Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Thoughts On Silicon Valley: Build The Future

The receptionist at Upwork was working from home
Upwork did not have a receptionist. Or, they had one, but she was working from home. She always works from home. Think about that for a bit. A “front desk officer” who works from home. Oh, and she was freelancing.

Is that the future of work, or at least some part of it? I don’t know, but Upwork is betting it is, and they have built the world’s largest freelancing marketplace in preparation for that future. Freelancers on Upwork billed over $1bn annually as of last year. This encapsulates my view of Silicon Valley: a place where people imagine a different version of the future and then build it.

There are many good courses at INSEAD taught by great Professors. It is hard to pick a favorite, so I’ll say Building Business in Silicon Valley is one of my favorites. As part of the course, we spent last week meeting people at a variety of companies in Silicon Valley. I wrote furiously throughout the week, filling up my notebook. I decided to share some of my thoughts here and answer a few questions.

Akanksha Seth, a fellow student, and Geoff Ralston, Partner at Y-Combinator and Founder of Imagine K12

What is special about Silicon Valley? Why have many governments and individuals tried to replicate it elsewhere? Even people who live and work there wanted to know what I thought as an outsider. I am sorry to not have a ‘deep answer’, but I think it is the “ecosystem”. Simple.

I think the organic nature in which Silicon Valley developed is one of the reasons it is hard to replicate. Closely linked to the early culture of innovation at Shockley, Fairchild, HP, and others, engineering talent was attracted to the Valley. As new companies started and some went out of business, people moved around quickly trying different things. Successful exits created wealthy founders and early-employees who then started, advised, or funded other companies. This is very simplistic. Talent and funding continue to be drawn to the area, and people continue to tinker and try new things. For my Nigerian readers, it definitely helps that their police officers don’t make a fuss about laptop receipts.

The downside to the rapid growth is that infrastructure, especially housing, has not kept up. There are many reasons for this. Most young people I met mentioned their sky-high rents, and downtown SF had the highest number of homeless people I have seen. Despite that, there was something exciting about being in the city with possibly the highest per-capita concentration of entrepreneurs and engineers in the world. People (mostly) talked excitedly about their work and side-projects, and the “startup DNA” of the place was almost palpable.

In my opinion, another exciting thing about Silicon Valley is the fact that many people there are creating a future that is different than we imagined only a few years ago. For example, Mobility-as-a-Service (where people will potentially reduce car ownership and instead access mobility on demand by summoning self-driving cars) is exciting – except you’re a taxi driver, trucker, car manufacturer, etc. Lots of retraining will be needed so that people can acquire new in-demand skills and don’t get left behind. I got even more concerned for Nigeria. We need to get our act together as quickly as we can.

The group, at Tesla

I also thought quite a bit about the careers of the people we met. I wrote a quick post about that. While some had ‘designed’ their careers by making choices that seemed logical and well thought through, others followed a more meandering path. For example, Melinda Richter, global head of Johnson & Johnson Innovation (JLABS) was ‘bumped’ into her current path by a medical emergency. Kara Goldin’s journey with building the Hint line of products started with trouble losing baby weight. One thing common to them all was that they got really good at a few things, and were helped along by a healthy dose of time and chance and the other attributes successful people and businesses share: grit, dedication, hard work, product-market fit. etc.

John Gnuse is a Managing Director at Lazard, one of the world’s preeminent financial advisory and asset management firms. John has led M&A activity for firms including Google, Apple, IBM, Microsoft, and SAP. He is definitely busier than I have ever been. Therefore, I was very surprised when he casually mentioned he had taken 15 to 20 courses related to Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence etc. on Coursera. I found that level of dedication to lifelong learning very inspiring. Like my elderly Lyft driver told me on Friday night, “Mankind spread across the planet. We are not trees. You’ve got to keep learning, then take all that learning and build something with it.

And those, my friends, are my reflections on an incredible week in Silicon Valley.

PS: I would like to thank Professors Steve Haslett, Gopi Rangan, and Liana Burtsava for all their work to put together an amazing week. It was such a pleasure to learn from their wealth of experience in their successful careers!

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