is reaching its limits, but AnnaLee Saxenian said the same thing … in 1979. Will we live old enough to have the answer?

Silicon Valley, 20 years ago

Twenty years ago, I entered the VC and startup world. What an anniversary! It was fun and exciting. I would have forgotten it if I did not have a lunch two days ago with people from Logitech. When we talked about Logitech offices in Silicon Valley, I told them I had a document from Businessweek which showed that Logitech was considered as Stanford’s Progeny.

I had to find that document and it was fascinating to go through this 50+ page special issue of Businessweek dated August 18, 1997 and entitled: Silicon Valley, The People, the Deals, the Culture, The Future – How it really works. So let me go through it again.

First the cover. This is a nice little quizz. How many people do you recognize? The answer is at the end of the post.

Second, the table of content. It could be the same today. So things have not changed so much. For example, the migrant factor; the craziness of the area, because of cost, stress; and the invisibility of women, this “subtle sexism every day”.

Third, the recurrent question of why the efforts to duplicate Silicon Valley have all failed…

There are the classical arguments: local governments offer tax incentives or small investments but have no hand in inventing or commercializing technology. And there is an interesting piece: Even private efforts to clone the Valley have fallen flat. Terman, the father of Silicon Valley, was hired in the 1960s to recreate the magic in New Jersey and Texas. He focused on establishing strong research institutions, like Stanford, that could provide a petri dish for bright ideas. But Terman was hired by large organizations, including Bell Labs and Texas Instruments Inc., and few company men were willing to chance a startup. ‘He failed, in part, because he overestimated the importance of academia and in part because he was hired by large companies with no entrepreneurial traditions.’

Finally, what are the lessons learnt? Well known and still valid today…

If you want the pdf, just ask me. This would be a private gift. Whereas putting the full document onlien would be copyrigth infrigement…

Answer to the quizz: A dozen of the Valley’s brightest stars: (top row, left to right) Larry Ellison, Oracle; Marc Andreessen, Netscape; Andy Grove, Intel; Al Shugart, Seagate Technology; Gordon Moore, Intel; John Chambers, Cisco Systems (bottom row, left to right) Steve Jobs, Apple Computer, Pixar; Scott McNealy, Sun Microsystems; John Doerr, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers; Larry Sonsini, Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati; Lew Platt, Hewlett-Packard; Jim Clark, Netscape.

The top US and European (former) start-ups in 2017

Since I published my book in 2007, I have regularly been doing the exercise of comparing the largest US (former) start-ups and their European counterparts. You can look at my data in 2016 in The top US and European (former) start-ups in 2016. Here are my update lists:

Things have not changed that much. Yahoo is out. Rovio is in…

A new toxic pattern in Silicon Valley – Sexism and even worse?

Silicon Valley is talking these days a lot about sexism and harrassment. If you have nmot heard botu it yet, you may just want to read:
Women in Tech Speak Frankly on Culture of Harassment from the New York Times, dated June 30, 2017.
Uber’s Opportunistic Ouster in the New Yorker, dated July 10.

I have already mentioned here some dark features of Silicon Valley. For example:
Is Silicon Valley crazy (again)? in January 2016,
Something rotten in the Silicon Valley kingdom? in January 2014,
Silicon Valley and (a)politics – Change the World in NOvember 2013,

There is no doubt Silicon Valley is not a paradise. But i had never seen it as a sexist place. At least not more sexist thn the rest of the planet. And yes, there has been terrible stories, such as rapes on the Stanford campus, but my recollection of the area is more of an asexual place, mostly of introvertite people, like you could see on HBO’s Silicon Valley (right from its 1st episode). Just read (again?) the funny and sad comment: “That’s weird, they always travel in groups of 5, these programmers. There is always a tall skinny white guy, a short skinny asian guy, a fat guy with a ponny tail, some guy with crazy facial hair, and then an east indian guy. It’s as if they trade guys until they have the right group.
– You clearly have a great understanding of humanity.”

But if there is something ot be said about all this, is that hwoever complex a society is and it is never easy to explain human interactions without being simplistic, what some and maybe too many individuals are doing in Silicon Valley is unacceptable and should be fought so that it happens less and less often…

Obama and Silicon Valley, a common vision of the future?

