Innovation Culture: Silicon Valley

  • September 6, 2017
  • Scott
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Steve Blank has often opined on what it is that makes Silicon Valley special.  He has a whole series of posts on the secret history of Silicon Valley that outline a unique set of opportunities.  But it never felt like circumstances alone were enough to explain all the synergies that emerged from Silicon Valley in the last 50-60 years.

Recently Steve pointed to another key building block of Silicon Valley that is probably a lot easier for other cities and regions to copy:

Visitors to Silicon Valley continually mention how willing we are to help, network, and connect strangers. We take this part of Silicon Valley culture so for granted we never even to bother to talk about it.

It’s the “Pay-It-Forward” culture.

This paragraph about the early days will sound familiar to folks in other tech hubs around the world:

When the first spinouts began to leave Fairchild, they discovered that fabricating semiconductors reliably was a black art. At times you’d have the recipe and turn out chips, and the next week something would go wrong, and your fab couldn’t make anything that would work. Engineers in the very small world of silicon and semiconductors would meet at the Wagon Wheel and swap technical problems and solutions with co-workers and competitors.

In other words, there were welcoming spaces (like the Wagon Wheel, or Hobees later on) where colleagues and competitors could meet and share techniques and learn from each other.  Steve goes on to describe experienced CEOs making time to mentor younger CEOs.

Today, in spite of the fact that the valley is crawling with IP lawyers, the tradition of helping and sharing continues. The restaurants and locations may have changed, moving from Rickey’s Garden Cafe, Chez Yvonne, Lion and Compass and Hsi-Nan to Bucks, Coupa Café, and Café Borrone, but the notion of competitors getting together and helping each other and experienced business execs offering contacts and advice has continued for the last 50 years.

This pay-it-forward culture that Steve Blank espouses is part of what I love about Austin, and why I think Austin’s ecosystem has grown so successfully over the last 20+ years.  First it comes across in the willingness of others to take an interest in your business and their curiosity to understand it. Second, it comes across when they offer to help.  In different places we might have different words for it. A friend in Hawaii calls it aloha spirit.  In Austin, it’s just being an Austinite.  The startup accelerators, coworking spaces, and hundreds of events all reinforce the sense of community.  And then you have phenomena like SXSW that shake up our local community by injecting tens of thousands of visitors with more diverse viewpoints.

The pay-it-forward culture has also been significant in the business process and decision management community, as exemplified by events like the BPM Conference, and BPMNEXT.  In conferences like these, innovators get together to share, learn from each other, and take ideas forward.

The best part about paying it forward is that you don’t have to wait for someone else to do it. You can start it yourself.   You might be surprised how wide the ripples of one pay-it-forward action can travel.

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