The Secret Sauce of Silicon Valley

james hong
May 6, 2015 · 3 min read

Backchannel recently published an excellent piece about what makes Silicon Valley Silicon Valley.

Outsiders think Silicon Valley is easily replicable because they can put together the money or the engineering talent, but the critical component not easy to replicate is the general accessibility of its successful alumni base and their willingness to help the next wave of entrepreneurs.

Examples of successful people helping others

In the mid 90s I used to attend an annual party my friend’s family would throw. A lot of notable valley people were often there including Steve Jobs. I remember noticing the intensity of Jobs’ admiration and respect for old timers like Andy Grove. You could tell that he really felt lucky to be there soaking up all of their wisdom, and they happily gave it to him.

I noticed the same thing when I found myself at a house party in early 2005 standing in a corner with Mark Zuckerberg and Marc Andreessen (it doesn’t matter how cool people are in tech, it seems geeky dudes like us always end up standing with each other in a corner). I think it was the first time the two of them had met, and the way Zuck spoke with Marc reminded me a lot of Jobs/Grove. There was no “do you know how cool I am” attitude, it was just pure respect and a desire to learn. That’s what it seemed like to me anyway, and in true Silicon Valley helping spirit, Marc helped Mark to the extent that he ended up joining FB’s board.

I’ve benefitted from this effect too

When Jim Young and I started a website in 2000 called HOTorNOT, despite being a couple of unknown kids, we got invaluable help and advice from some seriously successful people. They had no reason to help us other than their own desire to be helpful:

  • Google’s Larry Page gave us advice like who we should buy servers from (Rackable Systems) and their head of engineering operations Jim Reese (who happened to be our neighbor) gave us some technical advice on scaling.
  • James Joaquin’s Ofoto gave us our first significant revenue through an affiliate deal. What was extraordinary is that they paid us upfront, as far as I could tell simply because they liked us. That check critically kept us above water.
  • Some execs at Yahoo intentionally let us host our images on their servers for years (we thought we were getting away with something but later realized they had specifically whitelisted HOTorNOT. When I eventually met them and asked them why they did this for us, they told me “we loved HOTorNOT and didn’t want to be the guys that killed it.”)

The secret of Silicon Valley is that we remember to pay it back

We never forgot the kind of help we got, and we made a distinct effort to pay it back. For example, we had a lot of extra rack space and bandwidth so we gave free hosting to companies like Twitter, Bit Torrent, Zipdash (Google Mobile Maps), and Mochi Media in their early days. We also allocated prominent space on our website to drive traffic to friends. Whenever possible, we always gave our time and energy to help other startups that wanted it.

Silicon Valley has a culture of helping that permeates to the top, and I think that’s the primary difference that makes it work. In many industries, people at the top tend to be dismissive of startups. In contrast within Silicon Valley, many successful people remain humble and are often happy to help startups if they find the startup interesting.

Let’s keep it going

I admit that I worry this culture is going away as I’m not sure I am seeing the same level of help being passed around these days. You still see it within programs like YCombinator, but this kind of help used to be the norm across the valley, not just within incubators. I hope I’m wrong and it’s possible this is just me complaining as every generation is wont to do about the next.

Regardless, I hope there are entrepreneurs out there who read this and decide to do more to help their fellow founders, not because you want something out of it but simply because it’s a good thing to do… and for those who receive help, don’t forget to remember those who helped you and properly thank them. Let’s keep the secret sauce simmering.

Observations and thoughts

A log of random shit I notice.

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