What has Silicon Valley got that we haven’t got?

Steve Wozniak

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A topic came up in Podcast #3 the other day.  Adrian Weckler of the Sunday Business Post lamented the lack of startup success in Ireland, compared to Silicon Valley.  He mentioned the Collison brothers as a case in point. Stripe is their second startup, backed by serious investors and apparently on course for a direct hit.  But how come these Irish guys have to go around the world to score?  Why can’t we do this stuff here?

Here’s where Adrian and I disagree.  He says the problem is the lack of respect for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics among Irish people: kids, parents, schools, business, investors and government.  If you listen around 54 minutes into the podcast, he’s got a point, and Michele says it too.  Ireland, they say, doesn’t ‘get’ tech.

I’m not so sure.  I don’t think it’s about the tech.  I think Irish people like technology just fine – especially if it leads to a job with a US multinational.   One thing that strikes me from listening to American tech media: US techies don’t think their government or the wider community get it either!

What Americans do have however, is one place with a different culture.  A place with a history of innovation and success in technology.  A place that attracts not just technologists but the capital that they need.  A place where someone like Steve Jobs could grow up and meet Steve Wozniak.

I’m open to correction on this, but I don’t think producing more Science and Technology graduates is going to be enough by itself for Ireland to emulate Silicon Valley. Sure there are plenty of R&D and other high-skilled opportunities in the Irish operations of US companies.  But how many Irish engineers take their bonus (or severance payment) and sink it into a garage startup?  Who are the angel investors who encourage and support them?  How do we develop a culture of try, fail, and try again?  Do we need more technology graduates, or more imagination?

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8 Responses to What has Silicon Valley got that we haven’t got?

  1. Currant Scone October 17, 2011 at 5:47 pm #

    I think you make a great point that increasing the number of graduates is not the solution. I believe it’s part of it allright but it goes beyond that. Irish investors (or rather, people that have spare money) will need to have more faith in start-ups. I believe we have a fear of risk, or what is misunderstood as risk. Sure, many start-ups will not make it, probably more than those that actually do succeed. However the more seeds that are planted, the more flowers will bloom.
    Another factor that may be an influence is that Ireland is relatively new to being a ‘rich’ Nation in comparison to the US. Culturally maybe, we are slow to part with hard earned money in amounts large enough to set new business and technology on it way to greatness. If the great stories of the successes so far are widely highlighted in the press on online etc, more potential investors may be inspired to take a leap of faith and help a great idea become a success. Here’s hoping.

  2. Conn October 18, 2011 at 10:46 am #

    I have to confess to a weakness for following Silicon Valley blogs. It’s entertainment, like soap-opera or reality TV. What strikes me is the way in which successful startup founders exit and then go on to re-invest their time and money in new startups, either as founders, mentors or investors. It’s a self-sustaining ecosystem, where expertise and capital are not taken off the table, but instead recycled.

    We do see elements of this kind of recycling in Ireland, but not to the same extent. In fact, I suspect that it is virtually unique to Silicon Valley. Maybe it’s a question of critical mass. Maybe there simply aren’t enough successful exits to start a chain reaction? But, to take the nuclear analogy a little further … shouldn’t it be possible to feed the reactor? Create the environment? Feed in enough capital?

    And this is as far as conjecture and speculation can take me. I can ask these questions, but I can’t answer them. I’d love to hear what successful entrepreneurs think. Especially from those who know both sides: both Ireland and Silicon Valley.

  3. Eoin October 18, 2011 at 3:07 pm #

    I can’t find the relevant tweet, so I can only paraphrase at best. One of the Collision brothers tweeted that they did first try to do Stripe with Irish banks, but that they were all but laughed out of the room.

    • Conn October 18, 2011 at 3:19 pm #

      I think that’s what Adrian was referring to in the podcast. But I don’t think banks are the place to go to get funding for high-tech startups – either here or in the Valley. It’s not a bank’s area of expertise – and the return doesn’t justify the risk.

      Silicon Valley is funded by angel investors and venture capitalists with the experience to assess startups and the appetite for the risks and rewards involved. That’s what we’re missing here.

  4. Gerry Moan October 19, 2011 at 6:41 pm #

    So… The argument should not be about having more grads with tech smarts of course we will always want more… It’s about our culture of risk reward and equity.. What I
    Mean by that is … We (the nation) need to shake off the notion that investment only comes from institutional lenders, shake off the notion that private equity is bad ( that’s based on our obsession with property and look where that got us) and loose our narrow accountancy lead focus where the value of a business is based only on the cash the investor is prepared to wager

    Investors, policy makers and institutions of learning all need to reappraise the notion of value

    Rant over for now!

    • Gerry Moan October 19, 2011 at 6:43 pm #

      Oh … What’s the US and other future focussed countries have?? Vision and Balls from all concerned!
      Do I have to go to the valley … NO!

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