During Christmas I took a trip to Venice with my family. One of the days we decided to go to a classical music concert in one of Venice’s churches. Being a big music fan, as I am, it was pretty exciting. The concert was the 4 seasons from Antonio Vivaldi (If you haven’t listened to it I highly recommend it) and it was gorgeous. On our way home I thought about the concert and I was amazed at the musical complexity of the composition (the last time I listened to it was a long time ago). I thought about how music now our days isn’t half as complex, in musical terms, as it used to be. Not that I don’t like current music, I do very much, it’s just that it’s not as technically brilliant. And what has this to do with synergies? A lot actually, composers like Vivaldi, Wagner or Mozart came to Venice during a period where the arts and music were flourishing there. If you were a composer or a painter you had to be there, at least for some months. Venice, and Italy in general, became the center of the Renaissance and the most important place to be if you wanted to be someone. Many famous painters and composers had their studies in Venice and students traveled all they way around the globe, just to study with them.
Now, taking about the present, we are experiencing something similar in Silicon Valley. Some people argue that if you have a tech startup you need to be in Silicon Valley. Some others argue that it’s not necessary, that you can find similar tech hubs in Europe. There has been a lot of buzz about this, specially between Paul Graham and Ryan Carson (organizer of the FOWA conferences). Some argue that you need to be there because it’s where the VC money is, because it’s where all the big tech companies are, because it’s a place where you can find good engineers.
The reasoning behind these affirmations is, somehow flawed. In my opinion there is only one reason why it’s desirable to be there: synergies. It’s not about the money, there is plenty of money a startup can use (business angels, banks, loans, corporations, etc.). It’s not about the big companies (kind of. I’ll explain this later), you won’t succeed with a bad idea even if your office is across Google’s campus. It’s not about good engineers, you can find them elsewhere. Granted it’s harder, not because they don’t exist, but because they are scattered. So, if it’s not about all the reasons I underlined before, then what is it?
The single reason for being at the Valley are synergies. Due to its importance, Silicon Valley attracts very smart people. It works as a huge talent magnet. And it’s not only Silicon Valley, it’s Stanford and UC Berkeley as well. What I’ve seen while I was over there (yes, I’ve there for some months), is that people aren’t geniuses (some are indeed, but there are very few), it’s all about the environment. Having dinner over there typically involves at least 3 or 4 top persons of a given field, be it computer science, biology, literature, chemistry, mathematics, etc. Your ideas are evaluated by top notch scientists every single day and at every single conversation. That means that if you idea is bad, you’ll know about it pretty soon. On the other side, you’ll get incredible feedback and ideas from around you. That’s something you don’t find easily. I mean, you might get ideas from your buddies in your local town, but you won’t get feedback from the guy that invented Internet. Trust me when I tell you that there is a great difference in the quality of the conversations. And that’s what happens, you eventually start getting “smarter” by being around smart people. You adjust your line of thought to theirs and you boost your personal limits. That’s a synergy. It’s not about the sum of the ideas, it’s about boosting the collective ideas to levels well beyond the sum of each individual one. Obviously, Silicon Valley won’t transform you into a smart guy if you don’t have the brains.
As I said before, it’s not about working next to Google, it’s about talking with the guys at Google and an infinite exchange of knowledge. Another good thing about synergies is that they generates feedback. Once you taste it, you get more and more and more. The more you get, the more you want. That means that you try to contact more and more people and your social network grows and grows. People at the Valley are always open to new ideas and newcomers and they try to foster healthy discussions. I talk about this because in many countries, specially in Europe, people don’t discuss, they don’t ask questions or worst, they can’t find people to discuss ideas with. And even though you might find a small group of persons you like to chat and argue with, it’s just at such a small scale.
If you read the first paragraph again, you’ll hopefully see the parallelism between the Renaissance and Silicon Valley. Why were there a huge number of awesome Italian painters during those centuries? It wasn’t a local dna anomaly. It’s because the brain is incredible plastic and can work at different rates depending on the outside stimulus. If these are smart stimulus, your brain can set into its higher gear, if the frequency of the stimulus is sparse, it won’t adapt to such high processing levels.
There is a problem with this environment though. It’s well described with this phrase: “can’t see the forest for the trees“. When you are surrounded by the same people and work on the same things, you can’t see the big picture and that can be very dangerous. That’s probably one of the worst characteristics of Silicon Valley. You always need to stay in touch with people from different places to avoid loosing the “big picture eye”.
I don’t want to make this post about how Silicon Valley is the greatest place in the world because it’s not. I just wanted to analyze the power of synergies and how the moment something gets democratized it diminishes the power of synergies. And that’s another problem with synergies. They withhold an incredible power, but at the same time they are very hard to obtain. You need just the right environment and that’s not always possible. For example, some centuries ago, University was something exclusive. It gather the best of the best. It was the center of all enlightenment and so it promoted synergies. Everyone that went to University (generally speaking) was there because they wanted to learn (and because they where wealthy also).
At some point, University was democratized (in Europe) and many people that couldn’t afford it where suddenly able to study and obtain a higher education. This was something incredible, as it promoted literacy in many places, but strikingly it had some secondary effects. This democratization rendered the high intellects apart, diminishing the power of previous synergies. The more mainstream something becomes, the more difficult is to build synergies. This is because in a big group of people, the norm is that most of them don’t care about learning. I say this last phrase with great grief as I would wish it could be the other way round. Nevertheless, when most of your environment thinks like that, it’s much harder to find brilliant people as they are scattered all over the place. Again, don’t get me wrong about this issue, I’m not defending the elite schools or Universities either.
In conclusion, getting the right balance between elitism and mainstream and being able to maintain a reasonable number of synergies can be a very tough quest. So, have you ever been part of a synergy with someone? What are your experiences?
Image credits: pburch.net, rijksmuseum.nl, gla.ac.uk