Why People Suck At Copying Silicon Valley

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Recently I met a delegation of visitors from a country (that I shall not name now) who came to Silicon Valley to tour the area. They wanted to learn what made the Valley the innovation capital of the world and how they can replicate its characteristics and spirit in their home country.

Watching this delegation talk about startups, job growth and creating opportunities for recent college graduates (a huge problem for them in particular), I had just one thought in my mind:

“They’ve already failed.”

What I saw were few dozens of fully suited up career politicians and people who’ve climbed the corporate ladder sitting around having polite conversations and making presentations. There’s nothing wrong with either of those careers, but the delegation did not have a single student or any 20 and 30-something entrepreneur, the demographic that play a huge part in Silicon Valley. While support from the national level is very important to an ecosystem, the delegation didn’t include people who are actually building startups or are likely to build startups in the near future.

If I gave my truthful advice to every political leader in the world who wants a version of Silicon Valley in their city or country, a majority would probably ignore me. But a few leaders who dare to think different will invest the capital to do this as it is the most powerful way of bringing the type of innovation and radical optimism of Silicon Valley back to their respective home countries.

Imagine another trip to Silicon Valley with a very different delegation:

The national government pays for 100 of the smartest, most entrepreneurial and dedicated student leaders in university to come to Silicon Valley and learn about the startup ecosystem.

College students are uniquely positioned to become the evangelist, the connectors, the fire starter of a startup ecosystem in any city. They have some natural advantages.

1. Time – college students, despite rigorous coursework, still have a lot of time and nearly infinite energy. Working seven days a week and raking up 100 hours of academics and extracurriculars was fairly normal for many of the high achieving students I went to school with. So many students around the world are capable of this level of work and many want and need the inspiration to channel their energies into. No working professional has as much time and energy to dedicate to local startup ecosystems as students do.

2. Failure – in college, you can experiment with many things – some better for you than others. But what it also allows is plenty of failure and trial and error. Post graduation, it becomes harder and more costly to try and fail because you either have bills to pay or there is now an opportunity cost. Imagine the difference between a college project failing versus a government-led project failing and attracting all of the negative publicity inherent in anything done at that level. This freedom to explore creates the innovative ideas that you must have to jump-start a startup ecosystem.

3. Glory – college, for most people, is the first time in their lives that they seriously start thinking about how they want to change and shape the world. I think once a college student understands and believes it is possible to make a massive impact on the world, she will work tenaciously on it. If someone has spent a career in government and helping startups is just the latest project, then there isn’t the sense that everything is riding on this project. For a college student who wants to make this her life’s work, then there is no challenge that she can’t work around.

We recently toured through Europe’s startup ecosystems and Helsinki is an example that illustrates the point. Helsinki has become one of the most vibrant startup ecosystems in Europe in just the past few years. Its students visited Silicon Valley and took back their learnings and have since created or built many of the accelerators and conferences. The Slush conference, hosted annually in Helsinki, went from a few hundred attendees to several thousands in the last few years, and the entire event is organized by students and volunteers.

Even in the U.S., the biggest startup events are often organized by students because they have nearly infinite time and energy. MHacks, an event organized by University of Michigan students, didn’t exist a few years ago but now attracts over 1,000 students from tens of schools to get together over a weekend to build digital products.

Political support is an important contributor to the ecosystem but the authentic wave of startups need to come from students who learn about entrepreneurship starting in college.

If you are in university, you are lucky to be reading this and other startup advice now. You have the safety of college and the freedom to experiment and explore for the next several years. Take it from a 26 year old. I’m not much older than you, but I can say for certain that you will probably never have quite as much energy and quite as little other life burdens as you do now in college.

So, what are you waiting for?

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