Rarely have I read two articles giving a vision as close apparently of the challenges and issues of the future of the planet as I’ll mention in a moment. I say apparently, because behind some consistencies about a confident vision of the future, lie fairly fundamental differences about the challenges.

But I will allow myself a digression before commenting these tow articles. A third article was published on a very different subject in the paper edition the New Yorker dated Oct. 10, 2016 – again apparently as it deals about the past and the present! It is entitled He’s Back. This article reminded me that my two most important readings in 2016 (and perhaps in the 21st century) are those that I mentioned in the post Has the world gone crazy? Maybe…, namely the tremendous Capital in the 21st Century by Thomas Piketty and the no less remarkable In the disruption – How not to go crazy? by Bernard Stiegler. I need to give the title of the digital edition that might hopefully inspire you to discover Karl Marx, Yesterday and Today – The nineteenth-century philosopher’s ideas may help us to understand the economic and political inequality of our time.

Back to the point that motivates this post. Barack Obama has just published in The Economist a short text in which he describes the challenges ahead. This is a brilliant article. It also creates a certain mystery for me around the American president. Is he very well surrounded by knowledgeable advisors and / or has he become interested so deeply in topics to the point of finding the time to write (I should say to describe) himself the world’s complexity. An absolute must-read: The Way Ahead.

20161008_fbp666

In comparison, Adding a Zero in the same Oct. 10 New Yorker – entitled in the electronic version Sam Altman’s Manifest Destiny with however an identical subtitle Is the head of Y Combinator fixing the world, or try trying to take over Silicon Valley? This very long article describes perfectly the reasons why we can equally love and hate Silicon Valley. It is a Pharmakon (both a remedy and a poison according Stiegler’s words). I encourage you to read it too, but your priority should go to reading Barack Obama.

I’ll try to explain myself. Obama has tried a lot and has not been so successful, but there has a consistency in his acts, I think. In The Economist, he wrote: “Fully restoring faith in an economy where hardworking Americans can get ahead requires addressing four major structural challenges: boosting productivity growth, combating rising inequality, ensuring that everyone who wants a job can get one and building a resilient economy that’s primed for future growth.” Obama is an optimist and a moderate. All but a revolutionary. There is a beautiful sentence in the middle of the article: “The presidency is a relay race, requiring each of us to do our part to bring the country closer to its highest aspirations.” The highest aspirations. I sincerely believe that is why Obama deserved the Nobel Peace Prize despite all the difficulties of his task.

Silicon Valley has the same optimism and the same belief in technological progress and well-being that it brings (or may bring). Growth is a mantra. Sam Altman is no exception to the rule. Here are some examples: “We had limited our projected revenue to thirty million dollars,” Chesky [the founder and CEO of Airbnb] said. “Sam said, ‘Take all the “M”s and make them “B”s.’ ” Altman recalls telling them, “Either you don’t believe everything you said in the rest of the deck, or you’re ashamed, or I can’t do math.” [Page 71] then a little further “It is one of the rarer mistakes to make, trying to be too lean,” Altman said, “Don’t worry about a competitor until they’re beating you in the market,” … “Competitors are one of the last monsters that haunt your dreams.”… “Always think about adding one more zero to whatever you’re doing, but never think beyond that.” [Page 75]

161010_r28829-863x1200-1475089022 Illustration by R. Kikuo Johnson

Clearly risk taking steps accordingly: In a class that Altman taught at Stanford in 2014, he remarked that the formula for estimating a startup’s chance of success is “something like Idea times Product times Execution times Team times Luck, where Luck is a random number between zero and ten thousand.” [Page 70] The strategy of accelerators such as Y Combinator looks pretty simple: “What we ask of startups is very simple but very hard to do. One, make something people want”—a phrase of Graham’s, which is emblazoned on gray T-shirts for the founders—“and, two, all you should be doing is talking to your customers and building stuff.” [Page 73] The result of this strategy lies in the performance of these acceleration mechanisms: A 2012 study of North American accelerators found that almost half of them had failed to produce a single startup that went on to raise venture funding. While a few accelerators, such as Tech Stars and 500 Startups, have a handful of alumni worth hundreds of millions of dollars, Y Combinator has graduates worth at least a billion—and it has eleven of them. [Page 71] but Altman is dissatisfied: Venture capitalists believe that their returns follow a “power law,” by which ninety per cent of their profits come from one or two companies. This means that they secretly hope the other startups in their portfolio fail fast, rather than staggering onward as resource-consuming “zombies.” Altman pointed out that only a fifth of YC companies have failed, and said, “We should be taking crazier risks, so that our failure rate would be as high as ninety per cent. [Page 83]

