European startups need to work as hard as Valley ones – or forget it

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This is our third guest post written by a London-based VC. To allow them to speak plainly without jeopardising their fund or their career in the small village that is the London VC scene, I’m allowing them to post anonymously. FYI, LondonVC is a genuine VC and TechCrunch Europe has met them face to face.

One of the biggest challenges for any investor (regardless of the stage/type of investment they target) and founders alike is hiring great talent. In early stage investing the team may be the single criteria upon which an investment decision is based (considering how many times when that’s all there is to go by) and even in later/growth stages, while the founding team has been historically crucial, bringing someone new in to help “get the company to the next level” can be the difference between investing or not.

Something I’ve realised and have to admit is that while obviously the absolute pool of talent is smaller here in the UK/Europe than it is in the U.S. (and that cannot be disputed nor is it anything more than a function of population) another factor. It is one which I keep hoping will chang, because if it doesn’t it threatens to make a small pool even smaller. And that is a cultural and behavioural issue: work ethic.

As anyone who’s ever been there or visited will attest, in Silicon Valley everyone is working *all of the time*.

And while this might seem unhealthy, not scalable, obsessive, manic or simply ridiculous, from an ecoystem perspective it’s basically unbeatable. If you want to build companes and ride the wave of innovation, it’s a 24/7 preoccupation — not just a lifestyle business. By contrast, I am in London-based startups’ offices all the time and I am gobsmacked when they are nearly empty by 6:30 PM.

Where is the sense of urgency? Where is the need for speed? Where is the competitive and insanely obsessive drive to “kick ass” and kill the competition, status quo or the incumbent corporates?

I understand the need for work-life balance and keeping things in perspective but from an investor point of view, I’m happier and have more confidence in future success if I see entrepreneurs working their asses off.

And don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t have to be “in the office”, but I used the office hours as one measurement. I’m simply talking about working at all — and just being online, responsive and present (twitter, IM, email, updates on websites, releases, pushes etc).

This is just my [likely unpopular] view, but in silicon valley the thinking is usually along the lines of “why can’t we get that done now” or “let me just finish this off now, while I can, before I go,” etc.

You have to remember that the culture there is “launch and iterate”. By contrast, European startups (not the good ones I might add) too often depend on an old fashioned version/release model. That’s nice for a good lifestyle – but it doesn’t create fast moving companies. And fast moving companies require people to nurture them 24/7.

By contrast what I observe here is more along the lines of “it can wait” or “what’s the problem if we take care of that tomorrow” or “no harm done, no big deal, the world won’t end” and “yes it’s in the queue”. I’m afraid to say this is a huge difference in attitude.

And it’s not about when or at what hours people are in their offices (or even working out of office). In Silicon Valley, even when folks aren’t strictly working or at work, they are still working. Even when they’re out clubbing, partying, eating dinner or just hanging out … They are working because everyone they’re hanging out with is in the industry and related to their work.

Your best friends are co-founders, competitors, business development partners, your lawyers or your event co-sponsors. You date, hook up with or marry your co-workers, your business development managers, your PR reps. It’s all incestuous and a very small-world and quite possibly incredibly unhealthy (although it’s clearly worked for many otherwise the valley would have collapsed by now in an earthquake of divource and law-suits).

But from an investment and knowledge-enhancing-viral-feeding point of view it’s hugely valuable. It’s like one massive petri dish. An uber-mega-corporation of startups where people might circulate between Google, Yahoo! Apple and other companies in between startups. But it keeps everyone going, thinking and buzzing about their work all the bloody time.

Instead, not only do we have different petri dishes for London startups, northern [UK] startups, Irish startups, German startups, eastern european startups etc, but we also have petri dishes for bootstrapped startups, startups funded by “the big VCs”, startups in mobile, startups in media, startups who are using agencies (btw, no startups use agencies in the valley), and companies who say they are startups but where no one’s really working very hard.

This also manifests itself in basic attitudes and assumptions regarding holidays and time off.

In the US the legal holiday entitlement is 10 holiday/vacation days per year, but to be honest, no one really knows for sure because no one checks. No one tracks it — and no one really ever takes any — unless they’re getting married or it’s a really, really, really big deal.

In silicon valley if people started tracking vacation days, they’d also have to track “comp time” (meaning what days off they’d be entitled to because they worked “overtime” or above-and-beyond the reasonable requirement) and in that case, everyone would have more days off than they’d know what to do with! In most cases, people take 1 week holiday a year or maybe 2 if you count end of the year holidays before or around the New Year.

By contrast here in the UK I’m well aware that the legal requirement is 20 days (4 weeks’ worth!) and *everyone* is keeping track — and actually taking them! In silicon valley this would be viewed as absurd and taking 4 weeks off every year would brand someone as a slacker full stop. Even subjective labels aside, think about the fact that the legal requirement establishes twice as much free time here per annum.

I am bracing myself for your comments, but trust me — If you’re annoyed because you’re working like a dog on the next great global success then I want to hear from you, meet you and invest. On the other hand, if you’re ticked off and you’re not working your ass off, well there you go — and enjoy your annual leave.

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