From Nordic Frost to Silicon Heat: A European Founder Perspective of the SF Tech Jungle by Oscar Michelsson

From Nordic Frost to Silicon Heat: A European Founder Perspective of the SF Tech Jungle by Oscar Michelsson

Having arrived into the SF Bay Area a month ago as a founder of a small AI start-up, I've been receiving questions from curious friends and family eager to hear about the differences and lessons learned at this stage of the experience. Now as easter is approaching, with some time to reflect, I can share the insights I've gathered. My journey has taken me from the Nordic chill of Finland to the bustling streets of the UK, navigating workplaces as vast as a 350,000-strong global enterprise to as intimate as a 100-employee boutique company. It's from this varied backdrop that I reflect the unique and fascinating business terrain of the Bay Area. Let's jump in!

Start-Up Ideas: Adapt or Be Overlooked

In the SF Bay Area, an idea such as a "GPT wrapper"—a service that layers additional value or user experience over OpenAI's GPT technology—is often a marker of a less competitive product. This is a result of the region being 1-2 years ahead of Europe in terms of technology adoption. Such concepts have been explored and pitched repeatedly over the past couple of years. Instead of delving into the reasons behind Europe's lag in technological advancement within this article, I plan to address this complex topic in a future, in-depth piece as I feel the topic would not get enough justice as a subtopic.

Meritocratic Networking: Make Every Conversation Count

In the SF Bay Area, each interaction is an opportunity to pitch your vision and worth. Time is precious, and individuals often make snap judgments about your value within the brief span of a minute. Crafting a pitch that captures interest is paramount; if you fail to engage, you risk being dismissed, as it's not uncommon for someone to walk away from a conversation they find uninteresting. Success in networking here depends on your ability to quickly intrigue and resonate, making every conversation count toward your larger goals.

Introductions: The Golden Key

Navigating the Bay Area's entrepreneurial landscape, I've learned that warm introductions are not just helpful; they are often critical. In a culture where meritocracy reigns, a personal endorsement can act as a golden key, opening doors to potential funding, esteemed accelerators like YC, or coveted market opportunities. Trust here is cultivated through the network's nod of approval, and an introduction from a respected peer or mentor can mean the difference between an idea gaining traction or falling by the wayside. This reliance on vetted connections underscores the importance of building a strong, trustworthy network—a task that requires genuine engagement and mutual respect.

Sales G Fundraising: Be indirect

In the Bay Area, direct sales pitches and upfront investor appeals often fall flat. A less aggressive, relationship-first approach is favored. It's about seeking advice and establishing rapport before earning the right to pitch. There's an element of subtlety that can sometimes blur the lines between sincerity and strategy. For me, especially here, it has sometimes been difficult to understand what people truly think and what their real intentions are, since their goal is well hidden.

Pursuing Passion vs. Market Demand

While European education often promotes "following your passion," the SF Bay Area advocates a more pragmatic approach. Here, successful entrepreneurs prioritize sharp market awareness, ensuring their ventures first meet market demand. While in Finland, mission-driven initiatives may lead, in the Bay Area, market relevance precedes personal meaning. However, achieving market fit doesn't stop meaningfulness; it's about finding the sweet spot where a well-timed, market- ready idea also aligns with one's values, marrying practicality with passion effectively.

Nevertheless, it's important to clarify: it's market first, then passion, not the other way around.

Addressing Major Challenges: Expanding Beyond Personal Interests

In the dynamic landscape of the SF Bay Area, true impact is achieved by addressing significant, contemporary problems that surpass individual interests. Pivotal developments, such as the COVID-19 pandemic response and the rapid progression of artificial intelligence, present opportunities to address pressing global challenges. In this fast-paced setting, being agile and quick to adapt is critical to maintaining relevance, with a focus on the bigger picture. The pandemic, for instance, spurred the need for rapid, groundbreaking solutions that push beyond the confines of traditional approaches, just as advancements in AI are prompting transformative changes across various sectors. For example, consider AI's potential to alleviate widespread issues like depression or to accelerate vaccine development. Steering your initiatives towards these large-scale problems positions you at the forefront of innovation and contributes to significant, global progress. In seeking these opportunities, you may discover a passion that lies within solving these grand challenges.

Takers and Givers: Givers Succeed

The Valley teems with a mix of takers and givers, though it often seems skewed towards those who are more inclined to take than to give. At one event, I recall being peppered with a barrage of 10 questions, yet when I posed my own inquiries, responses were almost nonexistent. This demonstrated a one-sided dynamic that's all too common. However, those who primarily take without reciprocating are not typically the ones who achieve the most success in this ecosystem. Contrastingly, many of the Valley's most prosperous individuals are those who share their wealth of knowledge generously. They are the ones who offer advice freely and provide insights with the intent of helping others thrive. These successful givers do not view another's success as a loss to their own, but rather as a collective win for the community. Their approach is a testament to the notion that by fostering a culture of support and open exchange, everyone stands to gain.

Work Ethic: Intense Yet Mostly Founders

The determination to succeed is tangible among the founders and creators here, where work is not merely a job—it's a central focus of life. It's easy to be consumed by work when networking itself is part of the job, and many are expatriates without local distractions or non-work obligations. The community is predominantly young, all feeling the pressure to perform.

However, the intensity is sometimes overstated. During a visit to one of the hottest open-source companies in the Valley, we observed that nearly all the employees had departed by 5 PM on a Friday. While there are exceptions, similar to what I noted while studying in the London Shool of Economics, the majority strive to maintain a balance, recognizing the need for recovery alongside their work commitments.

Laser Focus: Amidst the Noise

Adapting to the staggering number of events in the Valley is a learning curve I'm still navigating. It can be overwhelming, a stark contrast to Finland, where one might attend a single significant AI event per month. In the Bay Area, you could be presented with three such events in a single day. The temptation is always there: to converse with leading LLM producers, discuss deals with top investors, or network for new clients. However, amidst this constant buzz, it's crucial to maintain a laser-sharp focus. Prioritizing activities that align with your company's current developmental needs is not just advisable; it's necessary for success in this hyper-competitive environment.

Conclusion: Reflecting on a Month of Personal and Professional Growth

As I reflect on this past month, the personal nature of my journey through the SF Bay Area is striking. In this brief time, my perspectives have started to shift, and while they may continue to evolve, I'm compelled to share these preliminary insights. The knowledge I've acquired is strongly linked to my previous experiences, highlighting the sharp differences in business culture across the USA, the UK, and Finland. Although a month is hardly enough to learn all the differences of Silicon Valley, it has been immensely educational, thanks to the many accomplished individuals I've encountered.

I feel incredibly privileged to have the chance to work in this hub of innovation, gleaning insights from some of the most respected operators, VCs, and founders. This stint has transcended professional development; it has been an intense journey of personal growth and discovery. As I forge ahead in this energetic setting, my dedication to continuous learning will never stop. To everyone who has been a part of this story, and to those intrigued by the unfolding chapters, rest assured—I will continue to share more insights and learnings from this remarkable adventure.