Back in April, Exmos CEO Gordon Coulter flew off to Silicon Valley to engage with some of the top tech entrepreneurs in the world today. As he travelled, Gordon kept track of his experiences through a number of articles that he posted to LinkedIn. This is the culmination of all those articles. Enjoy!
I was fortunate enough to get a place on Bruce Walker's "We Are The Future - Silicon Valley Accelerate Program", something he's been running for the last four years.
I arrived in SF a couple of days early to wind down from the day-to-day at the office and get my head cleared for the coming week. I met the rest of the group as they started arriving over those two days. I also ordered my first Uber and I'm now a convert.
Monday started out at Golden Gate Park to cover the plans for the week and also to do some team bonding c/o Bruce, Zoi and Joanna. Some were, well a bit uncomfortable for a bunch of blokes between 22-50+ who had mostly all just met, but it worked and by the end, we were all laughing about it and the team had crystallised. The entire team continued to bond over the coming week.
First stop of the week was 500 Startups where we had a fascinating and often straight to the point discussion about the need for speed and how so many countries just don't get it. Even within the various accelerators here in Silicon Valley, there are companies that underestimate the velocity that's required to succeed.
Next stop was Rocketspace, another accelerator company founded by Scot, Duncan Logan. The companies that have passed through these offices is staggering, with many of them (17 to be exact) going on to achieve unicorn status. So we stood in the place where Uber, Spotify, Zappos and Hootsuite spent some of their early days.
However, it wasn't just about turning up to stand on hallowed tech-ground. We had yet another fascinating discussion about achieving startup success with Mark Weiss.
At every meeting, all the entrepreneurs did a 1-2 minute pitch and answered some questions. Then we would have a mix of maybe a pitch/overview from the people we were meeting and then an often open and frank discussion about the challenges of being a startup, raising money, staying in business and achieving success.
(As an aside, with EIE 2017 coming up in a couple of weeks, I've gone from a passionate hatred of "the pitch" to, “Yeah I can pitch!” - #Bonus. This would culminate in the "Pitch of the Week" on Friday, but more on that later. I reckon by the end of the week, any one of us could have pitched the others' companies without a second thought!)
The evening was a session with someone from Y Combinator at the Cheesecake Factory. However, Russell Dalgleish and I elected to go do something a bit different and attended a Meetup at Google Launchpad (Google's own accelerator). With a typical 20-30 turnout being pretty good at a Meetup in Glasgow or Edinburgh, walking into something with 150+ attendees was pretty amazing. We got fed and watered before listening to a panel discussion around mobile marketing.
On the way to the Meet-up, we made a stop at LinkedIn's new San Francisco HQ for a chat and a photo. Surprisingly, this seems to be on the way to a bit of a LinkedIn sensation with my post now having had 7000+ visits. I’m going to have to up my photo game to keep up with that one.
The days were very long (often out the hotel at 7 am and not back until 11 pm) and non-stop, but what an experience it was. Over the week I've walked 72km (120,355 steps) and climbed the equivalent of 160 floors - that's SF hills for you. But this was only day one, and there was much more to see and do just around the corner.
We were up for an early start with breakfast at Pivotal Labs where they have some 150+ staff working on development projects for a mix of product and customer projects.
The kitchen and dining area was enormous. The breakfast options were outstanding with a mix of absolutely everything you could want- right through to a full cooked plate. We were joined for breakfast by two of the staff from Pivotal who provided us with some interesting conversation while we ate. What followed was, of course, the inevitable pitch from everyone in the group. (We’re already all getting better…)
We then joined the company stand-up, morning huddle. While standing still being amazed at the sheer size of the group, before I knew it we had been singled out and dragged into the centre. We all, in turn, introduced ourselves using a padded cubed microphone that got thrown around to whoever was talking. The huddle finished with a single, powerful, unified clap and everyone dispersed to their desks. I can hear my team groaning at the thought I bring this back to the office. Brace yourselves!
We decamped to one of the conference rooms to talk further and I came away with a lot of ideas on how to make some improvements at Exmos. One thing that really struck me was their commitment to pair-programming. Every developer works as a team of two in a pilot/co-pilot mindset. They have two screens, two keyboards, two mice and one computer. Customers they work with send their own developers to Pivotal to work (rather than the usual of the supplier going to the customer) and they work in pairs too. I can't see this working for Exmos all the time, but we'll be giving it a go on a part-time basis to see if it's something we can adopt.
Next, we were off to a lunchtime meeting with a step away from tech and into the legal world. Once again, we all pitched.
