Silicon Valley Lies And Those Who Tell Them

We are now in a new year. Like most people, you’ll likely start 2016 setting a bunch of resolutions. If you are an entrepreneur, or want to become one, do yourself a favor and make the one resolution that can make 2016 your best year: Stop believing the Silicon Valley lies and those who tell them.

I’ve been in the tech sector for more than two decades. I’ve worked at scrappy startups and global tech companies. I’ve read many books on entrepreneurship, from Steve Blank to Peter Thiel. They all have great lessons (see some of them here), but if you read the columns of online Silicon Valley publications or take the soundbites you hear at tech meetups as guidance, beware. There is a lot of sensationalism and oversimplification out there. Many sound great, but most are wrong.

Here are my three favorite misconceptions:

  • Failure is great.
  • Steve Jobs is god.
  • The best startups are started by 20-somethings.

The glorification of failure

“Failure is good. Fail often and fail fast.” I’m sure you’ve come across this Silicon Valley adage many times. Entrepreneurs are used to encountering failure, mainly because we’re all trying to do things that haven’t been done before, faster than it is realistic to achieve them. That’s why some of our successes can be monumental. But that’s also why the majority of us fail many times — and get back up as many times as is required to succeed.

Failure is part of the process, but it’s not the goal.

But glorifying failure is a mistake. Failure is not good. And it’s worse when it is you that’s failing (sorry Eric Ries). I’ve studied and worked with some of the best entrepreneurs in the tech industry and I can tell you that failure is not something they look forward to or celebrate. One of my early investors once told me something I will never forget: “Avoid failure at all cost. Study the failure of others, learn from them and beat them.”

What this means for you

Understand that the road to success is paved with failures. But they don’t all have to be yours. And while failures do happen, the number of times you fail is not correlated to the amount of success you might obtain. That’s a myth.

While you should embrace the lessons that failures bring, you shouldn’t celebrate or invite them. Winning is the name of the game. Failure is part of the process, but it’s not the goal. So stop telling your team they have to fail to be successful. They most likely will misunderstand the message; belittle the impact that failures have on their success and you’ll grow a team of experimenters with no purpose.

Don’t be a jerk … and Steve Jobs is not god

This has been one of my pet peeves for a long time. I must have read every book and watched every video produced on the success of the likes of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. I read about the best parts of their lives and I read about the worst. I also worked at both Apple and Microsoft, and have attended meetings with Jobs and Gates. Everything people say about their intellect is true: Each was amazingly perceptive, and showed an incredible amount of understanding for whatever concept was brought to them.

Your brilliance doesn’t give you the right to be a jerk.

But the media has played up an untrue connection between successful leaders and their occasionally dysfunctional character and demeanor. Being more like Gates or Jobs doesn’t require that you emulate some of the worst behaviors you’ve read about them. You don’t have to be a jerk to be successful. In the words of Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, “Do not tolerate brilliant jerks. The cost to teamwork is too high.” And, unless you’re a one-in-a-million genius like Jobs, if you start out being a jerk, you will likely find yourself failing fast.

What this means for you

In his 1995 Stanford University commencement speech, Steve Jobs said: “Don’t waste your time trying to live someone else’s life, it’s already taken.” Don’t try to be someone you’re not. Worse, don’t emulate the worst things you’ve read about geniuses like Jobs and Gates. It gives tech leaders a bad reputation, and it’s not necessary.

Jobs had great moments — and some terrible ones. If you think you need to be arrogant and disrespectful to be successful, think again. Yes, many great leaders are unreasonable and expect the impossible from their teams. The best leaders, however, understand that being consistent, reliable and human is the best way to build teams that respect, trust and follow them.

You might be brilliant. But it doesn’t matter how brilliant you are. Your brilliance doesn’t give you the right to be a jerk. So, work hard, play hard…and be nice.

MacBook Airs, skinny jeans and growth hacking

Facebook, Apple, Google, Instagram, Snapchat and Box all have one thing in common: Their founders were in their 20s when they launched. The amount of press you’ll read about these companies will have you believe that youth is a required ingredient for startup success.

Experience often overrides shortcuts or lucky happenstance.

If you hang around coffee shops in San Francisco, Palo Alto, Mountain View or even San Mateo, you’ll notice an overwhelming amount of young entrepreneurs sporting skinny Lucky Brand jeans, typing away on their MacBook Air and doing some growth hacking. This also contributes to the perception that, to be successful, entrepreneurs should start young.

That might appear true, but if you look at actual data on this topic, you’ll find that age is less of a driver to entrepreneurial success than experience, and that the average age of a successful startup founder with more than $1 million in revenues is in fact 39.

What this means for you

So, while the connection between youth and entrepreneurial success is a fabulous concept, the reality is that experience often overrides shortcuts or lucky happenstance. Don’t get me wrong, I like ‘growth-hacking’ and looove getting stuff done faster.

However, I’m not a big fan of the inexperience/brilliance/happenstance theory often attached to the concept of entrepreneurial success. The best entrepreneurs I know earn their success precisely because of their experience. And by experience, I mean, “the thing you get when you don’t get what you want.”