Stepping out of the airport you only have to glimpse the hundreds of Tesla's driving past to get a sense that this place has technology in it’s blood. Rather than seeing McDonalds or Ford advertised as you drive down the freeway, it’s B2B SaaS businesses. You look at every garage in Silicon Valley believing that there could be the next billion dollar startup being built inside.
Throughout the trip we were lucky to visit a number of incredible places; Google, Uber, Microsoft, Singularity University, Stanford, eShares, NASDAQ Entrepreneurial centre, nuro, Renaissance Leadership, Xero, water.org, just to name a few.
During each visit different individuals were responsible for greeting the people who would show us around. This was my job at Microsoft, where we were given a tour by Jessica Ricasata and Leslie McGowan. Jessica worked for a company called Yammer, while Leslie worked for a company called Xamarin. Both companies had been acquired by Microsoft and were now working in the Microsoft collaborative space on Market St in San Francisco. The space was an incredibly interesting project of Microsoft’s. It was an experiment in creating a collaborative space that was shared by 12 of the companies that Microsoft had acquired over the last 10 years. The goal of the space was to maintain the individual visions, values and cultures of the acquired companies, whilst still integrating them into the wider Microsoft family. We learnt a lot about collaborative working, and some of the subtle ways in which they promote collaboration in the space. For example, employees are served breakfast, lunch and dinner 5 days a week (free of charge) in a common area in the middle of the office. In doing this, employees are encouraged to convene in the common area with other employees working for different companies in the space, thus encouraging cross-pollination of ideas and people between different organisations within Microsoft.
The other organisation that I was responsible for leading us into was Xero, where Sid Maestre, the Head of Developer Evangelism for Xero met with us. He showed us around the Xero offices, with a stunning panoramic view overlooking the Oakland Bay Bridge. Here we learnt more about Xero; why it was founded, how it got started and what some of the key elements that allowed it to scale so well were. We talked an enormous amount about culture, and Sid mentioned a number of good quotes that really emphasised the importance of building the right culture from day one. He also discussed the values of the organisation; ownership, champion, challenge, beautiful, and human, which guide the decisions that Xero make on a day to day basis.
Finally, we spoke with Reuben Metcalfe, a New Zealand entrepreneur and serial upstart and mentor at the Thiel foundation. Metcalfe has just founded a new company who have built an app called The Class Action app. He was an awesome guy, having run a number of businesses; everything from importing cars, to telecommunications. He gave us a number of different pieces of advice, including controlling your variables as much as possible (e.g not relying on a single supplier) and building partnerships to help you grow. He also highly recommended that we read the book ReWork by 37 Signals.
We gained an enormous amount of value from the time that we spent in Silicon Valley and San Francisco. For me the major learning was that startups and businesses in San Francisco and Silicon Valley are much more holistically focussed now. What I mean is that they are not only concerned about profit, but about workers health and well being, environmental sustainability, and being compassionate, empathetic and responsible leaders. This is definitely different from the cut-throat, win at all costs mentality I was expecting.
Of course, it is still a hugely competitive environment in the US. But within organisations I believe they are beginning to realise that people perform best they are treated properly, their health and wellbeing is looked after, and they are in an environment where they feel valued and that their work is contributing to a greater good. Learning about how companies are operating with this new mindset is incredibly powerful as it is a mentality that will cost New Zealand businesses very little to implement, but one which they will reap enormous benefits from.
Overall, the trip was mind blowing. We met some incredible people, visited some amazing places, and learnt an awful lot about how business was done in the fastest moving environment in the world.