This was another fascinating discussion around the issues of incorporating in the US, why you might want/need to and what the perspective of a US investor might be.
I think it was only later in the week that we all really appreciated where we had been. Sitting with the second-in-command global counsel for eBay, he commented: "Wow, even we don't get to deal with these people." Maybe we should have figured it out when they mentioned, in passing, that they incorporated Google.
We all boarded the 16-seater minivan we had and set off to meet Mike Masnick, CEO and Founder of the famous Silicon Valley tech blog Techdirt. Once our pitches were done, we had a varied conversation with Mike, ranging from how to make money from a blog without advertising (you have no idea!) to getting into a pitch battle with Google (but not our kind of pitching).
Back to the Van
We spent a lot of hours driving around in the van and some of the conversations during our travels were as powerful and useful as those we had when meeting with the professionals. Needless to say, Scottish humour was in full force during any moments of silence. Honestly - best road trip ever.
We finished up with a run back into central SF for our final meeting of the day to hear how they run various free programs to guide and develop entrepreneurs. A couple of our team even returned the following evening to hear someone talk. Something like this in Scotland would be amazing.
After NASDAQ the group split with some staying in town to eat and the rest of us heading off to drive over the Golden Gate Bridge to take some photos and record some vlogs. You can check out Bruce Walker’s Day 2 vlog below.
Day 2 done, head buzzing, totally exhausted and we're not even at half way.
Wednesday marked the mid-point of the program, so we started out with an entrepreneurs' catch-up, review of the week so far and what the plans for the rest of the week would be. While we started the week at Golden Gate Park, this meeting took place in the illustrious grounds of Stanford University. No half measures here! Sitting down for lunch at the University with the gang, I felt very far away from my memories of Glasgow College of Technology's canteen from the late 80's
After lunch, it was all-aboard the van again for the drive to DFJ Ventures on the famous Sandhill Road. DFJ are a who's who of successful investments, covering companies such as Tesla, SpaceX, Box, Twilio and Skype just to name drop a few. We had a fabulous meeting with Heidi Roizen one of the operating partners. We all performed our now to-be-expected round the table pitch (which by this point was becoming a lot easier to do), and Heidi offered fabulous feedback and advice on some of the questions I asked. As per usual, our discussions were both riveting and helpful. I don't think anyone walked out that meeting without taking something beneficial away from it.
Lastly, there's the Space collection belonging to Steve Jurvetson. Back at Exmos, I have a display cabinet of the early technology I worked with. Steve has things like the engine from an Atlas rocket sitting in the corner of one of their offices. In fact, the whole building looks like a space museum. I had to be dragged out!
The final event of the day was the inaugural meeting of SBN San Francisco. After Russell's introductory speech, I presented Exmos in the same talk I performed at the London event a few weeks earlier - including the chunky mobile phone I'd dragged all the way to America with me. I was followed by Bruce Walker of We Are The Future, with Rebecca Pick of Pick Protection rounding off our speakers for the evening, who had been touring SF with the Investing Women group. Not only was it a surprise to bump into a fellow Scottish group touring Silicon Valley, but the turnout for SBN here in California was amazing.
The highlight of the evening, however, was getting to drive the conferencing robot around the office from our Uber on the way to the event. I really need to get one of these now!
Check out Bruce's Day 3 vlog below.
Thursday started in downtown San Francisco at the offices of search engine behemoth, Google. Interestingly, however, we were not there to talk about anything related to search, or at least not in the normal sense of what "Google" might suggest.
Instead, we were there to talk about Google Waze, which in a roundabout way is sort of search - searching for the best driving route from A to B, using user data to provide real-time traffic updates. I had never heard of Waze before (which came to Google via an acquisition) but by the end of the chat it was probably the only app where I truly thought, "I wish I'd thought of that". Once we were back in the van, Bruce (our chief navigator) decided we should give it a road test. I have no idea if it was successful or not, but the bickering between driver and navigator as to whether it was doing any good helped break up the journey as we headed for Cupertino. Waze uses crowd-sourced data to help plan route changes. I believe on the journey we logged one broken down car and one poly bag at the side of the road. You really had to be there.
Now before you get all excited, nothing to do with Anti-Virus. Far more exciting than that!
After a nice lunch outside, we walked around the corner to the offices of McAfee Capital, home to Eric McAfee, serial entrepreneur. If you want the stats, take a look at his Wikipedia page. It’s a seriously impressive company and you don't get a chance to sit and talk with someone like this every day, or year, or lifetime. Yet another fascinating bit of relationship building by Bruce.
