Silicon Valley comes to Oxford (and vice versa)
This post in a nutshell:
Yesterday I attended the Silicon Valley comes to Oxford event at the Said Business School, it’s the third one I’ve attended and each year I feel more inspired and attached to the SV culture. At the first event I attended, two ago years now, I knew very little about the Internet or web culture. By the second one I had co-founded my first web startup and now at the most recent one, I find myself actually preparing to go out to the Valley in January to join YCombinator, an incubator type fund founded by Paul Graham. So although the event was named Silicon Valley comes to Oxford, from a personal perspective it is more a case of Oxford goes to Silicon Valley and I’m incredibly excited about it.
So onto the event itself, things kicked off at 10am with a Garage session where 30 or so people were broken up into three groups of 10 to brainstorm the problem which read something along the lines of “How can the Said Business School be seen as the premier Business School for innovation and entrepreneurship in the world”. The exercise was led by a stereotypical “ideas coach”, without wanting to be too scathing I do always wonder how someone can be a specialist in “idea generation” while having seemingly next to none of their own. Still he provided good entertainment value and I actually found some of the techniques used quite interesting (thinking about a favourite film, listing some keywords you associate with that fim, finding the one that appears least connected to the problem at hand and then finding a way to build a link was actually surprisingly useful).
The SBS representative seemed (perhaps overly) keen to stress that they really wanted to take any ideas created during the session and make them a reality. This would be truly fantastic if it was backed up but I feel there is not sufficient accountability to ensure that things are actually followed up on. The cynic in me says that we’ll still be in exactly the same position this time next year but perhaps there is hope? I have to say though that the signs are not too positive – the SBS representative seemed rather unimpressed by my group’s idea to build a YCombinator type set up in Oxford. Although I am slightly biased it is surely beyond question that such a set up woud have a HUGE benefit to the entrepreneurial scene in Oxford (and more generally the UK) but only if it was implemented with a long term view. Statistically the majority of companies in any incubator are going to fail commercially but the collective experience and human capital of the participants would have risen exponentially and the SBS must see this as a success if such a scheme were to stand any chance of success.
The 10am Garage session finished at 12pm and after an hour break for lunch, I moved onto the lunchtime panel titled “Life in the Valley. This was pretty interesting stuff and again fantastically hosted by Mike Malone, who really makes these events and it’s a shame he wasnt hosting the main evening panel. The panel was fantastically big so it was tough to get into real depth with any particular panelist. The general feeling seemed to be that this time around we’re not in a bubble because startups don’t need huge amounts of money to get a prototype working so VC’s can actually base their investments on things that exist and work whereas before money was being poured into what were essentially just ideas.
After the panel it was time for the masterclasses, my first one was with Chris Sacca (Head of Special Initiatives, Google). I did not know too much about Chris before the masterclass but I was incredibly impressed by the guy. He was straight talking, a fantastic communicator but most importantly – a geek at heart. His passion for Google really shone through and I think his openess and frankness really sums up what makes Google so special. There was also a fantastic moment when he told Mike Butler of Techcrunch UK that he didn’t like Techcrunch and didn’t want to hear his question (Chris had asked everyone if they were a journalist before he began as he wanted to talk openly and frankly, which he couldn’t do around journalists, so he was pissed that Mike hadn’t introduced himself as a journo). Chris also stuck around after his presentation to just chat, which I was incredibly impressed by – he showed a real interest in what I was doing and genuine excitement when I told him I’d be heading out to SV for YCombinator so all in all I thought he was a very cool guy.
Next stop was a masterclass with Pete Flint of Trulia and Bob Goodson of Yelp. This was again another fantastic masterclass, both Bob and Pete come across as having a great amount of energy and passion for what they’re doing and I’m sure Yelp and Trulia will go onto great things. I really liked the format of their class – they put up some problems they were facing on the screen and asked the audience to contribute answers. This was an awesome way to get everyone engaged and I hope they got some benefit out of the ideas put forward.
Then it was onto the main event – the evening panel. I have to admit I was a little disappointed with the choice of host, as I’ve said already I really wish Mike Malone had continued as his combination of wit and interrogation seems to get the panel a little riled up which creates a fantastic atmosphere. However in the overall scheme of things that was a minor thing, there were still four incredible people up on the stage with some incredibly intelligent things to say. Reid Hoffman’s challenge to always think big really stuck with me – if only more people shared this attitude in the UK I think we would be much closer to building our first Google or Yahoo.
After the panel I went to dinner at Oriel (organised by the SBS) where I sat next to Steve Coomber, a freelance journalist who had actually interviewed Kul and I for an article earlier that week. On the other side I had Ellen Levy, a VC who was great to talk with. She said that in her experience about the differences between in SV and London, in SV people are more prepared to just get to the point and ask how they can help you with what you’re doing. This naturally creates an air of openess where it is in everyones interest to talk about their companies rather than the typical “stealth mode” approach that a rather large proportion of UK entrepreneurs seem to be permanently stuck in. It also became clear to me just how important networks are in London but it’s also important to remember (as Matt Cohler pointed out at the evening panel) that networks are the result of a solid substance as opposed to an actual means within themselves. Perhaps the UK Government should take note of this and put more energy into actually getting young companies off the ground rather than luminous whistes and “speednetworking”.
After dinner it was onto Merton’s Bar for cocktails and the unforgettable experience of “wallsitting”. Wallsitting was the fine idea of Chris Sacca and involved a load of us lining up against a wall and squatting for as long as possible. Kul showed extreme willpower and bagged us a lunch at Google by beating Chris so that’s definitely something we’re looking forward to! A few Mojitos and many hours later and it was time for me to head back home.
All in all it was a great event. I really do believe SV can be replicated in the UK and it doesn’t need to take an extortionate amount of time. It just needs the people in power to take a more direct interest in funding companies and then reaping the organic benefits of this rather than trying to artificially manufacture an “enterprise culture”. An enterprise culture only truly comes from the existence of successful companies and to build successful companies, we need to give bright young people cold hard cash so they can afford to turn down banking/law/consultancy and take a gamble on themselves.