On our last night of a recent trip to San Francisco, Will and I found ourselves talking about the common cultural differences between UK and US entrepreneurs and the impact this might have on growing good ideas. Over Bay shrimp and an Anchor Steam, of course.
We run a cleantech and sustainability entrepreneur mission called Clean + Cool – which is next visiting the Bay Area this summer – and we know from the usual mission banter about banning ties, NDAs and British reserve that we’re all aware of the differences.
Yet, I also know that being aware, doesn’t always stop me from coming over all Sir Humphrey Appleby-meets-David Brent. So, in a bid to help others from falling into that trap, here are three things that we believe are worth learning from Valley.
1. Winning hearts as well as minds.
During our trip, we visited GSVLabs. They offer start-ups over 60,000 sq ft of state-of-the-art facilities, an army of mentors and a global network of potential partners. However, none of those were as impressive or valuable to their companies as the 50 pitch rehearsals they had put each one through in a week.
Why so many rehearsals? GSVLabs know that while the business opportunity needs stack up first and foremost, good ideas also don’t get very far without a compelling story behind them.
Because investors are humans too – they instinctively respond to entertainment as much as information, they buy people as well as products and ultimately you need to connect on an emotion level. And that takes effort.
Whether it’s an evening’s networking, speaking to a journalist, launching a website, negotiating a sales meeting, or pitching for investment – you need to tell your story well.
The challenge for some innovators, especially founding teams of engineers, scientists and technologists, is that marketing is often at the fluffier end of the to-do list and easy to put off. But for an idea to spread, you need it to resonate and appeal to people’s gut instinct as much as you need to make logical sense and tick the right boxes.
Get it right, and in the short term you can quickly build your profile and attract people with your vision for the future. And as you start to amplify your story with consistent messages, you are on the road to creating a brand and more value for your company.
The Valley is awash with compelling stories and powerful brands that have helped grow some of the world’s most impressive businesses.
2. Nailing the right needs.
Understanding the needs of customers is an age-old challenge but if you don’t get the need right, you end up wasting time, effort and money.
Both sides of the Atlantic share similar opportunities and barriers.
From digitisation, which has elevated the lean and agile approach and useful concepts and tools like the mvp, the canvas, the sprint that help get customer feedback cheaply and quickly. But for some has also brought the threat that customer needs can change rapidly and repeatedly.
To the unhelpful but seductive (to some) myth of nobility in designing an elegant and brilliant technological solution that only the right person will appreciate, when they see it.
Usually justified with Henry Ford quote about faster horses.
But if an approach to pitching reveals some cultural differences between the UK and US, there’s an even more stark difference in the approach to finding paying customers.
The quickest and cheapest way to fail fast and often on your quest to define the problem that people will pay for, is to ask questions. In the UK, if feels like we have the humility to listen and learn but sometimes lack the directness to simply ask for feedback or help.
Silicon Valley is open to conversation. Listening to a conversation between a group of very different impact investors in the wings at the Cleantech Group’s Global Forum highlighted how readily “competitors” are willing to share know-how, ideas and contacts to help each other get closer to finding real needs.
3. Developing leadership that scales.
A criticism that often gets made about UK entrepreneurs is that they exit too early. That we’re not driven to try and create the billion dollar unicorns in the same way that our American peers are. That we are a nation of inventors rather than entrepreneurs.
Putting aside differences, from culture and ideologies to the ease of access to finance and markets, the original intent of any founder is to make a positive impact by fulfilling their company mission.
And if you’re in a field such as sustainability, education or health then the positive impact you can have is very much determined by your ability to deploy at speed and scale.
So, ensuring those businesses have the right leadership know-how is fundamental to their success.
Through all the people we met in the Valley, from leadership teams at Sustainable Brands, Future Partners and Women in Cleantech and Sustainability to the many amazing cleantech companies, there were three striking consistencies in their leadership:
- Clarity of purpose – aligning and motivating people with a clear vision and WHY
- Strength of team – bringing in people early who have been there and done it, not just to sitting on advisory board but to be hands on to deliver growth
- Nakedness of ambition – being forthright about the scale of growth and impact they want to achieve
Clearly there are some entrenched differences in our societies, from perceptions of modesty to how each society celebrates entrepreneurial risk takers.
But for Will and I it was a good reminder that these more intangible and often overlooked human elements of innovation do have a bearing on success and should be prioritised within the support given to early stage companies.
Boiling it down, we’re talking about how entrepreneurs can pack more emotional punch by talking about WHY they do what they do and to be more direct in asking questions that reveal needs for support that will help them scale. Of course, it’s not as easy as that but they are skills that can be learnt.
Perhaps the first step is to find the inspiration to change our mindset. And for that, there’s nowhere better than the Bay Area.