Silicon Valley Focuses Too Much on the “Should”

I hate the word should. It is a terrible, no good, very bad word. 

Whenever someone tells you that you should do something an alarm should go off in your ear and it shouldn’t stop ringing until you’ve run very, very far from whoever (whom?) you’re talking to. 

The word should is a fun little command. It’s like a recommendation but backed up by a threat instead of experience. The threat’s a moral one, ‘if you want to be right, you better do this’. It’s even worse when the ‘should’ is attached to what you ‘should’ want. ‘You should want to do this or be this’. Should promotes doubt. ‘Should’ binds you.

You tend not to notice the underlying shoulds wherever you live because you satisfy enough of them not to rock the boat. At the very least, you know ‘what’s normal’ and can play the part (which itself is a kind of obeisance). But when you travel to new countries all you get is new kinds and mixes of shoulds.  

Get to the point…

Bringing it back to startups, I have always said The Relay Foundation (the start-up incubator I founded) is perfectly placed in the Bay Area. Startups in the here are in a magical world that I’m not sure most of them see. Sure they can regurgitate that the Bay is the ‘best place for startups’, they might even point to statistics about capital, but many don’t understand how it all happens. To them and many others, Silicon Valley is on a smooth set of wheels. It’s a model that should be replicated everywhere. There should be big tech companies. There should be massive investment possibilities. If you have those, you have everything. This, my friends, is the Silicon Should.

And it’s dead wrong. It’s wrong because it focuses on the entirely wrong thing. It focuses on the Silicon Valley’s outcomes instead of its processes.

Silicon Valley is a joined-up bunch of juts and shifts; the whole place is defined by uncertainty. What looks like ease to an outsider is really a controlled insanity made possible only because the craziness occurs within a never-ending supply of professional support, institutional experience, and perfect geography. What works in Silicon Valley won’t work everywhere, or perhaps anywhere, else. Some cities may take the name (I’m looking at you, Silicon Alley) but, as some smart dude once asked, what’s in a name? So instead, forget the name. Forget everything but the values and ethics that made Silicon Valley so great in the first place. That’s what you should do if you want to build, not another Silicon Valley, but a startup community that makes sense for wherever you may be. 

Okay, I just used should. That makes me a hypocrite, but at least give me a chance to be a hypocrite with a good point.

Movers and Makers in Manila.

I recently traveled to Manila, and my time there was a shorter than I had hoped, only a few days to pack as many meetings with investors, startups, and developer agencies as the local, hyper-discounted energy drinks and jeepneys would allow. A friend of a friend, named Bing, ran one of the agencies. Bing is an honest, brilliant, and pragmatic entrepreneur. He hires experienced developers and then entrepreneurs from the US and Australia would have his agency develop out their software.

Over the customary dinner-slash-business meeting (a ‘should’ that I would love to adopt back home. Seriously, there were multiple courses at every meeting), Bing mused about how strange some of the shoulds of Silicon Valley were to a majority of his network in the Philippines. The Philippine startup scene, he told me, had an inclination to introversion, safe professional bets (investors included), and keeping ideas close to the vest. As a consequence, whenever they tried to do Startup Weekends or other Silicon Valley standards, the outcomes were never as big as the planners had hoped. In our language, a strict copy of the Silicon Should ran into problems because it was pasted into a place with different support programs, varying institutional experience, and widely divergent geography.

Even without those differences, are the three attributes that Bing highlighted perfect for a startup community of any kind? Not at all. Startup spaces of all kinds benefit from open communication, outgoing (though not necessarily extroverted) individuals, and a tolerance, if not desire, for a healthy bit of risk. If you want to solve gigantic problems you must have this stuff. I cannot stress this enough.

However, that these three things aren’t the norm doesn’t mean the door on the Philippine startup scene has been slammed shut; it just changes the question we have to ask. It is no longer, ‘what kind of organizations does Silicon Valley have and how do we built them?’ It’s ‘what kind of values does Silicon Valley have and how can we grow them in our own startup community?’ The focus shifts from copying organizations like the Founders Institute, Y-Combinator, and late-stage investors, to instead developing support systems that promote open communication, increased risk-taking, and social extroversion in the overall community from which entrepreneurs will no doubt eventually come.

Feel free to hold me to this grandiose declaration: everything that makes Silicon Valley so great comes, not from the money or the glamour, but instead from the community of amazing people; great companies are more often consequences of community, not causes. Finance follows

Focusing on entrepreneurs in place of startups is essential. Without entrepreneurs, and without a supportive, value-adding community, no meaningful companies can come about. Even if you do end up striking gold and by some strange magic find a team of entrepreneurs building the next Google in your backyard, I bet you my right knee they’ll leave for some place with a strong, supportive community.

Don’t listen to the Silicon Should. Build awesome people. They’ll build you your own should.

Guest author Bruce Wilson is the Founder of The Relay Foundation, an early-stage incubator in the US that has helped over 40 companies grow and over 1,000 students take the next step into the social entrepreneurial field.

 pigs move like lemmings image courtesy of Shutterstock

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