Silicon Valley may be the global capital of startups. But before we build a carbon copy Down Under, we should be mindful of what Australia has that San Francisco does not.
That’s according to Malini Sietaram, chief revenue and marketing officer at Aussie startup Brighte, who has lived and worked in tech all over the world.
Speaking at FinTech Australia’s Intersekt conference yesterday, Sietaram explained that she herself was born in the Netherlands to South American parents, and has Indian grandparents.
Now, she lives in Sydney with her Australian husband and English bulldog.
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But previously she spent seven-and-a-half years working for eBay, ultimately as global head of content and social media strategy, based in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Sietaram’s background means she’s always had an interest in the way different cultures operate. And when it comes to Silicon Valley vs Aus, she has some opinions.
The Valley is, despite appearances, not all about hackthons, fleece vests and ping-pong tables.
And while there are some parts of the culture Aussie startups could seek to emulate, there’s plenty to steer clear of, too.
“Be inspired by Silicon Valley but never be intimidated by it,” she advised.
Three ways to be more like Silicon Valley
Focus on data
First of all, there’s a heavy emphasis on data Stateside, Sietaram explained. So much so, that when she arrived in Australia she was surprised by how little she saw it put to use.
Data should be at the heart of every decision made, she said.
While teams here might talk about being data driven, “a lot of decisions are made by the people with the strings opinion at the table, or by gut feels”.
To be truly data-driven is also to allow the quieter voices to break through without getting into conflict. There’s objectivity, and that can create a healthier culture.
As part of this, Sietaram pointed to experimentation, beyond A/B testing, and urged founders to invest in robust systems that continually challenge their processes.
And they should have a focus on “incrementality”, making sure they’re spending every dollar in the most efficient way possible.
“Every step you take needs to have an incremental impact.”
Go big or go home
According to Sietaram, US startups are more likely to launch with a global vision in mind, and set up for scale from day one.
“That’s a mentality that Australians don’t have,” she said.
She urged founders to “launch with distance”, so no-one else can catch up, rather than building and testing small things.
Silicon Valley startups will go big and go fast, but in a targeted way and with strict priorities in mind.
While taking care not to offend the many Aussies in the room, she pointed out they can get distracted and direct resources to non-essential projects.
“It’s really important to be focused, and it’s OK to say no.”
Always be on brand
Finally, all the big Silicon Valley startups have very strong brands, and they stick to them.
That means employees know their values, which again boosts company culture. It also means they’re more inclined to wear their swag.
What you stand for matters, and you must be prepared to cut off important deals in order to uphold your values.
“It doesn’t mean you have to stand for everything,” Sietaram said.
“Stand for something authentically, but stand for it firmly.”
Three ways to be less like Silicon Valley
Allow for experimentation
On the other side of the coin, Silicon Valley culture is ‘survival of the fittest’, and that goes for businesses and the employees working in them.
It’s common practice for employees to have ‘at-will’ contracts that allow jobs to be terminated with no explanation, or to hire multiple interns who compete for one job, Sietaram explained.
“It becomes this really intense thing.”
Aussie businesses are good at allowing for experimentation, and allowing employees to make mistakes — not without accountability, but without fear of losing their job.
Instead of creating a culture of fear and anxiety, she encouraged founders to create one of fun and creativity.
“Happy people create happy experiences.”
“Profit is a good thing,” Sietaram said.
But in the US, there’s a huge focus on the capital markets and valuation, which means companies strive to reach the point of a successful IPO.
“A lot of US companies list and then they burn … that’s not good for your customers,” she added.
Your monetisation plan shouldn’t be something you figure out down the track. You don’t have to be profitable straight away, but you should know how you’re going to get there.
Don’t be a corporate cult
Businesses that start out with good intentions can all-too-quickly turn into ‘corporate cults’ — organisations with charismatic leaders that wield a dangerous amount of power.
Within those businesses, “there’s group think, there’s confirmation bias and people have their blinders on”, Sietaram explained.
Aussies are good at having honest conversations rooted in kindness and understanding. And people are much less likely to idolise their bosses.
For startup founders, Sietaram’s advice is to “be inspired by your personal life”.
That means not working a 90-hour week, occasionally reading fiction, and going out for dinner once in a while. If you’re not all-consumed by your business, your employees won’t be either.
“Recharging yourself is really important.”