In Homo Deus, social scientist Yuval Noah Harari presented a possible future where data and the flow of information will be considered the “supreme value” and artificial intelligence will drive much of our lives. This “Dataism” would be the new religion. While the merits of Harari’s Dataism are well beyond the scope of this commentary, its intersection with the tech sector’s deference for Silicon Valley is an increasingly interesting and very current topic.
For many in the tech sector, Silicon Valley is considered almost sacred – full of the leaders who inspire us and companies we aspire to build. As the birthplace of the internet economy, it is considered the single most important body of knowledge on how to build the next big technology-led companies. This is understandable given it has an unrivalled density of start-ups and scale-ups who have given us products that we each use every day. They have created unprecedented opportunity, driving the current global technological era.
However, the façade of the Valley’s success is slowly revealing its dark side: a rapid focus on big outcomes not infrequently with an institutional disregard for the overall wellbeing of both customers and employees. The disgraceful treatment of employees like Susan Fowler and others at Uber; the ongoing lack of diversity and equality (a problem for our sector as a whole); the neglect and misuse of customer personal data from the likes of Facebook; and all the other well-charted examples highlight the picture of tech companies aiming to achieve scale at any cost. From the outside, Silicon Valley has become an insular echo chamber failing to look beyond itself. Of course, for every bad story, there are equally good ones. Silicon Valley is the microcosm of the best and the worst about our sector’s impact on the world.
The annual trip of local entrepreneurs to the Valley has become a pilgrimage of sorts. A norm in the lifecycle of a tech ecosystem, billed as an “accelerator” for direct lessons from current high flyers and blitz-scalers. I walked away from my own Valley visit back in 2014 with less awe and more of a realisation that companies in the Valley were no better or worse than those elsewhere. It gave me a confidence in knowing that they faced the same challenges we did. There is not some secret sauce in the Valley – simply a huge dose of growth mindset, impatience for success plus the available capital to create the conditions for acceleration. At least two of these factors I see right here in Scotland.
Often the real value in these trips is the access to the venture capitalists, with their extensive funds and a significantly greater appetite for risk during early, pre-revenue stage funding than is found elsewhere. We should absolutely look at what we can do to better access venture capital to maximise our sector’s growth potential. This is likely the biggest factor that stands Silicon Valley apart from the rest of the world, including Scotland, with the probable exception of China.
However, choosing your investors should be done wisely and not solely based on purely the amount of money they are willing to invest in your business. At a dinner during my visit, a partner in a prominent Valley venture capital firm stated that company culture is not important – winning revenue is all that matters. In one sentence, he summed up the dark side of the Valley that we should definitely not try to emulate.
As we look towards 2019, taking time to look beyond Silicon Valley as the source of our education will bring greater perspective and opportunity. The benefit of today’s interconnected world is that there is no shortage of material available from all over the globe. The more we learn from the broader perspective, synthesising the information to carefully craft it around our businesses, the more we can build the companies we aspire to be.
- Richard Lennox is a former Skyscanner senior director who now advises Scotland’s start-up and scale-up sector.