Garage Gigs - From Idea to IPO's
Go to any social gathering in the Bay Area, California and you’re sure to hear the words “start-up,” “net worth,” and “earn-out,” even before you’ve been handed your first glass of Pinot Noir. It’s about as inevitable as going to a farmhouse party in Gurgaon or New Delhi and being asked by a fellow guest you’ve just met where you live.
Other words you get used to hearing in the Valley, as it is called – even if the social gathering is a child’s birthday party – are “ideas,” “opportunities,” “innovation,” “dreams,” “leveraging,” and that all-exciting one “wealth creation.” Oh, and it’s the parents’ vocabulary I’m talking about here — though I’m sure those young minds growing up hearing that lexicon are equally at ease with it.
In a more radical entrepreneurial enclave, say, in Palo Alto, Mountain View, Stanford or Cupertino, the heart of the Silicon Valley, you may even begin to hear exotic-sounding words you’ve probably never had occasion to use before — “boot-strapping,” “disruptive change,” “terrain traction,” “game-changer” “scalability” “agile development” “lean start-ups” and “rapid prototyping”.
Meanwhile, the meanings of some words you’ve known since childhood change completely — clouds aren’t just the fluffy things you see up in the sky and an angel no longer has wings.
This is “the Valley”, the land of possibilities and start-ups, of Facebook, Google and Apple — and I’m not talking about those that grow on the trees planted equidistantly along the edges of the rambling garden that envelopes Steve Jobs’s brick home in old Palo Alto.
Over time, if you’ve been passing the quirky Facebook offices on your way to buying coffee or groceries, or biked on weekends along the neat boulevards of the Google offices, you truly do begin to understand the meaning of the word “possibilities”. Less than 10 years ago, Googleplex didn’t exist in its current overwhelming landscape and Facebook wasn’t even a baby thought in its creator’s head.
But again, it isn’t just your vocabulary that changes here, on America’s Left coast, with its liberal outlook that welcomes new ideas and creativity and produces exciting technological innovations and game-changing products with an almost alarming regularity. It’s your outlook.
So in this part of sunny California, expect practically everyone you meet to either be an entrepreneur (stereotypically in the technology field) or have been one in a past life; and if neither of the above, at least living with the dream of starting up their own venture “next year”. The rest – doctors, lawyers, teachers – are ancillary to the start-up dudes.
Perhaps it is the multi-cultural mosaic of nationalities, ethnicities and cultures California attracts that creates the distinctive sub-culture of encouraging entrepreneurship and creativity. Or perhaps it’s just viral — risk-taking is in the air you breathe, the water you drink. Seriously. If you recall the state’s history, prospecting and risk-taking were an integral part of its psyche during California’s gold rush in the 19th century.
Something about all these successful start-ups seems to attract more entrepreneurs and would-be entrepreneurs to the Valley. It is now a symbiotic relationship. These people and the companies they created were incubated in the ecosystem of the Silicon Valley, loosely defined as the mid-Peninsula area between San Francisco and San Jose. And they weren’t even the first to make it big. That honour probably goes to David Packard and William Hewlett, back before the Great Depression when they, with their Stanford professor and mentor Frederick Terman, set up from a one-car garage in Palo Alto what is now a $115-billion company.
Just as post-renaissance Paris attracted poets and artists and generated fine literature, art and music, becoming a throbbing artistic hub of sorts, and New Orleans became the basic DNA of the great American jazz tradition, the Bay Area has become the unofficial headquarters of entrepreneurship as we know it, symbolising its success (even though failure is more likely).
What is it that keeps it going? Clearly, an ecosystem extremely conducive to entrepreneurship — made up of a combination of proximity to top academic institutions (which include preppie Stanford and hippie Berkeley), a demographic of intelligent, sharp, mostly-young people with an appetite for serial risk-taking, inspiring role models and accessible mentors — and enough venture capital to go around.
Which results in a buzz you can practically feel in the crisp Californian air. If you have innovative ideas, big dreams and ability and a vague sense of how to access funds, then go ahead and write up your business plan – preferably on the back of a paper napkin while sipping your latte at a local Peets café – and your start-up could be the next Google or Facebook.
What is more amazing is that because in the digital world, borders are permeab
le, this buzz has infected India, giving its smart, educated youth new role models — tech-savvy and articulate innovators and wealth creators belonging practically to their own generation, as opposed to the stodgy stream of doctors-lawyers-engineers who defined success in their parents’ generation. Admittedly, as brilliant in their fields, but not half as “cool”.
But it isn’t the “cool” factor that makes entrepreneurship acceptable as a profession to parents today. What gives it legitimacy are the success stories right here, in India. It kinda is about the money, honey.
Indians, with their innate entrepreneurial spirit rooted in necessity and scarcity, have spent centuries perfecting their unique, quirky creativity, jugaad, a word that defies definition. Today, with the benefit of international exposure, sophisticated technology, maturity and polish, the canny entrepreneurial spirit and persistence behind that jugaad are mutating it into something more professional.
When I relocated to New Delhi last year I was struck by how many entrepreneurs I was beginning to meet right here, in India, the land of family businesses, large industrial houses and what we used to call Lala companies. These new-generation entrepreneurs were not just in software and hardware and computers and the internet. Their start-ups ranged from solar energy and green ventures to e-education, hospitality, e-travel, organic food, health and fitness to ... stand-up comedy.
So what is it that has changed in India that is generating more of the new-G entrepreneurship?
Starting today, on the last Saturday every month, this column aims to offer readers a 360-degree view of entrepreneurship. It will be as much about those electrifying partnerships when brilliant people work together and bring out the best in each other as about garage gambles that take off — or don’t. It will explore and analyse the entrepreneurial spirit that chases that big pie in the sky – and occasionally gets it – when that combination of ability, persistence, luck (and that hint of madness that successful founders insist plays a catalytic role) come together.
Over the series, the column will paint and detail the entrepreneurial landscape — and analyse it. It will also attempt to understand what it takes to build the ecosystem and what is missing, track current trends and challenges entrepreneurs face in different geographies and cultures. If you believe start-ups will be the game-changers of the future, make sure you keep reading.