Calling All Student Entrepreneurs: Tell Us About Your Startup

The Dark Side Of Silicon Valley

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Dec 7, 2015

This question originally appeared on Quora: What's the dark side of Silicon Valley? Answer by Pallav Sharda, I planned my relocation to Bay Area, and executed it from 2009 to 2011.

I'd like to add a few observations from being a part of the same circle for few years now. There is a whole ecosystem built around upcoming entrepreneurs here. But not necessarily in a good way. Some characters you will encounter:

Fake Mentors: There are plenty of self-proclaimed "mentors" fishing around to be an adviser to your nascent startup. They end up eating equity and not doing much except just keep connecting you to other useless people. My guess is that they do it because by amassing a huge collection of startups they '"advise", they can hope for at least one of them going Instagram.

Typically, these fake mentors are from a high-information-barrier profession like Law (especially since doing boilerplate incorporation or patent filing is not a big deal for them. They are happy to ''defer" their professional fees till you raise sizable money). Even though it may feel good to get one, try to pick your mentors very carefully, just like your employees.

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Aimless Networking Junkies: They are not entrepreneurs, but like pretending to be one, so end up floating around at networking events all the time. Perhaps they have some mental not-yet-clinically-diagnosable condition or simply don't have a life, but if there is an event, they *have* to attend it.

Sometimes you can start pointing them out because they consistently ask the stupid, sensationalistic question during the Q&A phase of an event. E.g. bringing up Google Glasses no matter what the event/topic is (or worse, wear one while mentioning them). Sometimes they start questionable meetup groups that get other junkies as audience (usually fizzle out after a few instances).

Either way, stay away from them - they are a waste of your time. The next time somebody strolls up to you in a meetup event, try to figure out what drives them. I usually try to talk to other entrepreneurs (have-been or wannabe). Rest all personalities (like ex-management-consulting guy, or the older I'm-a-VP-in-big-tech-firm gentleman) don't have anything to add to a startup.

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Incubator Gators: There are a *lot* of entities playing the accelerator, incubator game in the valley. Very few are genuine, most are just money making business for their owners.

Try to research them as soon as you find out about each. Go for the ones that have good reputation (like YC). Avoid overzealous marketing machines like Founders Institute.

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Event Managers: They are the only ones that consistently laugh all the way to the bank. These are ex-networking junkies who have developed a trained ear for hearing the next industry buzzword. "What's that?...Big Data"? "Health 2.0"? Ooh, that sounds like a conference to me....".

Which is why one finds more events in Bay area than one can manage to attend. My advise - know them, and more importantly, let them know your specialty. Because one day, you will need to land a speaker/panel opportunity that starts creating your startup's brand at one of these...ugh... "exclusive" events.

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True Evangelists: People who genuinely care about something, some topic, some aspect of entrepreneurship. Usually they are ex-entrepreneurs themselves or have had weird titles like "Developer Evangelist".

They almost never market themselves except writing great blog posts, and their LinkedIn resume feels unkempt, haphazard.. almost like they don't want to be taken too seriously. Caution: a peculiar sub-type in this category are the One-hit-wonder-Evangelists whose companies had a good exit, and now they don't need to work.

They prefer to evangelize something (anything) maybe because they want to keep feeling relevant in the domain. They may do damage to startups because of their constrained thinking. I can't think of anything that can help you identify them from far away.

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Comforprenuers: In the last few years of working alongside some fellow entrepreneurs, I've discovered another dimension of Silicon Valley. It can be labeled 'dark' from the perspective of this question - i.e. something that new/wannabe SV entrepreneurs should watch out for.

I call it: Comfortable Entrepreneurs. This is the basic common profile: young (late 20s-early 30s), no kids, ex-google/apple/FB/similar-tech-giants, and already owning a property in the bay area. Their key defining trait is how financially comfortable they are compared to the cliché entrepreneur. My guess is that their stock from previous company has generated >million dollars, leading to a no-rush type of approach to startups. In one dinner with such a group of SV startup founders, I heard stories about: "trying to buy a small rental property in peninsula", "remodeling my mountain view home". Any normal person living here knows that those things cost a lot.

I can't imagine doing them while being an unpaid startup founder. My guess is that a lot of founders who come to the valley lack any plush $ cushion to fall back on, and won't expect this. I'm not knocking comforpreneur persona: they are all extremely smart, capable, and well-deserving of the money the have.

My point is that they may not share the sense of desperation and fear of a transplanted entrepreneur. And that disconnect may turn out to be a good thing for the startup, who knows. Regardless, there is a good chance you will have someone like that in your founding team. My advise would be to realize how their attitude and runway may be fundamentally different from yours. That may help you understand their point of view and work with them on key startup decisions.

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Bottomline: There is a *lot* of noise around the few clear signals if you are an "upcoming entrepreneur". You risk loosing valuable time and energy if you don't quickly judge people and their intent (yes, I'm being shallow here - startups don't have long runways, so you need to get traction quickly. Even in networking).

Of course some things depend on the domain your startup is in. I know the flora and fauna of Healthcare IT industry here, but assume that you'll need to figure out what the landscape is for your domain.

Unfortunately the only way is to jump in, touch/feel everything that comes your way and start making some mental rules-of-thumb to keep your entrepreneurship interactions more productive.


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