Silicon Valley Etiquette

Manners Matter.

“During the 17th century, in France, manners became a political issue. King Louis XIV and his predecessors, in collecting together the nobility of France to live with the sovereign at Versailles, instituted a sort of school of manners.
At the palace, the courtiers lived under the despotic surveillance of the King. If you displeased a Louis, he would simply “not see you” the following day. And not being “seen” by the King was tantamount to ceasing to count, at Versailles.
The new manners — both the formal rules of protocol and precedence and the unspoken, more profoundly enculturated rules like table manners — were seen increasingly as ways in which one did not offend other people. You were controlling yourself, so as to prevent other people from being disgusted or shocked.”
— Margaret Visser

OK. Versailles Etiquette seems pretty awful. “Those wanting to speak to the King were not to knock on his door. Instead, using the left little finger, they had to gently scratch on the door until they were granted the permission to enter the room. Many courtiers grew that fingernail longer than the others for that purpose.” Or: “Only ushers were allowed to open doors. If you desired to leave the room, you had to wait for the usher to open the door.”

Pure. Nightmare. Not nice-hoodie-”what’s-up-dude” stuff. Now, replace “Louis” by “VC” or “Big Potential Enterprise Customer” or “Mentor” or “Talent”. You get this: “If you displeased a VC/Customer/Mentor/Talent, she would simply not see you the following day.” Agree?

I’ve been living and working in Silicon Valley for almost 7 years now. And I, as a Frenchman, made tons of mistakes. I even dressed up for my very first meeting at Google, Mountain View, Ca. Really. I wore a tie. Nobody can beat that. It took the Googlers a full minute to realize that I was not a limo driver (if you want to avoid this kind of issue, click here).

I learned there is an Etiquette in Silicon Valley. Actually, there is an Etiquette when you do business. Anywhere. Period.

The Valley has its own culture. I see lots of foreign founders arriving in San Francisco. They assume that because people look just like them, things will work the same way as they do at home.

BIG. MISTAKE. Just as with any other region, there are some need-to-know basics in Silicon Valley. Etiquette has a purpose: to grease the wheels of society, and ensure things get done without too many feathers getting ruffled.

In Silicon Valley, some principles do matter: Efficiency, Respect, and Communication. California is for sure the “Land of The Cool”. But don’t get it wrong. Things are codified.

So here are the main underlying rules I learned — painfully — . I know it sounds trivial. Follow them and you’ll be just fine. “The King will see you the following day”. Do otherwise and you “will cease to count at Silicon-Versailles”.

Rule #1: Be On Time

Being on time is a “signalling” issue. We live in an environment with imperfect information. People don’t know much about you, if anything at all. To mitigate this issue, they will use any signals to hint something about you. And people are hungry for signals. Late? In one fell swoop, you are sending 3 messages:

  • You are not organized. Would you do business with messy people? And don’t pretend the trafic was awful on the 101. Of course it was. Use Waze.
  • You don’t respect me. “Sorry, my previous meeting was longer than expected”. Which actually means: “you probably have a meeting right after me, but I don’t care about your schedule”. Not. Appreciated.
  • I can’t trust you. When we scheduled the appointment, we had a deal. You just broke it.

Pretty bad, right?

You are on time or you are out of business. If you are going to be late for whatever reason — yes, it happens — , send a message at least 20 minutes before and say:

  • If 1–10 mn late: “I will be X mn late, hope it’s fine. All my apologies”;
  • If > 10 mn late: “All my apologies, I really can’t make it on time. I will be at least 10 mn late. Should we reschedule our meeting?”.

Being on time is so important that such a prominent VC firm as Andreessen Horowitz charges its staff $10 per minute if they’re late for a meeting with entrepreneurs (watch this, please). It’s a question of respect, first and foremost.

Oh, by the way, being “on time” means being 3–4 minutes in advance.

Rule #2: Same Day Email

You have few hours to answer the emails you receive. Same day is the norm. Next day is acceptable. Anything beyond 24 hours could be a problem. “Signalling” again. A same day answer signals:

  • You are on top of things;
  • You are fast. And that’s good;
  • What the senders had to say matters to you. You gave them a feeling of importance. Powerful.

I often fail at obeying this rule. It is tough. But it matters. A lot.

Rule #3: The Double Opt-In Intro

You can’t do anything without valuable connections and solid network. It’s true for everybody. It’s even essential for foreign founders who, by definition, know few — if any — people. Introductions are to entrepreneurs what gasoline is to cars: required to move forward.

Introductions are one of the most codified areas of Valley etiquette. Here are the key principles:

  • An introduction should be a win-win for all parties, the “introducer” (the nodes of a social network have value) as well as the “introduced parties” (successful people can only afford to exchange some of their limited time for value).
  • You cannot compel someone to make an introduction, or to be introduced to someone else. It is counter-productive (you may bring pain instead of value).

This is how it works. There are 2 scenarii.

  • John wants to introduce Paul to Helena. First, John asks Paul if he agrees to being introduced to Helena. Then, John asks Helena if she is OK to be introduced to Paul. If both agree, John makes the introduction.
  • Paul wants to be introduced to Helena. Paul asks John if he is OK to make the introduction. He briefly explains the context, the purpose and why Helena could be interested in the connection. Even better: he provides him with a draft email to be used for the introduction (see Rule #4 below). If he is OK, John asks Helena if she agrees to be introduced to Paul.

Sounds trivial, right? Well, many people don’t play by this rule.

The Double Opt-In introduction means that it may eventually be rejected. If you can’t accept that, don’t play the game. I recommend some great posts here (by Fred Wilson) or here.

