Learning the language of Silicon Valley

June 23, 2014 Leah Eichler


This article originally appeared in the Globe and Mail on Friday, June 20th, 2014. 

Within a week of picking up my family and relocating to San Francisco to give my company an international leg up, I met with a local venture capitalist. Like many entrepreneurs, I am an eternal optimist and felt this meeting held tremendous promise, especially after spending a very encouraging 90 minutes speaking first with her junior associate.

Yet, within five minutes of actually sitting down with the venture capitalist, I knew things were not going my way. Her body language sent all the wrong signals, and while my mind wanted to just thank her crisply for her time and walk away, my very Canadian soul felt I needed to endure her critique with a smile. When I finally got up to leave,she warned me that to succeed in Silicon Valley, I needed to “speak the language.” She meant learn the nuances of what investors want to hear on this side of the border and it’s vastly different from back home.

Admittedly, it was good advice. I wrote down the Canadian terms that gave away my nationality, and practised suitable substitutes daily. After a few weeks here, I picked up other tricks of the trade to shed my Toronto exterior and assume a more local one. Like a new kid at camp, I feel as if I’m slowly fitting in. When a new contact acted surprised to learn about my Canadian heritage, I quietly wondered whether this meant I could now play with the cool kids.

On the surface, there are many good reasons for spending time in San Francisco or Silicon Valley if you are building a technology company. While the obvious reasons include access to greater capital and a bigger market, there are less tangible elements that remain equally important. One trusted adviser told me before the move that this would forever change my entrepreneurial DNA because there’s a real sense of urgency here. He couldn’t have been more right.

These lessons on how to act more like a Silicon Valley company bubbled to the surface during this week’s 48 Hours in the Valley, an event hosted by the C100, a local non-profit group that supports Canadian technology entrepreneurship.

“For the love of god, don’t shoot for eighth place,” Jonathan Ehrlich, a fellow Canadian and partner at Foundation Capital in Menlo Park, Calif., told a group of Canadian entrepreneurs. “Aim big. We [in Canada] have all the raw materials; we just need to adjust our orientation.”

C100 Charter Member Jonathan Ehrlich speaks to 48hrs Companies at Zynga

This freedom to think big should not be easily dismissed. We need to turn off our healthy Canadian skepticism and collectively believe that big companies – billion-dollar ones – can be created in our back yard. Living in an entrepreneurial ecosystem where possibilities remain endless has had an immeasurable impact on my mood and company strategy in just a few short weeks.

Another lesson learned at 48 Hours in the Valley? Be humble, but not too humble.

“We are modest and that doesn’t play well here,” said Owen Matthews, chairman of the Alacrity Foundation, a Vancouver-based non-profit organization that teaches young entrepreneurs how to build successful technology companies.

Mr. Matthews is currently looking for ways that his portfolio companies can spend more time in the Valley, since he believes that the ability to “speak the language” and understand the nuances of Silicon Valley remain critical to their success.

I’ve learned that confidence mixed with modesty seems to resonate. Real cockiness only plays well in fictional accounts.

The third critical lesson? How to export Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurial pixie dust to our own market.

Calgary-based Kylie Toh, a marketing associate at venture capital firm iNovia Capital, believes that the key to democratizing the Silicon Valley experience comes down to cultivating the talent and creating a city around them where they want to continue to live and thrive.

Then again, there’s a growing school of thought that the mystique around Silicon Valley is overblown and that great technology companies can – and do – grow anywhere.

“You don’t have to be in Silicon Valley to be a success,” said Joanne Fedeyko, the newly appointed executive director of the C100. Ms. Fedeyko, who originally hails from Northern Alberta but has lived in San Francisco for 15 years, said entrepreneurs in the area are exceptionally driven but feels that those traits and qualities can be cultivated anywhere. Her advice to Canadians temporarily passing through Silicon Valley is to “build what you want, anywhere you want, taking the pieces from here that make sense.”

C100 Co-Chair Scott Bonham, Consul General Cassie Doyle and C100 Executive Director, Joanne Fedeyko at 48hrs


Leah Eichler is founder of r/ally, a mobile collaboration platform for enterprises. E-mail: leah@rallyyourgoals.com

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