By ANDREW TANG
In 2016, I had the privilege of visiting Silicon Valley as part of a trip with the Young Enterprise Scheme. Silicon Valley is renowned as the global heart of entrepreneurship, the field where business and technology fuse together. For me, it was truly eye-opening experience and I am really grateful for the opportunity – a BIG thank you to the Young Enterprise Trust for making it all possible!
After the trip, I realised that I had learnt so much about entrepreneurship within these few days and that I wanted to help budding Kiwi entrepreneurs too by sharing what I learnt. While I’m sure hundreds of such articles have been published before, I hope that I’m able to offer a unique insight coming from the fresh perspective of a Kiwi teen as opposed to an American adult!
1. Positive organisational culture is at the heart of every successful company.
Although establishing a good organisational culture was a common theme across all the companies we visited, I was truly blown away by what I experienced at Instagram. The culture is heavily laissez-faire so employees can be very flexible about their work as long as they meet their goals. As a result, they don’t have fixed office hours and are therefore better able to balance work and family commitments. This trust placed on employees has actually been proven to make their employees work harder and stay more motivated!
2. Employees are a company’s most important asset.
While this is a commonly acknowledged idea, the companies in the Bay Area really showed that they meant it through their actions. The Manager of the FedEx Oakland Hub has different shifts each day so that over the course of the week, he is able to interact with all of his employees! On the campus shared by Facebook and Instagram, all employees have free access to a wide variety of onsite cafes and restaurants – and even dessert shops! The fact that the companies that heavily invest in their people are also some of the world’s most successful companies must mean that they’re doing something right!
3. Communication is the key to sustained improvement.
Facilitated by a positive organisational culture, staff at all levels in Facebook are able to interact with the CEO Mark Zuckerberg. An employee once pointed out that Zuckerberg wasn’t a very confident speaker… so Zuckerberg took this advice onboard and enrolled in public speaking lessons! I thought this was a prime example of open communication in the form of constructive criticism leading to improvement. In IDEO, a creative forum to facilitate communication exists – where there is a line for the bathroom designed for employees to casually chat about their work to other employees in the hope that sharing ideas about their work will spark inspiration.
4. There’s no right way of doing something.
Too often, new companies try to do things by the book. But instead of copying what other successful established companies have done, new companies should try to challenge existing methods – and do so with confidence. Facebook’s office crams 2500 staff into one building to build a sense of community. In contrast, Google houses its employees in a donut-shaped building where employees are spread as far apart as possible to encourage creativity and independent thought. Since one would argue they are just as successful as each other, it really does show that there’s no one correct approach and rather you should find the way that best suits the needs of your company.
5. Start with ‘why’, not ‘what’ or ‘how’ – Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t say “I have an idea,” but rather “I have a dream.”
From visiting all these successful companies, the unifying theme that stood out most to me was that they were very clear on their value proposition – that is, why do they exist and what do they stand for. Often, that ‘why’ addresses a hole in the market where there’s something missing. Apple’s values include accessibility, privacy and education (to name a few). Meanwhile, Xero has four core values: ownership, champion, beautiful and human. Not many people who start a business know why they do it, but if you do, it gives you a filter to make the right decisions: the decisions that suit your purpose.
6. Fortune favours the bold.
Plastered on Facebook’s walls are inspirational posters, of which one caught my eye – “Fortune favours the bold.” As Vaughan Smith, the Vice President of Corporate Development (a Kiwi himself!) reiterated, business is all about taking bold risks and acting fast. Being bold often means being the first one to do something so time is of the essence. Smith shared an anecdote where he and Zuckerberg worked throughout a weekend to acquire a business – a risky move which needed to be done quickly before other expressions of interest came about, and ultimately a move which paid off in the end!
7. You have to change yourself before changing others.
Although this may seem a bit trivial to business, our visit to Renaissance Leadership emphasised its importance. Ben Anderson, a New Zealander who is the CEO of Renaissance Leadership, delivered the message that your thoughts influence your actions and your actions determine your results – so the key to success is being aware of your own thoughts. Everyone thinks of changing the world but no one thinks of changing themselves. Each business has a business plan so why doesn’t each person have a dream?
8. New Zealanders are very welcome to the Silicon Valley start-up scene!
Not only did we have the privilege to visit global companies, but we also had the opportunity to see New Zealand run start-ups in action. Kiwi Landing Pad is one such start-up which specialises in helping high growth New Zealand technology firms establish and grow their business in the States. This already established path for New Zealand entrepreneurs to penetrate the US market showed me that New Zealanders have a lot of support should they choose to pursue such an endeavour. Xero is one such New Zealand company that has thrived in San Francisco. The San Francisco branch of New Zealand Trade and Enterprise also emphasised the sense of community between New Zealanders in Silicon Valley and their willingness to help each other and share networks.
When writing a list, I know the danger is to always treat the points as discrete. Yet ironically, these points are quite the opposite. None of these pieces of advice exist in isolation but rather they are inextricably linked and used in their entirety by every successful entrepreneur and company. I hope that one day, that will be you – the youth of New Zealand.
So if history is anything to go by, I hope that these lessons I’ve learnt will help. But if you have been paying attention, you may have cast your mind back to Number 4: There’s no right way of doing something. And whether that’s a contradiction or not, well I’ll leave that up to you!
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