Cooking with the Bay Area secret sauce

I often get the question from founders – “what makes the Bay Area successful? And how can I replicate its model in my teams?”.

Outlier success is usually driven by a set of interconnected factors. But there is one element behind the Valley’s success that is less talked about. Sharing that secret sauce here for your own cooking!

During this India trip, a bright young founder asked me an interesting question – “why does the Bay Area keep doing better at thinking big & innovating? And how can I get my engineering team in India to start doing the same?”. These questions got me to reflect on my own experience of operating in Silicon Valley & what makes it different from other geos.

Any region that becomes an industry hub (erstwhile Detroit in auto, New York & London in finance, the Bay Area in tech) is usually the result of a complex web of factors. These go top-down, starting with the country’s history, values & socio-economic structure at the macro level, to local factors like weather, presence of feeder universities & a critical mass of companies that drive network effects.

However, based on my experience, there is one important element in these complex webs that’s less talked about – the presence of “Relatable” role models. While social, economic & cultural factors set up an amenable environment, seeing people you know or can relate to, pushing boundaries & a few getting outstanding rewards for it, is what drives daily action from talented folks.

Doing anything new or unconventional requires 2 things:

  • Inspiration – stories that create a desire to chase something better than the status quo.
  • Action – internal motivation to translate inspiration to daily action.

Each of these is driven by a different set of role models. Inspiration is driven by what I call as “Prominent” role models while Action is driven by “Relatable” role models.

Prominent role models

These are the handful of most visible, externally successful and recognized leaders of their fields. I have been inspired by many of these in my own life.

Even before startups were a thing in India, I remember discovering Steve Jobs’ famous 2005 Stanford Commencement Address while I was working as an investment banker at Citigroup (& hating it). Looking back, this was my initiation into this world that now deeply lives within me. Jobs inspired me to start looking beyond spreadsheets & discover unsolved problems in the world.

When I entered venture capital, I discovered Fred Wilson of USV & reading his blog inspired me to start writing articles & become an early adopter of Twitter in 2011 when most Indian VCs didn’t even have Twitter accounts. Many years later, as I was driving global expansion for Alibaba, observing Jack Ma’s leadership & learning about his backstory inspired me to startup on my own.

Steve Jobs, Fred Wilson & Jack Ma are Prominent role models that inspire you to the very core, creating those moments of decision-making that change your direction. However, a long & arduous journey only begins in these moments, and walking the path requires years of daily action. This is where the ongoing presence of Relatable role models is super-important.

Relatable role models (the secret sauce!)

Completing the loop I started in the beginning; I believe one of the core strengths of the Bay Area that makes it an ongoing innovation engine is the vast presence of Relatable role models doing non-incremental things.

These are people you either know directly or know of in your extended network. These are people just like you, sometimes at the same stage of the journey as you, maybe a few steps ahead in a journey similar to yours, or perhaps already rewarded for walking the path.

These are ex-colleagues, batch-mates, friends-of-friends & social media acquaintances. To you, they are reachable, approachable, understandable. They aren’t necessarily outlier successes. It’s just that they are either walking the same part of the hike as you or have already walked this segment & reached the next check point.

When I first moved to the Bay Area & was looking to meet people in the ecosystem, I still remember one of my close friends introducing me to his “Mamaji” (mom’s brother) who had sold 2 companies & was living in Saratoga. One of the first intros I got was to this kid in his mid 20s who had just sold a company to LinkedIn & was on to his next startup already.

As I started working in the Valley, I saw colleagues building side-products on weekends & senior leaders joining startups with significant pay cuts. I saw peers investing into startups with salaried money & heard stories of friends-of-peers who were the first angel checks into now-prominent startups.

Humans learn the best by observing others in their surroundings. The core value prop of top universities is not classroom learning, but a high-quality peer group you end up learning with on campus for 4 years. Paul Graham realized this & therefore, created YC as a community-driven venture model where founders build largely on the back of peer learning & support. I can confirm this as a parent too, when I see my kids largely learning by osmosis from their friends & indirectly observing behaviors of grown-ups.

Living in the Bay Area exposes one to a continuous stream of relatable, real-life stories of risk-taking, of taking big bets & importantly, of creating all types of success, big or small, by taking these bets. In most cases, you can even get direct access to the protagonists of these stories, who are more than happy to pay-it-forward by sharing their learning & actively helping out. They do this because they too, are on the way to their next base camp & are looking up to their own Relatable role models for it. And so, the cycle continues!

Coming back to Part 2 of the question I got from the founder – how can one drive a non-incremental culture in your own teams?

As a leader, consciously surrounding your team with Relatable role models is a strong step towards this. It could be by encouraging team members executing differently to share their approach or bringing in folks from other companies for sessions & fireside chats. It could be doing knowledge sharing sessions at an offsite, or discussing a case study of a similar product or company that is nailing something you are struggling with. It could be recognizing taking on large problems & bold approaches via hackathons & ideathons. Or it could be setting up days where talented younger folks shadow leaders, sitting in important meetings & observing how they execute.

I tried to leverage this concept in my own startup a few years back wherein I convinced one of my batch-mates who was the ex-CTO of a large Internet company to come onboard as a CTO-in-residence. Him spending a few hours every month with the team & joining townhalls to share his perspective on technology transformed the learning trajectory & energy levels of our young engineering team. Even today, everyone fondly remembers that experience as a game changer for them personally.

So that’s it, I gave you the Bay Area’s secret sauce. Each of you is a Relatable role model for someone out there, so go ahead & pay-it-forward by sharing your stories, supporting other builders & connecting people to each other. If this becomes the dominant culture in your ecosystem, whatever that might be, success will follow!


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Author: Soumitra Sharma

Operator-Angel I Product Leader I US-India corridor I Believer in Power Laws I Love building & learning

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