13 Things I Learned on the Silicon Valley Bank Trek

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect at the 2017 Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) Trek that took place at the start of the new year. I had just learned about the bank this past fall when I bumped into Pete McDonald, a Relationship Manager from SVB, at a RoughDraft Ventures event in Boston. Pete helped me open up a bank account for Lasso Investing, a fintech company that I am building. So long story short, most of what I knew about the bank before the Trek was what I had learned as a new client.

As a D.C. native and senior at Brown, I’ve spent my entire life on the East Coast. I can count the number of times I’ve been to San Francisco on one hand. Although I had visited before, SVB’s personalized tour of the startup ecosystem opened my eyes to the ridiculous amount of opportunity and energy concentrated in Silicon Valley. I finally understood the obsession. And now, I had even more context for the TV show.

Over the course of four days, we heard from impressive industry leaders: from seasoned venture capitalists, to key SVB executives, to starry-eyed entrepreneurs themselves.

Below I’ve compiled some of the core teachings from the Trek. Not every student with a passion for entrepreneurship was given the opportunity to attend. That being said, the lessons are invaluable and should be shared widely. In no particular order:

  1. Determine what kind of person you want to be. You become the average of the 5 people with whom you spend the most time. Choose wisely.
  2. Invest in yourself. Before a team of people will invest their time and mental resources into your idea… before a venture capitalist will invest money in your company… you must invest in yourself. What does this mean? Actively manage your learning. Spend time figuring out what it is that you want to know and be good at. Then, work hard to know and be good. A key part of this learning is learning efficiently. Starting a company with little work experience isn’t for most people. Instead, a couple years of honing your product or engineering skills at another tech company will make you more efficient when you launch your startup in the future.
  3. There is power in depth, not breadth. Do a few things really well. Then, surround yourself with people who possess the skills you lack. Put another way, hire for your weaknesses. People remember products for doing 2–3 things really well. Treat yourself like a product in this regard.
  4. Optimize for learning. Take the focus away from success and failure. Define success by learning.
  5. Build a killer network. Make sure its multi-dimensional and balanced by geography, industry, professional experience, race, ethnicity, gender, and culture. Interact with your network frequently — not just when you need something. Always be upfront about why you’re reaching out to someone. Everyone wants to develop meaningful and genuine professional relationships, so be vulnerable and open when you meet new people. It only takes a little effort on your part, whether its an email update, a shared article of interest, or a hand-written note, to maintain a productive relationship.
  6. Introspect about your work philosophy. Determine for yourself whether you “live to work” or “work to live.” Be realistic and honest about this philosophy with your colleagues.
  7. Through grit and tenacity, be the person everyone wants on their team. To catalyze your growth at a company or on a team, do the things that are annoying or hard to do. Your colleagues will appreciate it and your efforts will not go unnoticed. And if they do, you’ve at least learned the skills that most startup founders rely on.
  8. If you want to raise funding, understand how VCs think. Venture capital is a mutation-spotting business. You must be the mutation. At the same time, VCs want to minimize risk. Don’t let them doubt your commitment, passion, or qualifications for solving the problem you are tackling. Ultimately, make the VC want to live in a world where your company succeeds.
  9. Feedback, feedback, feedback. The world is more agile than ever — seek feedback. Seek feedback for yourself, your products, and your teams. Doing so will only help you iterate faster. Imagine if you had received report cards daily instead of quarterly in grade school. How would you have changed your behavior? It would have been a lot harder to wait until the end of the quarter to turn in all those assignments… If you aren’t receiving feedback, keep asking for it until you do. Also, provide honest feedback to others frequently.
  10. Starting from the bottom: ask the top. If you are wondering where to start, pick an area that interests you. Identify the top 10 people in that field. Somehow spend at least a couple minutes with each of those people (in-person or via phone) to ask them at least one question. You can try sending a cold email, attending an event where they are speaking, or reaching out via a mutual connection. In a single answer, you might be able to discern the direction in which that industry is heading. These industry leaders are the fortune-tellers of innovation.
  11. Personal brands are earned, not created from flashy personal websites. Don’t worry about “managing your personal brand.” Build great products first, and your brand will come naturally.
  12. Always know the purpose. Do not do something if you do not know why you are doing it. Also, do not do something just so that you can do something else. For example, don’t work for X just so you can do Y. If it’s feasible, just do Y.
  13. Build the important skills: 
    1. How to sell 
    2. How to be a product visionary
    3. How to manage people

Many of the industry leaders (cited below) who contributed to the above list also recommended books:

The points in this article were compiled from fireside chats with the following leaders:

Greg Becker (President and CEO, Silicon Valley Bank)
Peter Boyce II (Principal, General Catalyst and Founder, RoughDraft Ventures)
Daniel Chao (CEO, Halo Neuroscience)
John China (Head of Relationship Banking, Silicon Valley Bank)
Gini Desphande
(Founder, NuMedii)
Ashraf Hebala (Chief of Staff, Silicon Valley Bank)
Barry Katz (Fellow, IDEO)
Zeenia Kaul (Founder, ReHeva Botanicals)
Jess Lee (Partner, Sequoia Capital)
Phil Libin (Managing Director, General Catalyst)
Mike Maples (Partner, Floodgate)
Raymond Nasr (Communications Consultant)
Adam Nelson (Partner, Social Capital)
Pejman Nozad (Founding Managing Partner, Pear Ventures)
Clara Shih (CEO, Co-Founder, Hearsay)

Here is a link to SVB’s blog post announcing the 2017 Silicon Valley Bank Trek.

Thank you to Silicon Valley Bank — and especially Priya Rajan, Hillary Tyree, Erik Adcock, and Alex MacDonald — for an incredible week of learning. To the many new friends I made during the Trek — please keep in touch and I look forward to reading about how you change the world.