May 9

Why all startups should come to Silicon Valley as early as possible

Monday, May 9th, 2011 by Timo Herttua

For most early-stage Finnish startups, coming to the Silicon Valley is not about getting funded. Getting realistic feedback to understand your strengths and weaknesses is far more important.

Learning jumps to a whole another level when you spend time actually working in the Bay Area. A well-spent month in the Valley pretty much equals one year of working in Finland. If I could do things again, instead of coming here for two weeks in October 2010, I would have worked here for at least a month.

The sooner you start getting quality feedback from the right people, the sooner you'll start making changes that will enable your startup to survive the intense competition of the Valley.

1. Learn to hustle

Everyone always talks about how hard startups need to work. In Finland, you get a wrong impression of what that means: building a great app is only a small part of what you need to do. In the Valley you'll understand what hustling actually means.

The analogy of coming from SM-liiga to the NHL is a cliché, but so true.

The Valley has some of the world's smartest, hungriest people who move fast and have laser-sharp focus on what they do. They make do with minimal amount of money and do everything (from driving around potential customers dealing out donuts) to make sure people hear from them.

2. Do customer development to understand true value

Customer development means that you seek to understand what problem your product solves, and how much value you create by solving that problem.

Only, if the monetary value for solving that problem is greater than its price, people will buy it. Through small iterations you improve this product/market fit.

You should spend a great deal of your time here getting feedback, because good constructive feedback is hard to find. And when you get that feedback, don't get all defensive about it – suck it up and learn!

If/when, on the other hand, your product gets people excited, you can get advice on how to make it even better for prime-time. The key is to stay open and keep on asking feedback from anyone and everyone you can.

3. Don't focus on investors all that much

I was taught early on that I should be constantly pitching to investors – that getting funded is the main objective. From what I have learned during the past months, it's probably one of the last things an early-stage startup should think about.

First of all, investors move real slow, so you run out of money anyway if you start waiting for them. Second, when you happen to get mad traction, the investors will be likely to approach you anyway. Third, even if you happen to get funded, it doesn't mean you will succeed.

4. Build your network

There are generally two ways of getting to talk with the right people: bump into them when they are receptive (i.e. a networking event) or get their attention through an introduction.

Getting introduced is the more effective way. You can get one-on-one time even with CEO-level people if a person they trust introduces you. Make sure you're worth that trust, though!

If you don't have a person to do introductions, you must rely on bumping into people in networking events. This adds randomness to who you are actually going to meet, which can be reduced by following people on Twitter, Plancast and other similar networks to know where they are going to.

Remember that people of importance are surrounded by people asking questions in these kinds of events. Asking relevant questions helps cutting through the competition.

Notes on meetings and asking for help

People in the Valley are generally surprisingly helpful, at least when you are introduced to them by the right person. You normally get 10-20 minutes of their time so don't waste it! Briefly explain the problem you solve and if possible, do a demo on how you solve it. This should only take 1 minute.

After that, ask for feedback and mostly be quiet. If asked a question, answer as briefly as possible and don't start explaining yourself or get defensive, you are wasting time! This seems to be hard for us Finns.

Offer to leave a little bit early to show that you don't want to waste time.

Finally, try to get a next step out of this meeting. Ask politely if they can introduce you to someone relevant. Thank them and offer to help them out if needed.

Follow up as fast as possible afterwards.

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