After the first few weeks at The Refiners, I always ask the startups one simple question, “What are you most impressed by with Silicon Valley?”
At The Refiners, all founders come from abroad, mainly from Europe, and moving to Silicon Valley for them is a big step toward the unknown.
Last time I asked this question to our first Fleet, I was surprised by their answer...But didn't pay much attention to it. I asked Fleet #2 this same question, and they gave the exact same answer.
You’ll probably be surprised by their answer as well, so this why I decided to write this blog post.
Let’s get started!
So...what did they say?
If I asked you to guess what their answers were, you’ll probably assume it’s something about the fast-paced culture of Silicon Valley or the level of exigence, but to my surprise, that’s not what our foreign founders answered.
Our foreign entrepreneurs said that they’re extremely surprised by the goodwill and graciousness of the people here.
If you think about it, their answer isn’t surprising.
Entrepreneurs are the champions of Silicon Valley and people (or influencers) here are willing to help them. Actually – helping each other is part of the Silicon Valley culture. We call it, “Good Karma”.
Our meeting with Marvin Liao from 500 Startups
I'll always remember the first time we ever met Marvin.
It was at a bar near his office downtown San Francisco and it was the first time we ever met. He was already there waiting for us and his first words were "Ok guys, what do you want to know?" After a moment of perplexity, we answered, "Everything!" Then our conversation with him lasted 2 hours!
At some point during the conversation, we asked him why he was so open and willing to help us even if we might end up competitors? He said, "You have decided to enter the accelerator ecosystem and I like your positioning around foreign founders. If I manage to make you better at this it will benefit the entire ecosystem and it will benefit 500 startups as well.” I have never heard such an answer in Europe…
"You have decided to enter the accelerator ecosystem and I like your positioning around foreign founders. If I manage to make you better at this it will benefit the entire ecosystem and it will benefit 500 startups as well” - Marvin Liao, Partner at 500 Startups
Most people in Europe consider what they know as their ultimate asset and are reluctant to share what made them great.
Here it's the reverse. Everybody knows that running a startup is extremely hard. You need the help from others to succeed in this competitive and fierce environment. Silicon Valley is collaborative in essence, I mean, this is where co-working spaces were invented! Connecting with others is extremely easy and people are genuinely happy to help you if you respect the rules.
The problem is that foreign founders are not used to it and don't know how to correctly handle this extra support. Maybe it’s because their typical environment isn’t so gracious.
Because of this, they've developed what I like to call – “The Foreign Founder Beaten Dog Syndrome (FBDS)”.
Tell me more about this “Foreign Founder Beaten Dog Syndrome”
When a dog is abused it becomes very leery and stressed when anyone comes near it, afraid it will be hurt again. If you beat a dog or mistreat it enough, it will run at the sight of you, or at the very least stays away, hides, and bites a hand that only wishes to pat or feed it.
In some extent, this same kind of effect happens with foreign founders in Silicon Valley.
I remember an entrepreneur coming to me after one of our Mentors offered to help him. He asked me if the help he was offering was for real or just a form of courtesy! I’m not kidding, folks.
When I explained that he really meant to help and he should welcome the mentor’s hand, his face showed some doubt and fear. Doubt because this was the first time this type of person offered to help him (it was a multi-billion dollar company's CMO, by the way) and fear because he didn't know how to manage the situation. So the entrepreneur wasn’t sure about deserving such assistance…
After having spoken with over 700 foreign startups since the beginning of The Refiners a year ago, I NOW understand how mistreated foreign founders are in their local countries.
The 411 about foreign startups
Because we target very early stage startups, we get to talk with entrepreneurs who are naturally asking themselves a lot of questions about their startup. When you start your startup, you have more questions than answers, you’re making a lot of assumptions, and your job is to validate those assumptions down the road.
Unfortunately, their local ecosystem would rather ask for formal answers about their revenue, growth, and metrics instead of assessing if the opened questions they have are right.
I strongly believe you cannot get valid answers until you start running the business.
And it's normal. At a very early stage, you better find out what's the best environment for you to assess your risk assumptions rather than trying to get all answers right before the start.
Good entrepreneurs should embrace the obscurity and the uncertainty of what she/he is doing and her/his environment should accept it as well if it is willing to help. This is actually an advice I give pretty often to first-time entrepreneurs.
Running a startup is extremely stressful. It's like running from a smoked house on fire.
When you’re in this situation, your first instinct is to panic and run out but this is the worst thing you can do.
Instead, you should:
Acknowledge the situation
Focus on your breath (cash burn)
Manage your energy (motivation) wisely by taking small actions fast (MVP)
Panicking and running will kill you most of the time.
You’ll end up hitting a hidden obstacle, taking the wrong direction or falling into the first hole. Instead, you should manage to make short moves fast and constantly check the environment while you try to find your way out.
Most of the people in Silicon Valley know that and because they understand the risk you’re facing so they always offer to help.
Who wouldn’t help someone trapped in a house fire?
Back to my point
Because foreign founders don't really know what a fireman siren sounds like, they can't make the distinction in between the house alarm and the succor. A lot of them don't manage to grab the help offered and prefer to continue to run by themselves.
