Embed the innovation lessons of Silicon Valley into your startup

The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew.

Rousing words from President Abraham Lincoln, taken from his 1862 annual address to Congress. It’s a call to action which resonates with the current Brexit-driven economic uncertainty, causing a dip in investor confidence which will undoubtedly mean pulling back the innovation engine and startups, and replaced by a focus on short-term expediency.

However, research shows that focusing on short-term aspirations typically yields only short-term results, whilst those seeking significant startup breakthroughs will both identify the big ideas and generate incremental ideas along the way.

These are uncertain times, startups are struggling to find the right balance between caution and optimism. No one knows what will happen next, and it is crazy to operate your business as though you do. But the more volatile the times, the more essential it is to keep your options open. Thus, taking less risk (closing down innovation options) is actually more dangerous than investing to preserve a number of future-focused options.

A strong sense of the possible is essential to driving innovation. Whilst the image of the swashbuckling, risk-taking, buccaneering entrepreneur is somewhat of a caricature, positive energy and exuberance makes a refreshing change from the constant stream of maudlin and misery in the news at present. We are running a severe optimism deficit, and encouraging innovation maybe counter intuitive, but it’s what is needed at present.

There is never a lacking of confidence in Silicon Valley, the Santa Clara area in the southern San Francisco Bay Area, home to many of the world’s largest tech businesses. It’s the hub of the tech startup innovation eco-system, accounting for one-third of all of VC investment in the U.S.

It was in the Valley that the silicon-based integrated circuit, the microprocessor and the microcomputer, were first developed, spawning the philosophy that runs through the Valley’s past and present to ‘play’ with novel technology.

The phrase Silicon Valley is attributed to Don Hoefler who first used the term as the title of a series of articles in the trade newspaper Electronic News, on January 11, 1971. The moniker quickly gained widespread use in the early 1980s, with the introduction of the PC and related hardware and software products for the consumer market.

A powerful sense of regional solidarity accompanied the rise of Silicon Valley, building on the foundations from Stanford University. During the 1940s and 1950s, Frederick Terman, Stanford’s dean of engineering, encouraged faculty and graduates to start their own companies, as what would become Silicon Valley grew up around the Stanford campus. Terman, together with William Stockley, a founder of Bell Labs, are often called ‘the fathers of Silicon Valley’.

Terman and Stockley aimed to provide local employment opportunities for graduating students, promoting Stanford’s labs for use as an office park, named the Stanford Research Park. Leases were limited to high tech companies. Terman also found venture capital for technology start-ups.

One of the major success stories was Hewlett-Packard. Founded in Packard’s garage by Stanford graduates William Hewlett and David Packard, Hewlett-Packard moved its offices into the Stanford Research Park in 1953. Other early tenants included Eastman Kodal, General Electric and Lockheed.

Fast forward to 1975, and the Homebrew Computer Club was an informal group of electronic enthusiasts and technically minded hobbyists who gathered to trade parts, circuits and information supporting the DIY construction of computing devices. It was started by Gordon French and Fred Moore, who met at Menlo Park, where Thomas Edison had his labs – in the Valley.

They both were interested in maintaining an open forum for people to work together on making computers more accessible to everyone. The first meeting was held March 1975 at French’s garage. Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs credit that first meeting with inspiring them to design the original Apple I computer. As a result, the first preview of the Apple I was given at the Homebrew Computer Club.

Today, there are many global tech innovators based in the Valley, let’s take a look at their innovation philosophy, and what we take take into our own startup endeavours.

Google set up in Silicon Valley at Menlo Park in January 1996 as a research project by Larry Page and Sergey Brin when they were both PhD students at Stanford. While conventional search engines ranked results by counting how many times the search terms appeared on the page, the two theorised about a better system that analysed the relationships between websites.

They called this new technology ‘Page Rank’, it determined a website’s relevance by the number of pages, and the importance of those pages, that linked back to the original site. That was their core, founding innovation. Since then, the growth and expansion has been fuelled by an underlying innovation philosophy, which includes the following focus:

1. Focus on the user, not the competition Product design decisions should always be made around solving customers’ problems, not by how much money it will make. Design a great useful user experience, and the revenue will follow. ‘Launch, then keep listening’ was Google’s early ethos, leading to iterative learning and development.

2. Think 10X If you come into work every day and improve your process a little each day, you only achieve incremental progress. If you want innovative change, you need to think about how to change things by 10X. Think bigger than what you think is possible. No matter how ambitious the plan, you have to roll up your sleeves and start somewhere, but then think big. A 10x goal forces you to rethink an idea entirely. It pushes you beyond existing models and forces you to totally reimagine how to approach it.

