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Silicon Valley: Remembering the Roots of Start-up Culture

In the latest TV show focused on the Valley, entrepreneurs get a glimpse of the founders that paved the road for them.

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Picture a coastal city without traffic, without technology, and without crowds or an inflated cost of living. No, this is not a scene from the latest post-apocalyptic disaster movie--it’s California in the 1950s.

Decades before Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg built the technology empires for which they are famous, another entrepreneur launched his start-up career in Silicon Valley before it was known as such. This week, a PBS special titled American Experience: Silicon Valley details the trajectory of Robert Noyce and Fairchild Semiconductor, manufacturers of the first commercially practical integrated circuit, or the microchip.

The documentary (which, fans of the Valley will be happy to learn, does not resemble a certain Bravo series of similar name) paints a portrait of Silicon Valley that is part Wild, Wild West and part Mad Men, but tells a story unmoored by time: A group of renegade technology wizards escape the confines of their east-coast careers and educations and run like outlaws to California, where they aim to start their own business--surrounded by the endless cigarettes, slinky secretaries, and three-martini lunches of the 1950s.

If this story sounds a tad familiar (read: boring), perhaps a little context will help.

"At the time, there was no model of what a start-up looked like," says Steve Blank, a Stanford lecturer and retired entrepreneur who wrote a series of blog posts on the Secret History of Silicon Valley. "[Noyce and] these guys were inventing it; there was no other start-up story to watch."

Indeed, the early transistor and microchip developers stumbled into a model future entrepreneurs would emulate. Step one: Eschew corporate values and culture in search of creative freedom. Step two: Find an angel investor (Fairchild Camera, in the case of Noyce and his co-founders) to buy into your big idea. Step three: Innovate cutting edge technology. Step four: Run into creative constriction at the hands of investors and parent corporations. Return to step one. Repeat.

"At its heart, entrepreneurship is a form of dissidence," says Blank. "What they did--and this is what makes the Valley great--is create a culture that accepted the fact that you can speak truth to power, and not be punished by it."

Thanks to these early forerunners, the current residents of Silicon Valley can pursue "the next big thing" in a place that prides itself on being a constant source of fresh ideas and innovation.

The PBS special American Experience: Silicon Valley, which details Robert Noyce's start-up story in its entirety, will air the remainder of this week--and is available in full online.

Last updated: Feb 6, 2013

FRANCESCA FENZI reports on entrepreneurship, technology and small business news from San Francisco. Her work has previously appeared in TIME, USA Today, Pop City and The Northside Chronicle.
@FrancescaFenzi




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