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Make connections, think big, pay it forward: Valley trip report

“One hundred cups of coffee.”

That, says Aaron Birkby of Silicon Lakes, is what it takes before you get your foot in the door with a top venture capitalist or angel investor in Silicon Valley. Or at least, that’s what he heard from one Valley insider during a recent trip to the famed tech hub. Their message was clear: make as many connections as you can.

As we reported several weeks ago, the team from Silicon Lakes – Birkby and his colleagues Greg Burnett and Bill Bass – departed on a tour of the Bay Area and Seattle. On Thursday night Birkby presented the team’s findings to an audience of entrepreneurs and others in the Gold Coast startup community.

While 100 meetings might seem a lot, Birkby reported that the willingness of the people he met in the Valley to line up further meetings was pleasantly surprising. “You’d sit down in a coffee shop, flip open the lid of your laptop, and the person at the next table would ask you what you’re working on. Before you know it they’ve called someone to line up a meeting with you in thirty minutes’ time.”

Besides the coffee shops, a never-ending stream of events fuels the connection-making process in the Valley. “There’s always some event to go to, and absolutely everyone over there seems to appreciate the value of networking.”

This collaborative attitude cropped up several times in different guises during Birkby’s presentation. “Their attitude is totally different over there. They really want you to succeed in what you’re doing, and have no hesitation in helping you.” It’s a trait he’d like to see replicated to a much greater degree in Queensland’s tech ecosystem.

While some might criticise the Valley for its excesses, the “paying it forward” culture is deeply entrenched. Many co-working spaces, for example, are careful to cultivate a collaborative culture. In fact, several co-working spaces visited by Birkby have developed a reputation for expelling teams who take more than they give.

Another observation that plainly made an impression on Birkby was the sheer density of startup activity in the Bay Area. It’s clear, he said, that the huge number of startups within a stone’s throw of each other is a major factor in the magic of the Valley. He also mentioned the immense diversity of nationalities he came across during the trip: the Bay Area attracts tech entrepreneurs and top students from every corner of the world. Birkby also acknowledged the central role played by Stanford University, and UC Berkeley, in the ecosystem over there. The cafes along University Avenue in Palo Alto are where many deals get done.

The current tech boom has had some serious implications for rents. With geeks and entrepreneurs coming from everywhere to cram into San Francisco, San Jose and surrounding areas, rents have increased significantly in the last twelve months. Birkby explained that this was a key factor in the rise of the co-working phenomenon in the Valley and San Francisco. Where startups had previously set up shop in their own office or residential dwelling, it is now significantly more cost-effective to rent a few desks in a co-working space. This is a telling point, and one that may have implications for Birkby’s own strategy with Silicon Lakes: for the Bay Area at least, high startup density, bringing about higher rents, is a cause of the proliferation of co-working spaces rather than an effect of it. Furthermore, co-working in the Bay Area does not appear to be correlated with tele-working at all. That is, people don’t use co-working spaces as a base from which to tele-commute. Clearly, there are different factors driving the emergence of co-working spaces in Queensland.

Birkby was keen to understand what the people he met knew about the Australian startup scene, so it was a question he asked frequently during his trip. According to Birkby, Startmate was the only Australian accelerator, incubator, VC or co-working space with any mindshare in the US at all. Apparently, some of the people Birkby spoke to were genuinely surprised to hear that Australia actually had startups.

Echoing the sentiments of an article recently published in our Terman column, Birkby noted that, in general, the emphasis of startups and their investors in the Bay Area is on changing the world, with the billion dollar exit being a nice side-effect of solving a big problem. While only a handful of startups might realistically reach those lofty goals, the “change the world” and “think big” mantras underpin much of the way Valley entrepreneurs think. Birkby said Singularity University in particular champions this mindset.

The trip has Birkby and his fellow Silicon Lakes directors rethinking their strategy for supporting the local startup scene. A major plank in their revised strategy will be a new startup education program.

“Over there, everyone knows lean. It’s not even a question, it’s just assumed that you’re applying the lean startup philosophy,” said Birkby. “Here, barely any of the startups that walk through our door know lean, and it’s really obvious that they don’t.”

In a follow-up email Birkby told us: “The need for the educational program came out of a realisation that as a country we are not preparing our students and graduates to be entrepreneurs. Hence the ‘lean entrepreneur training’ focus.”

Silicon Lakes will announce more details about the education program at a later date. In the meantime, Silicon Lakes is host to a range of startup-related events. The next one, kicking off this Friday night, is Startup Weekend.

Birkby, a serial entrepreneur with several successful exits behind him, will be making another trip to California in October or November this year, and has extended an invitation to those in the Gold Coast startup community to join him.

About Ricky Robinson

When he's not writing for The Tech Street Journal, Ricky's working at NICTA, Australia’s ICT Centre of Excellence, where he performs a mix of industry engagement, research and, of course, software engineering. Ricky holds a Ph.D. in computer science from the University of Queensland and spent some time in Mountain View, California, at Sun Microsystems Research Labs. Ricky's the prime instigator of TSJ.