It's funny how foreign founders don't know how to answer the typical Silicon Valley question, "how can I help?" correctly. It's unfortunate since Silicon Valley people are really good at helping startups.
This support is not limited to money, which is usually the main help sought by foreign startups.
Validating your key assumptions, sharing the right feedback or recipe, or introducing you to the right people is just as valuable as money. Actually, it might even be worth more!
The problem is that foreign founders are not used to receiving this type of help. They are used to figure those things out by themselves and limit their ask to only $$$. This is a wrong habit.
Instead of asking for money, you should revisit every person you met that you pretended to have the right answers to and acknowledge the fact that you actually don't know.
Yes, even with investors.
If you ask a VC for money he will certainly give you advice. If you ask for advice he could end up offering you money, too. Why? Because asking for the right advice is a great way to show that you understand where you stand and explain where you want to go with your startup.
If you only ask for money, investors don't know if you’ll actually spend this money on what really matters at your startup’s stage.
Think like a Silicon Valley entrepreneur
At The Refiners, we spend a lot of time trying to explain this concept to entrepreneurs entering Silicon Valley. It might sound stupid to Silicon Valley insiders but switching to this new mindset is extremely difficult for foreign startups.
Most of them have been educated in a very risk-averse environment and acknowledging the fact that they don't know is not an option there.
I strongly believe that the job of a CEO is actually not to know. I understand this might sound weird to a lot of you but for me, the job of a CEO is to DECIDE to know. A good entrepreneur should surround himself with people who know more than he does and seeks for options.
Once the options are on the table, his role is to pick one (fast) and be accountable for his/her choice.
Now, if you embrace this mindset you will understand how much important it is to ask for help and seek advice.
More importantly, you’ll never be mad at someone for their advice because you’re the one who made the final decision.
This is an important trait we are trying to make out when we decide to pick a startup.
We look to see if the team is able to seek advice, listen to the advice, and make his or her own decision accordingly. This attitude is critical. If you aren't able to listen to your co-pilots when driving at 150 miles per hour, you might drive off the road and kill everyone else in the car. On the other end, if you aren’t listening and are unable to make your own decisions, you will end up exhausted, overwhelmed, and unable to cross the finish line.
It usually takes about 3-4 weeks until foreign founders start accepting this new hand that’s willing to pat and feed them.
But then there comes another problem.
Even if they understand how beneficial it is to seek advice and how impossible it is to get everything right from the start, they still can’t adopt the Silicon Valley attitude. Some continue to misbehave when they’re given kind and gentle feedback from Mentors.
I know it sounds stupid, but something is holding them back from adopting this rational reasoning. It’s this damned Foreign Founder Beaten Dog syndrome.
What they hear in Silicon Valley has nothing to do with what they were taught in their country. It just sounds too strange and unusual to them and because they can't process it immediately they just want to BITE.
I remember our Mentor Master Class session about "The Purpose of your Company Purpose". The demonstration was limpid and mind-blowing. I felt so excited to finally manage our startups after learning such important things, however, I noticed that the startups were having some sort of animosity during the Q&A session.
Some of them were challenging the idea of having a purpose as a startup.
My first reaction was thinking that these startups are stupid or acting this way. They didn't get the point of the session.
But then I realized what was going on.
As any person exposed to a new concept, they can't figure out the right way, so they crawl into the "doghouse" and hide, barking in distance over the new concept exposed. So I took the floor and explained the situation both to the entrepreneurs AND to the Mentor who was probably wondering what went wrong?
Suddenly everybody realized they entered the RESISTANCE phase. When you realize you have been wrong or misaligned for too long you tend to resist and deny the new reality exposed. This behavior is logical and usually doesn't last too long. Entrepreneurs always get through this phase very quickly.
Moral of the story
Moving to Silicon Valley is a brutal process. It doesn't confine itself to only addressing a brand new market, it’s a profound cultural change.
As we used to say at The Refiners, “the cultural gap between Silicon Valley and Europe might be even bigger than the one in between Europe and Japan.” When you arrive in Japan, you understand right away that you're not home. Since the cultural difference is so obvious you start adapting yourself from day 2.
When you arrive in the Silicon Valley things look pretty local. People here drive the same cars (ok, in Europe they are diesel ones), eat the same food (yes we eat burgers in France too...), listen to the same music (just a reminder Daft Punk is French!), and they even speak the same language (well at least foreign founders believe they speak English...).
This deceitful proximity can take months before being revealed and when that's the case, it's usually too late. Foreign startups already burned a ton of cash and wasted tens of silver bullets...
How we help
Our objective at The Refiners is to help foreign founders adapt as quickly as possible to their new environment. This process is the result of a meticulous methodology and usually, takes 4-6 weeks. This is not a process of adapting to being here or being exposed to the new culture.
Our process requires a precise explanation and translation of what's going on for you here. To execute this process correctly, you need people who managed to adapt themselves to this new environment before and Mentors who understand, to the exact decimal, about what you are going through.
This is why we believe foreign founders are warranted for a specific accelerator program that takes into account both their startup’s specificity and understanding of where they come from.
Here’s the good news, foreign founders who manage to pass the cultural bias tend to be more successful than other groups! This article explains it all for you.
Tell us your story about how you adapted to the Silicon Valley culture as a foreigner. Comment below or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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