Silicon Valley's Forgotten Key to Success
Everything boils down to people. No matter how you operate in this world, at the end of the day it is people that matter.
So you better trust them.
No technology, however advanced or seemingly autonomous, can function without human intervention. No science, however powerful or useful, can accomplish anything without the continued effort of its practitioners. No money is spent. No content is produced.
People often forget this, especially in places like Silicon Valley. We ignore our humble beginnings (described well here by Steve Blank) as problem-solvers who relied upon each other to drive innovation. Collaboration was baked in from the beginning, and we are still reaping its benefits.
My wife often points this out to entrepreneurs in West Africa as they struggle to form, fund, and scale ventures. The African business landscape is dominated by companies built on fear, where friction slows down commerce to a snail's pace.
There are exceptions of course, but more common is the story we've heard many times: CEOs of multimillion (even billion) dollar companies must approve all financial transactions. Yes, that's right: the CEO has to sign off on every single expense.
Imagine how a company like that operates, and how easily it can disintegrate.
Silicon Valley was built with the power of trust in mind. Rather than hold back their protegés, Frederick Terman and William Shockley encouraged them to leave campus and commercialize their research, forming and attracting legendary companies in the area and forever establishing Stanford as a global academic center.
They knew a simple truth: Cultures with high levels of trust that facilitate, even incentivize collaboration will end up dominating those who do rely instead on fear.
This was evident in a recent poll of Nigerian entrepreneurs conducted for GE's Lagos Garage, a new skills training program. Over 60% of the entrepreneurs listed "Access to Mentors" as the program's top benefit, above even "Access to Investors".
These are people who want to build and scale companies in Nigeria, driving economic development, and they need advice more than they need money. The lack of collaboration - the lack of trust - undermines their ability to run their businesses.
In Silicon Valley we take trust for granted. Of course I can find a few folks who will test out a new product or service and give feedback. Companies such as Quora and Stack Overflow were built (and make money) based on this hidden but immensely powerful force.
But cultures can't change faster than the people comprising them, even if they believed in the benefits. Fear exudes a strong gravitational force, and will keep many from changing their ways.
The best we can do from the sidelines is offer to mentor entrepreneurs when they cross our paths, especially if they fit within our experience and networks. If you're looking for someone to help, email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) and I'll happily make an appropriate connection if there's one in my network.