Here's what some of the Valley's most successful entrepreneurs say are the keys to getting your foot in the door.
If you want to start a company, there is no better place in the world to do it than Silicon Valley. Sure, there are better places for some industries--for example, New York is probably best for starting hedge funds.
Based on interviews I did with Jayant Kadambi, CEO of YuMe, a video advertising platform; Elad Gil, who sold his start-up, Mixer Labs, to Twitter; Kevin Hartz, co-founder and CEO of Eventbrite; Lloyd Carney, who just sold his company, Xsigo, to Oracle, Jeff Buckley, CEO of Mino Monsters; and Aydin Senkut, an early Google employee who runs Felicis Investments, here are five ways for first-time entrepreneurs to get their feet in the door.
1. Use college network.
Kadambi’s advice for young people first entering the Valley is to use one of three approaches to get access to people who can give them a leg up on the ladder. The first approach is to use their college network--one that is particularly strong for people who attend college in Silicon Valley.
He points out that all of the colleges in the region offer courses that invite successful entrepreneurs and investors from the area to give guest lectures to classes. This interaction often leads to internships and job opportunities.
If you don’t go to school there, try to get an introduction to someone from your school who does now.
2. Work for a “hot” company.
Kadambi’s second piece of advice is to make a list of “hot companies” in the Valley and apply for a job there. This advice is likely to be more applicable to people who are not already plugged into the Silicon Valley network.
Needless to say, what constitutes a “hot company” in the Valley can change pretty quickly. For example, Hartz and others I spoke with worked at a company known as Silicon Graphics (SGI) that attracted tremendous talent during the years it was at its peak in the 1990s.
In the early 2000s, Google was the hot company and it’s still respectable now. And a few years before it went public, top talent was clamoring to get a job at Facebook.
The good news for aspiring entrepreneurs is that whatever the hot company might be, you can get a job there if you have the talent. It helps if you graduated from Stanford, but even if you didn’t - if you can get through the interview process that is designed to test how smart you are and whether you fit in the culture - you can get a job.
And once you’re in, you have a chance to get into a network of talent and capital that will help fuel you when you are ready to start your company.
3. Get into an accelerator.
Buckley extolled the virtues of getting accepted into an accelerator. Kent, England-native, Buckley was accepted in the Y Combinator--its admissions policy is more demanding than Harvard’s. And this lets him get introductions to “A List” people through his relationship with his investors.
One compelling example is that when Buckley was trying to get a green card to stay in the U.S. he was able to tap the Valley to get letters of recommendation from people like Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak as well as prominent Hollywood denizens.
In general, the Valley has provided him with two benefits that are unavailable anywhere else. The first is access to capital--as an 18-year-old, he met people with the ability and willingness to write checks to his venture--to the tune of $2 million.
The second benefit Buckley enjoys is the quality of the people. As he commented, “I am surrounded by insanely intelligent people. Everyone around me is on top of their game.” And since these outstanding people are all competing with each other, the pressure to keep up pushes everyone to improve.
4. Come up with good ideas.
People who have made money in the Valley are always interested in getting in on the next big thing. Senkut believes that one of the most important pieces of advice he can give young people about the SVSC to be relentless in coming up with good ideas.
Hartz also advises them to remember that people who have enjoyed success as Valley entrepreneurs are always looking for the next big thing and they enjoy helping the next generation along where their know-how matters.
And Carney wants young entrepreneurs to see that the Valley has more VCs than anywhere else--but it’s up to them to come up with good ideas in which VCs will want to invest.
5. Never stop networking.
Senkut believes that reluctant networkers must force themselves to overcome their discomfort and get good at it. He also advises young people to take on the biggest challenges early in their careers because as they get older, they may take on family responsibilities and their tolerance for risk will decline.
In addition to “just showing up” at networking events, young people must get good at relating to people. That means learning about them beforehand--if they’re well known--and finding a common interest that can be an initial bridge to a more fruitful relationship.
Gil believes that it’s critical for young people to give back without the expectation of being compensated. And he also urges them to be thoughtful and respectful with everyone--regardless of their immediate value in helping them achieve their goals.
Ultimately, young people must do work that they are good at and that they love doing. In that way, they will work harder but it won’t feel like work. For Senkut, that work is “backing iconic start-ups around the world” and he does it “24/7 and is 120% into it.”
Strategy consultant, start-up investor, teacher, corporate speaker, pundit, and author PETER COHAN has invested in six start-ups, three of which were sold for a total of $2 billion. Before founding Peter S. Cohan & Associates in 1994, he worked with HBS strategy guru Michael Porter.