Somebody has to come out and say it, so here goes: Silicon Valley is the new Hollywood. No, there hasn’t been a sudden explosion of film studios popping up throughout the City by the Bay, notorious for its film-unfriendly regulations and costs, but there has been a massive immigration of starving actors. Except that instead of a résumé full of TV advertisement and film extra credits, complete with a stylish black and white headshot, jawlines taught, eyes intent, the actors flooding San Francisco and the rest of Silicon Valley have LinkedIn profiles overflowing with internships and fantastical academic credentials — or sometimes, nothing at all, aside from their current startup — and a profile photo that often appears merely as little more than an afterthought. And while the wannabe actors flooding Hollywood and Silicon Valley may have vastly different résumés and career goals, they each have the same respective drives, and face the same astronomically daunting career challenges, with failure all but guaranteed in these unquestionably opposite, yet similarly risky endeavors.
In this three-part series, I’ll begin with the current state of affairs; followed by some tips and tricks on what not to do as a first-time entrepreneur; and conclude with what you should do to help maximize your chances of success.
Why and how entrepreneurship became the cool thing to do, and why that’s bad
As someone who has split half his adult life between San Francisco and Los Angeles, I think I have a fairly objective perspective on this matter. Though the catalytic spark of entrepreneurship in the SF Bay Area began decades earlier, including and especially during the infamous Dot Com era, it wasn’t until the 2010 film The Social Network that entrepreneurship really started to become a pop culture thing. A brilliant, superbly executed film, I absolutely loved it, and have watched it time and time again. But if ever there was an example of an overly-Hollywood-ized film, this was it. And of course it was: it was based on the book The Accidental Billionaires, itself based upon a lopsided story by ousted Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin. And besides, it had to be if it was going to do well at the box office, so no surprises there.
No, if you really wanted a story of Facebook’s founding, never mind the profound social impact it has had on the world, you needed look no further than David Kirkpatrick’s superbly well-crafted social study of the ubiquitous social network, the aptly named The Facebook Effect. Devoid of all the glitz, glamor, and drama, The Facebook Effect simply relays the facts surrounding Facebook’s gestation, and the impacts its social shockwaves have sent around the world.
Unfortunately, however, as is always the case when Hollywood steps in, The Social Network took the world by storm, being released to (deservedly) rave reviews, and nobody seemed to care — or was none the wiser — about its exaggerations and questionable account of history.
But none of that really matters. Because, you see, the real problem with The Social Network was not that it may have got certain bits of Facebook’s story wrong here and there; or that it portrayed Zuck in a less-than-flattering light; no, the real problem with The Social Network was that suddenly, around the world, entire legions of students, grad students, post grads, and dropouts suddenly decided that doing a startup was the cool thing to do. And then of course Peter Thiel made his infamous comment that all students should drop out of school entirely and focus on their startup if they wanted him to take them seriously.
And just like that, it seems like everywhere you go now, everyone you talk to, is suddenly “doing a startup,” especially here in San Francisco. All around the world, people are flocking to Hollywood to be discovered and catch their big break and get cast in the latest blockbuster; similarly, people are flocking to San Francisco in droves also to get discovered, but in this case, it’s to catch their big break and raise their first couple million in funding.
Entrepreneurship is about a need, not a want
And that’s a problem. Because, you see, doing a startup isn’t all fun and games, and it really shouldn’t be like Hollywood. As with breaking into Hollywood, the odds of successfully launching a startup and breaking into Silicon Valley, as it were, are only just slightly better than successfully navigating an asteroid field (3,720 to 1, in case you’re wondering), at something a little around 1% or so. These are woefully, abysmally low odds, which, as with all such high-risk ventures in life, should be pursued by only the most internally driven people; people who are inexorably compelled to do something, fueled by an internal fire raging within, and not merely because all the cool kids are doing it, or because they simply want to do it. Doing a startup is not about satisfying some want; it’s about satisfying a need.
To wit, doing a startup is not a thing you just decide to do one day: “Hm, yes, I think I’d like to do a startup today; I think I’d also like to have an In N Out Cheeseburger today.” No. Whether someone is an entrepreneur is like whether someone happens to be attracted to blondes or brunettes; to sushi or to steak. You can’t just decide one day that you love fois gras, oysters, or caviar. Either it’s part of your persona, your taste, your raison d’être, or it isn’t. And it certainly can’t be taught.
Hollywood and Silicon Valley: The Gold Rush all over again
It’s popular to criticize the astronomical salaries of Hollywood celebrities. People like to complain that it’s not fair that actors make more money than doctors and teachers. On average, however, this is simply untrue: the vast majority of actors make less than teachers; let alone, doctors. Yet still, people flock to Hollywood in hopes of striking it rich.
Unfortunately, it’s also become popular to criticize the astronomical salaries (and stock options) of Silicon Valley celebrities. People like to complain that it’s not fair they’ve priced San Francisco out of ordinary citizens’ incomes. This too, however, is simply untrue: on average, the vast majority of entrepreneurs make no money at best, or lose it all, at worst. Yet still, people flock to Silicon Valley in hopes of striking it rich.
Granted, if one were to ask a Hollywood hopeful whether they hope to be a successful celebrity driving around in the newest $250,000 Bentley Continental GT or Lamborghini Huracán, they offer an unapologetic, unequivocal affirmation; to hell with humility. In contrast, most Silicon Valley hopefuls express a vehement distaste for such material desires, admitting — and limiting — their lust to just a $100,000 Tesla because, you know, less showy than a Lambo, and better for the environment, too. And because, humility. Never mind the private jet and yacht, then.
If all this seems vaguely familiar, it should: San Francisco itself was founded on the premise of quite literally striking it rich during the Gold Rush of the 19th Century. And while a select few did indeed get lucky, it is often joked that the real winners were the pick and shovel manufacturers selling tools to the miners.
Similarly, the real winners in Silicon Valley — in perpetuity, really — are the service providers: Amazon; Dropbox; Zenefits; and the myriad other platforms that keep these fledgling startups running; even Uber started and thrives in San Francisco, arguably thanks to the surging (see what I did there?) demand of The City’s densely packed urban core and high-salaried residents, never mind the utterly inept taxi and public transport system’s inability to keep up with growth and demand.
And then there’s Silicon Valley’s venture capitalists, without whom the Valley quite literally wouldn’t function: different only in name to Hollywood’s storied film producers, their very ability to thrive is precisely because they know that they need to diversify their investments since only the smallest percentage of their companies will explode in glorious success, while the vast majority will implode in equally glorious failure.
Is it for you?
The point is not to criticize Hollywood or Silicon Valley, but rather to kick off this three-part series with a strong admonition:
Silicon Valley, like Hollywood, isn’t what it appears. You will cry blood and sweat thorns; and you’ll probably, most likely, go broke in the process. And if you’re lucky, that’s the worst that will happen to you.
But whether your inner drive compels you to act on film or build the NBT — that’s Next Big Thing — makes no difference: if you really are genuinely so driven, then Hollywood or Silicon Valley is indeed the place for you, and you should embrace it whole heartedly.
Just don’t delude yourself. And make sure you do things right from the get go, or at least learn how to turn failure into success. This and more, I’ll cover in the next two parts.