Doing a startup in Europe is challenging for all sorts of reasons. But one key issue is cultural — even if the gritty realism of European entrepreneurs is ultimately tied to the relative difficulties of raising larger investment rounds in the region. The can-do attitude of Silicon Valley is undoubtedly fuelled in part by the amount of investor money flying around. But that’s not the only reason. Failing in the Valley isn’t seen as an end point in the way it can be in Europe.
Being exposed to a little of that ‘fail and move on’ and ‘nothing is impossible’ attitude is a key part of the rational behind a new internship programme for U.K. computer science graduates that’s placing them with Silicon Valley startups for a year, starting in August. The Silicon Valley Internship Programme (SVIP) is aiming to get some of this Valley chops to rub off on 15 students from nine U.K. universities by giving them real-world startup experience in the place that knows how to do it best.
Programme founder, Michael Hughes, explains the idea for SVIP sprung from a conversation he was having at a meeting in San Francisco involving British entrepreneurs, UKTI reps, the British Ambassador and British Consul General, talking about — inevitably — why Silicon Valley has such a successful startup culture, and how the U.K. can emulate the Valley vibe.
“The meeting was to discuss why Silicon Valley was so successful and what could be done in the UK to try to stimulate similar levels of entrepreneurship,” he tells TechCrunch. “A big theme coming from the entrepreneurs was that the prevailing ‘feeling of the possible’ in the Bay Area meant that you really felt like you could give things a go in this environment and hence, a lot more people take the leap to start a business knowing that even if they fail, they can have another lash.
“In Britain however (generalizing terribly), there is more of a tendency towards critique of ideas and it is harder to have your career recover from a failed venture. So if your view is that entrepreneurial success comes with a big dollop of luck, the more people having a go the better.”
What better way to instill a sense of the possible in young coders than by exposing them to startup life for a year. After the year is up, SVIP grads return to the U.K. with a year’s worth of experiences under their belt and — hopefully — bring back a little bit of the West Coast positivity to contribute to the local startup scene.
“Ultimately the goal of the programme is to have a cadre of top engineers who combine the technical expertise with the experience and attitude to start companies once they return to the U.K. after the programme. My dream is that a few of the guys on the programme get together and start something in the U.K. when they go back, supported and advised by the network they will have developed in the Bay Area,” says Hughes, himself a startup co-founder.
His startup, LoopUp, is one of the nine that will be accepting the 15 paid student placements in the first year’s intake. The other startups are EdgeSpring, Nimble Storage, EAT Club, PostRocket, Caring.com, viagogo, GuideSpark and Coffee Meets Bagel. Hughes says he got the others involved by reaching out to friends in the Stanford community and also hiring a Programme Manager to do more outreach.
“All the guys are coming out on a one year visa which requires them to return to the U.K. after. Realistically, we all know that some of them will find a way to stay in the U.S., but even if they do, I don’t see this as a disaster for the U.K. After all I am a Brit, living in the U.S. for 17 years, yet with our start-up we employ 40 people in London and have fostered strong technology interchange between the companies,” he adds.
One of the students who will be flying out to California in August is Paul Wozniak, who is graduating with a Computer Science degree from the University of Kent. Wozniak applied for the SVIP in January, and had four interviews with two startups before securing his placement at LoopUp.
“My goals for the year are very much aligned with the goals of the programme: to learn the entrepreneurial skills in the trenches of Silicon Valley. I hope that by the end of the year I will pitch a company idea to an investor. One such idea is based on my final year project and is about making medication a worry free experience for everyone using technology,” he says.
Asked whether he intends to return to the U.K. after a year on the West Coast, he says he does ultimately want to contribute to the U.K. scene. “I feel so much gratitude towards all the people and the community around these places [where I went to school] and I want to give back also. So when I return at the end of the year, if starting my own company is the best way to do that, then that is exactly what I will do.”
Of course a handful of grads aren’t going to change ingrained, prevailing British attitudes to failure on their own. But as Hughes’ example underlines, the network of people they will plug into will reach much further. So although the SVIP is a small initiative, its heart is definitely in the right place. And its impact might hopefully end up being greater than the sum of its inaugural parts.