In September 2015, I went to San Francisco and Silicon Valley with a group of 20 young people from Queensland on a mission called Startup Catalyst. The trip aimed to inject the entrepreneurial drive that permeates Silicon Valley into some technically-capable young people, so we push innovation forward in Australia.
It was an amazing experience. Here’s some thoughts and highlights.
Impressions of San Francisco and Silicon Valley
We stayed in Soma, near the Financial District in San Francisco, and spent our time fairly equally split between SF and Silicon Valley to the South.
San Francisco is a great city. It has character, history and culture. The classic image of pastel terraced houses on tree-lined, steep streets with a cable car down the middle really holds true. In many ways it feels similar to Melbourne, a trendy place that is also liveable. If you can afford it – average rent for a one bedroom apartment is $3000 per month.
Huge elevated freeways take commuters from the city down to the Valley. In many ways, the neighbourhoods here are pure suburbia – nice places to raise a family, but not that much going on. The campuses of the tech giants are like small towns too, where people ride bikes to have lunch at their favourite cafe.
Startups, Design and Tech
The San Francisco Bay Area truly is the centre of the world for the tech scene. Billboards and TV ads promote design and developer tools (like Invision), because there are so many engineers (developers and designers) to reach. Every other car is a Tesla.
The maturity of design in this market is interesting. In other places, designers define themselves by a narrow expertise, such as ‘user interface designer’, but in the Bay Area startups, design is a crucial component of the Product team – if there are dedicated designers, they have a broad range of responsibilities. The idea that designers are technical experts, not just concerned with aesthetics and fluff is a real compliment to me.
Highlights of the trip
By far the biggest learning experience for me was the Startup Weekend. Over two and a half days, we pitched ideas, formed teams, hacked together a prototype and validated our business model, leading up to a final pitch on Sunday night.
I picked up some great new tools and approaches over the weekend that I will be incorporating into my work at Vision6. In particular, we had to focus on identifying the best problem to solve – the biggest pain point that we can help users overcome. We also had to quickly validate our ideas and solutions by getting people to use our prototypes. Even when they seemed very rough and unfinished, it can be incredibly eye opening.
The tour of Facebook was amazing. Their new campus is a huge single-story space with a sprawling rooftop garden. The facilities are incredible, with a big focus on employee happiness. But among the tech giants like Facebook and Google, there are also Australian companies smashing it in the Bay Area. Australians are popular over there!
So what did I learn?
10 days in San Francisco and Silicon Valley visiting huge tech companies, growing startups, accelerators and investors – what an incredible experience. I have taken a lot from this trip.
I now see that Australian designers and developers are some of the best in the world. We just don’t necessarily understand how well we measure up on a global scale. We have the skills, intelligence and ability.
What is lacking in Australia is the just-do-it attitude. Australians tend to be over-prepared and minimise risk as much as possible. In Silicon Valley, people tend to act first and then measure how they went and pivot as needed. They don’t wait for the right time or make excuses. This scrappy approach can lead to massively disruptive companies like Airbnb and Uber.
Finally, the pace of work and personal growth is inspiring. By working hard and smart, an incredible amount can be achieved in a small period of time. I will be taking this on board to be more effective and efficient in my work.
If you want to find out more about the mission, the Startup Catalyst blog gives a full rundown of the trip.