Why Silicon Valley’s secret might be Highway 101, and what Europe can learn from it

[After Dries Buytaert (Drupal) and VC Shani Shoham (2020.vc), entrepreneur and Whiteboard contributor Filip Tack gives his views on what Europe can learn from Silicon Valley. He wrote this text originally after a stay in Silicon Valley in 2009.]

United States Highway 101 runs north and south along the Pacific coast all the way from California to Washington. In Northern California, “US 101” is the vein that runs through the technology world’s famed Silicon Valley directing people between San Jose and San Francisco and beyond.

By driving up and down, north and south, every day, you get a sense of what’s happening in the area. A few years ago, I spent a couple weeks there, working and exploring, away from my life in Europe, trying to grasp a sense of what makes Silicon Valley, well, Silicon Valley.

What is its essence? Why do new technologies pop up so quickly? And, how do they get very rapidly adopted and receive good Public Relations coverage? It gave me time to think and it somehow sparked the notion of “The US 101 Effect.”

The 101 Effect

The first couple of days of my Bay Area stay, I was clearly too caught up in my old European paradigm, perhaps too jetlagged also, to get the picture. The very first day, for instance – driving south from San Francisco airport – I noticed this giant billboard next to the freeway.  There was our competitor, box.net, waging war against Microsoft. I immediately thought

Why on earth spend good marketing money on a single billboard that probably no one notices, and challenging Microsoft, for Pete’s sake? Good luck!”

A couple of days later, driving back from downtown “Fog City” on the US 101, I witnessed a similar billboard. This time it was more like the clash of the titans:  Google versus Microsoft. I was puzzled!

But as early as the next day it dawned on me when suddenly both billboards got covered on the TV news and gained wide-reaching bloggers’ attention:  one billboard, on a 50 mile highway stretch, that’s all Box and Google needed to get the world’s attention?!  I suddenly became very intrigued.

There is indeed something very exceptional about this US 101 – “US Tech’s El Camino Real.” It exhibits some sort of economy of focus, because so many people who use it are involved in the high tech industry in one way or another. It doesn’t matter who you are, in PR, a venture capitalist, or just a user of technology, everyone lives within and gets life from that ecosystem, especially in the geographic area that spreads from San José to San Francisco.

While on an average highway 99% of the people couldn’t care less, the US 101 is the life vein of a distinct and vibrant community. The commuters listen, they pay attention and contribute to the conversation; it appears they are genuinely interested. That is why a zeppelin can fly above the US 101 (and CA highway 85, one of its side-rivers) highlighting an at-home genetics test and its web site www.23andme.com.

Every day indeed (at least in August), an enormous blimp gets airborne from Moffett Field and flies over the road infrastructure of Silicon Valley, because the 23andme executives know that 99% of the US 101 commuters give a damn. They genuinely want to know what is the next best thing to buy, to invest in, to work for, to sell, to cover, etc.

In contrast, Europe really lacks the entrepreneurial spirit found in California. The Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, a program that assesses national levels of entrepreneurial activity, conducts extensive research throughout Europe and found in 2008 that:

“In the United States there is more early-stage entrepreneurial activity than in EU countries and Japan…  Some European countries – most notably Belgium, Germany and France – consistently have the lowest rates of entrepreneurial activity levels. This possibly reflects the relative risk aversion of European inhabitants and their declared relative preference for employment over self-employment…”
Global Entrepreneurship Monitor

As much as I regret it, I believe that this has a lot to do with the overriding sentiment in our country that success is unaccepted and failure anticipated, while in the US, the spirit feels like success is anticipated, failure accepted – with the chance to move forward and try again. This is also known as the tall poppy syndrome. We truly need to change this mindset if we ever want to play ball.

Those who live and breathe technology can only be envious of the Silicon Valley ecosystem that seems to have it all, in but a 50-mile radius. Simply have a look at any Silicon Valley VC’s portfolio. They really don’t need to venture far afield. There is so much fuel and wind in the Valley, enough to start California wildfires of new businesses, innovative technology and products.

Even in the depths of the recession, there is a positive spirit in the US to move forward, an initiative that says: “We can’t rely on government. We must push through the economy ourselves.”  In the US, you feel a sense that “The glass is half full.” Most Europeans see this as naïve, but it seems to serve the Americans well.

Maybe it’s genetics after all

The genetic makeup of the US society is the immigrants, the people who fought their way to a new life in a new place. It’s especially the case in Silicon Valley.

The population surrounding the US 101 is not made up of your average American; they come from all over the world. If we used the genetic testing of 23andme.com, we would surely find the entrepreneurship gene in their genetic wiring.

They are already adventurous, risk seeking, reward-seeking, so they tolerate that atmosphere and embrace it. The area surrounding the US 101 invites that attitude.

Maybe it’s time to stoke some business fires here in Europe with a billboard of my own. I am hoping the wind shifts soon.

(Ed: it seems the locals don’t like Highway 101 so much: read the hilarious Yelp reviews where local users curse the Highway 101)

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About the author

Filip Tack

Co-founder, CEO at Nomadesk, a leading provider of online storage, file sharing and synchronization software. Co-founder and Chairman at Carambla, a real-time marketplace for parking. Bootstrapped Nomadesk and made it into a revenue generating SaaS-business, geared for growth (revenue CAGR of 271%). Raised over USD 10 million in venture capital (seed, series A and B). Nomadesk was selected by the Guidewire Group during Innovate! 2009 as "the most promising European startup". The company is one of the Deloitte Technology Fast 50 2012 and features on the Red Herring 100 Global 2012. Nomadesk is venture-backed by Gimv and BAMS Angel Fund. BS and MS in Bioscience Engineering from Ghent University, and an MBA degree from Vlerick Business School. Follow me on Twitter, or find out more about me on LinkedIn.

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