Rule #4: The 3-Bullet Email

People have very limited time. Time is valuable. CEOs. VCs. C-Level Execs. Everyone. Therefore, a poorly designed email is like throwing a message in a bottle. Pray it won’t end up on an empty shore.

Your communication must be succinct (3 points, 5 lines max), crystal-clear (no PhD in philosophy required to understand you), and precise (data, data, data ; see Rule #8 below).

Michael Seibel, CEO at YCombinator, wrote a great post on “How to Email Early Stage Investors”. He said it all. What’s true for early stage investors is true for everyone else (a mentor, a customer, a talent to hire, a journalist at Techcrunch, a guy who could make an introduction for you). A 3-bullet email should look like this:

  • What do you do? (2 lines)
  • Why is it exciting? (2 lines)
  • What do you want? (1 line)

That’s it! By the way, did you know that VCs read the average pitch deck in 3"44'? You can bet they won’t take more than 30" to read an email…

Rule #5: Good Karma

Good Karma, to me, is the essence of Silicon Valley’s culture. It means that if you do something good, something good will happen to you. It’s the foundation of the Pay-It-Forward attitude. It translates into this question that everyone you see for the first time will ask: “How Can I Help You?”.

Be full of Good Karma. Full of Gratitude. Thank people. Someone made an introduction that helped you move forward? Thank them. Send them an email to follow-up and keep them informed on what happened. It didn’t really help? Come on! Thank them anyways! Somebody helped you ? Help them as well, or at least, try. Give back to people. As much as you can. The magic is awesome.

Well, and that’s the rule.

Rule #6: The 15-mn Call or the 30 | 60 mn-Meeting

Now we are diving deep into Protocol. I don’t remember who said it but I personally love the quote: “People who enjoy meetings should not be in charge of anything.” There are 3 types of meetings:

  • The 15 mn call. This is the perfect option to introduce yourself for the first time, to give some context for a future meeting, or to discuss one minor issue.
  • The 30 mn or 60 mn in-person meetings.

The difference lies in the susbtance of the item(s) to be discussed. If things and decisions can be wrapped up in 30 mn, why should you request — and block— a 1hour slot in the other person’s agenda? If you request a “30 mn meeting”, you show that you presumably know how the system works. You earn free points.

In this video, Vinod Khosla, founder of Sun Microsystems and Khosla Ventures, recalls that his agenda is organized in 15 mn slots… This may be extreme, but productive people are extremely organized. 15, 30, 60. Easy.

In a 15-mn call. After 15 mn. Hang-up the phone. In a 1h-meeting. After 1h. You leave. This is what I do best.

Rule #7: Accent Is OK

Lots of successful entrepreneurs in the Valley have accent. 52% of U.S. unicorns were co-founded by immigrants (1st or 2nd generation). Immigration is one of the key-engines of the region’s prosperity.

So being a foreigner is not a problem at all. That said, you must be to get your point across. Obviously. Accent is OK. Not speaking English is not OK. To thrive, you must be able to express yourself properly, with nuance and accuracy. Improving your English must be a priority from Day 1. Otherwise you will face discrimination at some point of your journey. Pretty quickly actually.

Oops, there is one other thing.

The meaning of some (of their) English words may be a little different from what you have learned at school. Let’s take some examples:

“What you do is awesome!”. 
Translation: “you are OK”.

“Your product is OK”. 
Translation: “It sucks, I won’t buy it for sure”.

“Thanks, we had a great meeting”. 
Translation: “Thanks for visiting”.

“Thanks for the meeting. Let’s schedule a second one with some other folks”. 
Translation: “This was really interesting. We want to know more about you”.

A follow-up meeting : this is the feedback you need to get. Forget the rest.

Rule #8: Data Or Die

It is fair to assume that “everything is awesome” in the Valley. Your product is “the best in the world”. Your technology is “unique”. Your team is “world-class”. Your revenue is “growing super fast” and your market is “f*ing huge”. Yes, you “will change the world”. In short, you are “killing it”. But I would recommend deleting these words from a) your vocabulary, b) your deck, c) your pitch.

People are data-driven. There is nothing better, clearer, more objective and comparable than data. VCs, mentors, talents, customers will immediately see through your data that you are REALLY unique and best-in-show.

Different businesses and maturity stages have different data types: TAM | SAM | SOM, MoM | YoY growth, MRR | ARR, ACV, Rev churn | Cust churn, Cohort Analysis, LTV, CAC, DAU | WAU | MAU, GMV, Retention Rate, Burn Rate, and so on. Let your data speak for you. Forget superlatives. Do not look like this:

Rule #9: Storytelling

This is one of the hardest things. It is largely linked to the type of education received, I guess. It is a priceless skill. Telling a story is key in the Valley (and everywhere else by the way). It’s the most effective way to engage with people and raise awareness.

It is the best way to sell.

That’s the whole point. You have to be in a sales-mode. All. The. Time. Night and day. You want to hire a talent? You must sell your vision. You are talking to a customer? You must sell your product, obviously. You are pitching a VC? You are literally selling a portion of your company. You are meeting with a journalist? She needs to sell you to her readers.

In other words, every pitch must be a story. Now, how do you do this? A good story connects your point to something bigger. Could be a mission. Could be an emotion. Could be a journey. But whatever it may be, it must engage the other person. A story is a well-designed script. It is a missile. With a precise target.

Telling a story is tough. It’s an art. It’s a process. It requires a lot of work. But if you want to come to the Valley, be prepared to tell good, engaging stories. Everyone does. Remember you are not far from Hollywood. In fact, you are in “Techlywood”.

Again, my apologies if all of this sounds trivial. It should be. I would be more than happy to read your views. Feel free to add comments and any other remarks or stories on “how to behave in the Valley”. I, for sure, need to learn more!

“Thank you”