Friday, December 9, 2011

Silicon Valley: Hollywood for Entrepreneurs

I was a second year law student at the University of California at Berkeley Law School when I first heard about Palo Alto, California. The school had announced that a guy named Larry Sonsini was going to teach securities law the second semester. The famous securities law professor who taught it previously was semi-retired and had decided to retire early, so the school had asked Mr. Sonsini to teach spring semester. 
Larry did a great job of teaching us securities law but he also convinced a couple of us to spend the summer with his (then) small 25 person law firm in Palo Alto. He described it as a growing area for small companies where we would get the chance to both provide legal advice and mentor entrepreneurs. So that summer of 1984, eight of us descended on Palo Alto Square and received an incredibly realistic view of what recently had been labeled Silicon Valley. 
I ended up joining the firm full time upon graduation and immediately was thrown to the lions. My first week, I was the “second chair” lawyer on a number of public offerings, mergers, and venture capital financings. I also did day-to-day work for several small private and public companies. I ended up meeting and working with a number of now famous people like Steve Jobs, TJ Rogers, Vinod Khosla, and Larry Ellison, but I also spent a great deal of time advising entrepreneurs on strategy and becoming their trusted adviser.
Fast forward to today and Silicon Valley is like Hollywood for entrepreneurs. It has its superstars like the late Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison, Mark Zuckerberg, etc., but also its fallen stars. It has its melodrama and career challenging stories, like Jerry Yang fighting to save Yahoo or the continuing saga at HP. It has its money moguls like John Doer, Vinod Khosla, and Promod Haque. But the most interesting thing is that there are thousands of wannabes who have come to Silicon Valley to become a star. They work in companies just biding their time until they launch the “next big thing.” They are not just engineers but marketing and financial people. People work extremely hard and the cafes, restaurants, and coffee shops are full of people talking deals and proposals. There are also thousands of lawyers now in Silicon Valley all trying to get clients, but very few offering advice like we did in the early days. One venture capitalist told me “there are a lot of lawyers but few real entrepreneurial lawyers.”
As a lawyer in Silicon Valley, I realized then and I realize now that I really enjoy and I can really play an integral role in the aspirations of these individuals (maybe not like a director or producer, but as a trusted agent or adviser, certainly more than just a “best boy” or “key grip”). When I’m asked about the allure of Silicon Valley and what makes so many companies out here succeed, I mention the number and quality of people in the entrepreneurial community, the access to so much capital, and the willingness of people to risk everything to fulfill a dream. I also add it is those in the background away from the glory sitting up at nights with the entrepreneur or CEO trying to figure out how to make payroll this month, convince someone to invest money, or fend off the competitive threats.
The other day I was sitting at Starbucks in Mountain View (nobody can actually afford to live in Palo Alto anymore) and I met a young man who had come from Nigeria to the United States to follow his dream. More than that, he told me he dreamed of becoming the next “Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates.” He asked if I would help him reach his dream. I just smiled and said “sure…”

A Post by Frank Vargas, Guest Blogger

1 comment :

  1. Frank,

    I read a McKinsey piece citing Silicon Valley as an example of how concentrating industry talent can bring synergies and leverage capabilities (they were recommending this for manufacturing centers). Your discussion above personalizes this, it attracts talent, it utilizes and exchanges it in a way that cannot be replicated (easily, at any rate) anywhere else. Thanks.