Season 2 of the HBO show Silicon Valley is coming and it's going to be insanely great. [Full disclosure: I'm a tech advisor on the show.] On April 12, the series returns with its irreverent celebration of the unique culture that brings the products the world covets. Mike Judge, of Beavis and Butthead fame, a former geek himself, has succeeded in portraying the reality distortion field that is Silicon Valley. Frankly, it's like shooting fish in a barrel. After all, what other industry would create a category of products that entails an individual sitting alone in a room staring at a screen and call it a "social network."
People outside of the industry often ask me if it really is that crazy. No it is not. In reality, it is crazier. As a VC, I enjoy a front row seat to the spectacle of a constant stream of aspiring, motivated really smart people who want to make the world a better place (as long as they get their big fat piece of the pie along the way). The real Silicon Valley is the epitome of the American dream at work, good old-fashioned capitalism being built bit by bit, term sheet by term sheet. It's just that the people, myself included, are odd. We are largely socially awkward and are typically living in some form of our own vision of the future rather than the present. We stare into space a lot, when we aren't staring into our smart phones.
Just as odd is the fact that Silicon Valley sits perched in the San Francisco Bay Area, just west of The People's Republic of Berkeley and inclusive of the very San Jose that Dionne Warwick just couldn't manage to find (clearly long before Google Maps). How could the same geography that hatched the high-fiber, acid-tripified Hippy culture of the 60's almost simultaneously give birth to the likes of Fairchild (check your history, people) Intel and Hewlett Packard? What bipolarity had slacksters dropping out to communes while, a stone's throw south, first-generation nerds were inventing microprocessors while fidgeting with their tie clips and pocket protectors?
The answer can be found during the gold rush of the mid-nineteenth century. Yup, the notion of "gold in them thar hills" attracted pick and shovel toting speculators and the entrepreneurs who would provide tools and supplies (like Levi Strauss), all with the promise of "get rich quick." And it is in those seeds of the wild wild west that we find the very genome of today's real Silicon Valley that is so accurately portrayed on the HBO series. What Judge has created is not just parody but a throwback to the classic western genre. Once upon a time, there was Gunsmoke and Bonanza and the very cheeky Maverick and this is where we find the inspiration for Silicon Valley. Good guys and bad guys and robber barons all jockey to stake their claim. Women are snubbed and self-driving cars run amok like so many wild horses.
In season one of the show, we watched a band of coders who camped out in the "incubator house" of Erlich, a self-proclaimed successful entrepreneur turned angel investor/mentor. Here, they are working on a project dubbed Pied Piper, which is initially designed to identify music copyright infringement on the web. But faster than you can spell the word pivot, it becomes apparent that the code contains a breakthrough compression algorithm that would revolutionize streaming, gaming etc. Young Pied Piper CEO Richard is sitting on his vein of gold and before he knows it, he is offered $10m for the algorithm by Gavin Belson, CEO of mega-corp Hooli (a thinly veiled homage to Google). Simultaneously, he is wooed to accept financing by VC superstar (and Belson adversary) Peter Gregory. And so the battle between the good and bad guys begins. It plays out across eight episodes leading to the final desperate shoot-out at the OK Corral --Silicon Valley style -- in the form of the TechCrunch Disrupt Competition.
Which brings us back to the real Silicon Valley. For decades the wealth of the US and the fortunes of our economy were driven from another region -- Detroit. I can assure you that the lunch conversation did not include discussions of angels and unicorns. In the industrial era, and prior to that the gold rush, wealth was created by muscle and sweat and making things. Things were built, not disrupted. Back then, a billion dollar fortune was extremely rare, not a club. And the money was real, not a paper valuation as fragile as a bubble floating in the breeze.
But heck, you can't help but love the real Silicon Valley. Who else could get the world using the term "hashtag" in under five years? And what other group of misfits could put a single device in your pocket that replaces a telephone, pager, messenger, radio, mp3 player, voice recorder, TV, point and shoot camera, video camera, video editor, game console, music mixing studio, GPS, calculator, health monitor, level and a flashlight, to name just a few.
Driving down Highway 101, the picturesque landscape is dotted with Tesla S cars and Google buses and billboards that advertise the latest non-SQL databases. Mr. Judge will have more than enough material to last him until Netflix and Amazon disrupt HBO.