Eric talked about his investment techniques and told us about some of the specific funding he had negotiated for some of his companies. It made some of the UK investments were hear about sound like pocket money. And that was essentially the message - don’t mess around - do it fast, do it big and you probably need to get on a plane.
We performed our obligatory round the table pitches and we were all able to get some highly useful advice and guidance.
The final stop of the day was the king of the classifieds (if you want to make money on them) - eBay. Although our host here was from the legal team, we spent a fair amount of time talking about eBay competitors and I had an interesting conversation around hacking and cyber security. In fact, getting into and out of eBay was the most secure of all the facilities we visited.
We drove down to Santa Cruz for dinner by the sea which was a fitting end to the day. Kudos to Russell for driving and Bruce for keeping him awake. I’m pretty sure everyone else had a bit of a snooze due to the epic week at some point on the way back. I think I dozed off when the Waze discussion got resurrected.
Friday saw the culmination of the visits and the one that had me the most worried. This was THE BIG PITCH- and for someone who has only recently entered this world of the stand-up pitch, I certainly had some trepidation. More about that later though.
We started the day with a final team session and some exercises. Golden Gate Park at the start of the week was good, and Stanford University was pretty cool, but our final venue is the one that I think will stick in my mind. It was a park in a forest where we wandered along some paths until we found a large area shaded by trees in what was now heading towards being a glorious Californian day.
The session had a similar basis to the previous ones with a mix of serious, contemplative, fun and slightly uncomfortable exercises. We got a chance to discuss and reflect in different pairings our thoughts on the week. Even the uncomfortable stuff wasn't really that bad because now it was with friends rather than with people we were just meeting for the first time. That in itself speaks volumes for the program and the team that organised it.
Back in the van, we headed back to Sand Hill Road to meet Priya Rajan and John Lee who run the Early Stage Practice at SVB.
We sat in the large and impressive board room and had an initial talk about how SVB works with its clients- particularly those in the early stages. To be honest, calling it a "bank" is a bit of a misnomer. There's certainly nothing in the UK I can think of that helps start-up companies to the level they do and it's something the UK should really be looking to emulate.
Then, it was time for the three-minute pitch. Now I should point out - the pitch-pros in the group had already supplied Bruce with their three-minute pitch deck. Yes, there is such a thing and no, I did not have one. What I had done was thrown together four slides the day before on the basis I would use them as a memory jog. Due to a technical mistake on my behalf (i.e. I shut down my laptop before the email had gone...), Bruce didn't have my slides.
I’d also just watched most of the team pitch before me and every single person had upped their game, massively. No pressure then.
And then it was my turn. Up in front of a room full of people with no slides for a safety net, giving my pitch. It felt great and all the nerves just disappeared!
The combination of four days of solid short-pitching, my longer pitch at SBN that week and having pitched at SBN London a couple of weeks earlier, it just flowed. Like everybody, I got a fantastic applause at the end and any worries that I might be the worst were dispelled. I had some great questions and feedback from Priya and John, all the while feeling like my legs were going to go out from under me. Strange thing nerves and adrenaline.
It was then outside for our final team photo and a very interesting exercise which I won't divulge in case anyone reading this finds themselves on this amazing trip.
Bruce then had a quick meeting with Apple (like one does), so we decided to hang out there while he was inside. There was a chance to browse THE Apple Store, with some of the more enterprising members of the team going around all the display machines and leaving their company website on view. Classy!
We all caught up that night for a final get-together and reflection on the week and it was over, but only for now. Then, just like we'd arrived, we all dispersed and started on various journeys back home, extended the stay in Silicon Valley, or headed off to other parts of the US in search of business.
I went on this trip with no real expectations other than it sounded intriguing. It wasn't something I could do myself and I figured the group of people could be interesting to hang out with. Sometimes it’s just about liberating yourself from the office, something we'd covered on the Growth Advantage Programme a couple of weeks earlier. The schedule looked reasonably easy and I thought I would have plenty of me-time to keep a few business things bouncing along.I can honestly say I was blown away. It was full-on every day. If we weren't in front of all these amazing people, we were peer-mentoring each other.
I could write the same again about how amazing and life changing this trip was. It's certainly given me some dilemmas to ponder as to where my business goes next.
Looking at the people that went this year, I reckon the barrier for selection is pretty high and it's the small size of the group that really makes it work. However, if you work in tech, I would seriously encourage you to apply. It will completely change your mindset - guaranteed.
Posted by Gordon Coulter on Tuesday, June 13, 2017
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