The Wisdom of the West Coast: Why are 16 UK CEOs, travelling 5000 miles?
Jo Oliver is a partner at Octopus Ventures. This year it’s his turn to shepherd 16 portfolio CEOs through an intensive three day event in California. A group of iconic Silicon Valley leaders are lined up to meet them — Jeff Weiner, LinkedIn CEO, among them — so what can they hope to learn?
This will be our fourth US CEO trip. In previous years we’ve taken a group of our portfolio CEOs out to California, initially with an emphasis on exposing them to US investors. Since that first trip in 2015, things have changed: the European ecosystem now comes closer to matching the US in terms of available funds, so over time we have been moving our focus away from investment, towards transformational wisdom. It’s striking that so many of our top performing CEO’s have so readily embraced the importance of continued learning. They’re willing to travel continents and spend days away from their business for the opportunity to learn from the best.
“Silicon Valley remains the mothership of Western experience for tech startup CEOs”
Pete Daffern, an Octopus Venture Partner, reminded the attendees at a preliminary breakfast here in London, that while things have changed globally, Silicon Valley remains the mothership of Western experience for tech startup CEOs. Despite the variety of the attendees’ businesses — from drug discovery (GTN) to retail platforms (Trouva) and nanoelectronics (Surrey Nanosystems) — it makes sense to immerse them in this rarified atmosphere, even for a few days, and breathe the air of those with decades and depths of experience.
“You’re going to meet some spectacular people”
Pete went on to encourage each CEO to be present, open and vulnerable. Pete has been instrumental in landing some of our key guest speakers, such as Jeff Miller, former CEO of Documentum, current Board member of ServiceNow and founder of Miller Center for social entrepreneurship and David de Walt, former CEO of FireEye and McAfee. Pete brings his own wealth of experience, having been a multiple time CEO and President of EMEA and vertical markets at NetSuite. Pete was one of the key leaders responsible for growing the world’s top cloud ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) company to a valuation of $10B. “I couldn’t believe how difficult it was to be a CEO,” Pete confessed. “In the early days, I was faking it every day — in a good way.” Pete gave a taste of the kind of advice attendees can expect to encounter on the forth-coming trip: surround yourself with good people; expect change; leadership’s harder with a small team. His overall message was clear: you’re going to meet some spectacular people with invaluable wisdom to impart.
One of last year’s attendees, James Brooke of Amplience, briefed the group on what to expect. “Pivotal change” was the gist of his experience. “Eye-opening”, “jaw-dropping” and “forces of nature” were other phrases James employed to describe his experience. More practical, down-to-earth advice was in there too, such as managing the eight hour time difference. James cited John Hamm, another Octopus Venture Partner, and Bob Wright of Firebrick as particular guiding lights for him. Both will be among this year’s speakers.
James also touched on the loneliness of the startup CEO, referring back to Pete’s point on vulnerability. EQ has as prominent part to play as IQ in today’s ecosystem, where stress-management is a requirement of any successful CEO. As Elon Musk tweeted last year, “the reality is great highs, terrible lows and unrelenting stress. Don’t think people want to hear about the last two.” This trip is a chance for the CEOs to relate to each other at a level rarely found in the day-to-day running of a business.
“I personally invited the group to pack their biggest, hairiest problems”
Finally, Pete aligned the group with this year’s focus on positioning. “Many of you, like most startup CEOs will be all about product. Product oozes out of you,” Pete suggested. “But if your customers aren’t clear on what you’re trying to sell them, you’re screwed.” Getting clarity on positioning, then avoiding the pitfalls of going to market are where the wisdom of experience will be invaluable for our founders.
I personally invited the group to pack their biggest, hairiest problems in their suitcase — the issues burning a hole in their head. Their willingness to dive into this opportunity bodes well for a great 2018 Summit.
We’ll be reporting from the Summit (1st-3rd October) and passing on attendees’ learnings in the weeks following.