Pay it Forward: The Valley Ethos

Before the holiday break, I met the founder / chairman (and former CEO) of a consumer electronics company to talk about what the future might hold and what was next for him. It’s a classic Silicon Valley tale: he founded a cool company, got it funded, built the product, and then hired a CEO to take it to the next level. And, for various reasons, it became clear it was time for him to step back and attempt to guide the company from the Board.
This founder was lamenting the fact that he had been given an unceremonious brush-off by a seemingly arrogant, 23-year old CEO of a Web 2.0 start-up about which he was interested in learning more.
Ethos: Greek for “custom” or “habit”
As he and I were talking, I was reminded that what lubricates Silicon Valley’s culture is an ethos of Pay It Forward; that is, doing someone a favor — taking a meeting, making an introduction, helping someone solve a problem — without an obvious benefit to you. Perhaps it was listening to Jane Siberry’s tune, “Calling All Angels” from the soundtrack of the movie Pay It Forward that got me to thinking along these lines.
In the movie featuring Kevin Spacey and Helen Hunt, an 11-year old boy (played by Haley Joel Osment) tackles a school assignment by coming up with the utopian idea that any person who derives a benefit from someone’s good deed should, instead of paying back, “pay it forward” by doing something positive for three other people.
Silicon Valley is built on this ethos. It’s how business is done. And its roots are buried deep in the relationship built between academia and industry, fed by the early connections and philosophy established by Stanford’s Fred Terman.
As anybody who has been there knows first hand, building something from scratch is an act of vision and courage. Success requires luck and timing. And of course, as the proverb goes, luck favors those who are well-prepared.
The real secret of the Valley
So part of the magic of Silicon Valley is enabling those who dare to dream of building something new to tap into clans and tribes — the tight network of connections between people who have worked in the trenches together and won, angels and VCs, and people who “know stuff” or know how to get things done.
This involves two reciprocal things. On one hand, it requires a willingness to take some risk; that is, being willing to pick up the phone or send an email to someone you don’t know. It requires asking for help. And, on the other hand, it requires being open and willing to meet new people and to hear out their ideas. This means making time to help people you don’t know. It means setting aside pre-judgments, and your perception that you’re right.
In Silicon Valley, this is how we create the space for the future to unfold.
So it is in this light that it’s hard to grok how a newly-minted CEO could turn down a meeting with a well-respected (and as it turn out, well-connected) founder and chairman who is starting to look around for something new to sink his teeth into.
Perhaps we should ask the VC who funded the 23-year old. That was the second call the founder made.

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