3. Bet on unique insights Google has unique insights because they see the world through a certain lens that no one else has. Don’t get stuck innovating your own existing products when you could have the next big idea, look across other domains for business model innovation.

4. 20% Time Give your employees 20% of their time to focus on the items they are most passionate about. When the ideas are shared around, people spend their 20% devoting their energies to the best ones, creating a self-governing and self-regulating environment. This truly allows everyone in the organisation the time to act on their innovative spirit.

5. Use the 70/20/10 model Google were firm believers in a concept introduced in the early days: the 70/20/10 model. Simply put, it means that:

  • 70% of projects are dedicated to the core business
  • 20% of projects are related to the core business
  • 10% of projects are unrelated to the core business

They had a few goals in mind here. One is that this model is a helpful way to allocate resources as they thought about the big picture of the business each year. It held the focus on core needs while also encouraging a healthy stretch into new and related areas.

Just as importantly, the 70/20/10 model supports a culture of ‘yes’ rather than ‘no’. It promotes ‘what-if?’ thinking. This positive framework feeds the core business while also encouraging new ideas and big dreams that can become huge wins for the company – those 10x moonshots. In the long run, a few of those unrelated 10% ideas will turn into core businesses that become part of the 70%.

Just down the road from Google in Palo Alto, Elon Musk has the Tesla HQ. Musk invested heavily in Tesla, founded by Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning. Tesla is a quixotic venture, a niche electric car company in a nation addicted to petrol. In 2010 it became the first American car company to float on the stock market since Ford in 1956, and his focus on renewable energy solutions kicked in.

Musk is an irrepressible Howard Hughes like figure, but his timeline reveals a whopping sixteen failures since 1995 on his journey to date. That’s nearly an obstacle every twenty months, at least one every other year epic failures, but he’s endured, so how did he keep he innovation ideology in Tesla in such a turbulent environment?

1. Never give up attitude One eminent trait of Musk is that no matter what the obstacle is, he never gives up. Musk is exceptionally self-driven, he displays outright determination to continue and keep moving forward through all disparities. Persistence is very important. You should not give up unless you are forced to give up.

2. Insane work ethic Musk is a hardcore workaholic person. He believes that there is no shortcut to success. He works for 100 hours a week and has been doing so for over many years. He once said, If other people are putting in 40 hours in a week, and you’re putting in 100, you will achieve in four months what it takes others a year to achieve.

3. Aim for the big picture Musk has targeted exceedingly challenging obstacles, ready to take big risks and has no short-term gains in sight. There was a time when no one believed in his ideas, but this did not get his spirits down. In the words of Muhammad Ali, Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Musk’s enormous ambition to do what everyone says can’t be done means he’s always targeted disrupting systems instead of innovating incrementally.

4. Work on the ground level Musk possesses the ability to think at the system level of design. He knows exactly what he wants and sits with his team, he is the connection between the market demands and engineers’ interest. He believes he will know about the working of the product better if he gets his hands dirty by working with the engineers on the ground. He himself test-drives many of the changes to Tesla cars.

5. A ‘crystal clear’ massively transformative purpose Part of Musk’s ability to motivate his team to do great things is his crystal-clear ‘Massively Transformative Purpose’, which drives him. Musk’s MTP for Tesla is to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy. Every product Tesla brings to market is focused on this vision and backed by a Master Plan Musk wrote over 10 years ago.

The ideology of Google and Tesla is actually very rare. Think of the other names we associate with entrepreneurship and innovation this century, they’re people who’ve built amazing operating systems, devices, websites or social-media platforms. Amazing innovations yes, but not with the impact Google and Tesla have achieved. Both have the entrepreneurial spark that emphasises experimentation, rapid learning and constant improvement, they are Pacesetters guiding the field.

In a world where there’s an army of ‘Uber for X’ clones, startups working on high impact and daring ideas need to make their mark. Ground-breaking companies with sweeping visions and big hairy audacious goals operate under the influence of outsize creative thinking, and employ audacious strategies.

With new startups popping up practically every day, yours needs to be truly innovative, going beyond the basics of introducing a product, looking-to-the-horizon, fired up by disruptive thinking, yielding bold ideas to make something happen.

You need to see what everybody has seen and think what nobody has thought, and don’t live your life in the rear view mirror – it tells you where you’ve been, not where you can go looking forward. Taking on board some of the innovation learnings from Google and Tesla will help you get there.

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