“Under Sam, the level of YC’s ambition has gone up 10x.” Paul Graham, who was leaving soon after the dinner for a sabbatical year in England, told me that Altman, by precipitating progress in “curing cancer, fusion, supersonic airliners, A.I.,” was trying to comprehensively revise the way we live: “I think his goal is to make the whole future.” [Page 70] Recently, YC began planning a pilot project to test the feasibility of building its own experimental city. It would lie somewhere in America, or perhaps abroad, and would be optimized for technological solutions: it might, for instance, permit only self-driving cars. “It could be a college town built out of YC, the university of the future,” Altman said. “A hundred thousand acres, fifty to a hundred thousand residents. We crowdfund the infrastructure and establish a new and affordable way of living around concepts like ‘No one can ever make money off of real estate.’ ” He emphasized that it was just an idea—but he was already looking at potential sites. You could imagine this metropolis as an exemplary post-human city-state, run on A.I. — a twenty-first-century Athens — or as a gated community for the élite, a fortress against the coming chaos. [Page 83] YC’s optimism goes very far: “We’re good at screening out assholes,” Graham told me. “In fact, we’re better at screening out assholes than losers. […] Graham wrote an essay, “Mean People Fail,” in which—ignoring such possible counterexamples as Jeff Bezos and Larry Ellison—he declared that “being mean makes you stupid” and discourages good people from working for you. Thus, in startups, “people with a desire to improve the world have a natural advantage.” Win-win. [Page 73]

Altman is not devoid of social conscience, well not quite. “If you believe that all human lives are equally valuable, and you also believe that 99.5 per cent of lives will take place in the future, we should spend all our time thinking about the future.” [He looks at] the consequences of innovation as a systems question. The immediate challenge is that computers could put most of us out of work. Altman’s fix is YC Research’s Basic Income project, a five-year study, scheduled to begin in 2017, of an old idea that’s suddenly in vogue: giving everyone enough money to live on. … YC will give as many as a thousand people in Oakland an annual sum, probably between twelve thousand and twenty-four thousand dollars. [Page 81] But the conclusion of the article is perhaps the most important sentence of the whole article, which brings us back to Obama’s moderation. Comparing himself to another wildly ambitious project creator, Altman says, “At the end of his life, he did also say that it should all be sunk to the bottom of the ocean. There’s something worth thinking about in there.”

Ultimately, Obama, Altman, Marx, Piketty and Stiegler all have the same faith in the future and progress and the same concern about the growing inequalities. Altman seems to be the only one (together with many people in Silicon Valley) to believe that disruptions and revolutions will solve everything, while the others see their destructive features and prefer a moderate and progressive evolution. Over the years, I tend to prefer moderation too…

PS: if you would not have enough reading, then continue with the series of interviews President Obama gave to Wired: Now Is the Greatest Time to Be Alive.

The top US and European (former) start-ups

Since I published my book in 2007, I have regularly been doing the exercise of comparing the largest US (former) start-ups and their European counterparts. In 2010, I had the following tables:

top-10-usa-2010

top-10-europe-2010

What I call former start-ups are public high-tech companies which did not exist 50 years ago. Of course Europe is struggling; this has been (and still is) my concern and the reason of my book. Now here is my latest exercise.

top-10-usa-2016

top-10-europe-2016

I will let you make your own opinion about how things have evolved. I see quite striking elements. The main one comes from a presentation I saw a few days ago about the evolution of the American biggest market capitalizations. Here it is… quite impressive…

largest-companies-by-market-cap-chart
Source: Visual Capitalist