Entrepreneurs, Startup Advice

Aussies in the Valley: Entrepreneur Ned Dwyer on why it’s hard to break into the “closed” Silicon Valley community

Dominic Powell /

Silicon Valley

Ned Dwyer. Source: Supplied.

When Aussie startup founder Ned Dwyer first moved to Silicon Valley in 2013, he quickly started to feel like a small fish in a very big pond.

“I found it difficult as an outsider to break into the non-Australian community in San Francisco, as people didn’t know where you were coming from or what your point of reference was,” the founder told StartupSmart.

“If you didn’t go to Stanford or work at Google or Facebook, you needed to work a lot harder to be recognised.”

Sitting with me in San Francisco’s famously lavish Apple store, Dwyer has no problem being recognised today. His online marketplace for web developers Elto was acquired by web-hosting giant GoDaddy in 2015, and the founder is also a partner in Blackbird’s Startmate program.

He’s also in the process of launching a brand new venture called Spritz, but is tight-lipped as to what it is, and when it will launch.

Before coming to the US, Dwyer used to run a software development agency called Native Digital, which created apps and websites for clients such as KFC and Falls Festival. But after doing that for a couple of years, he was overcome by an urge to start his own thing and free himself from the shackles of client work.

This is where Elto (formerly Tweaky) was born. The company launched and raised a seed round in Australia, but after just six months relocated to the Valley.

“All of our clients and customers were based in the US, and we knew if we were going to raise an additional round or be acquired, we had to be in the States,” he says.

“From a personal perspective, it had also been a goal of mine for a really long time to be at the centre of the tech universe.”

Dwyer says it was the best move the company ever made, being instantly surrounded by smart, hard-working people who helped Elto push its boundaries and inevitably be acquired by GoDaddy.

Meritocracy MIA

Casting his mind back, Dwyer says when he first made the move, he thought the community he was wading into would replicate the one he had in Melbourne: an intense group of creative friends with numerous mentors and investors throwing money around “like candy”.

While some of that was true, breaking into those communities was not easy for Dwyer, though he stresses the ‘Australian mafia’ of local founders is very supportive.

“You think about the Valley having an egalitarian ethos, but it’s much more closed than that. If you’re not from Harvard or Facebook it’s much harder to break through,” he says.

“Credentialing is still very much a thing. I’ve heard of recruiters who will only hire from Stanford.”

Another big difference the founder saw was the ease of access and ability to network in the Valley compared to Australia, saying founders in Australia can call up the chief executive of any company with a good enough reason and pencil in a time to meet for 30 minutes.

“Here, you’re suddenly a very small fish in a very big pond, and while you can do some networking and meet some crazy people, there are 10,000 others doing the exact same thing,” he says.

Dwyer advises founders to be heads-down and networking constantly if they want to survive in the Valley, saying he regrets not spending more time networking in the early days of Elto.

It’s not always bigger in Texas Silicon Valley

From his experience heading up some of Startmate’s expeditions, Dwyer says a common misconception he sees amongst local founders is the idea everything’s bigger in America.

Just on population size alone, 350 million compared to 25, founders instantly assume American startups are doing nothing but kicking goals and outshining their Australian counterparts, which Dwyer says is often not the case.

“Australia is totally world-class, and I think the understated nature of its startup founders is a blessing and a curse. In Australia, everyone’s understating their achievements and numbers, versus everyone over here constantly ‘killing it’ and touting their success,” he says.

“But when you look under the covers and compare to an Australian company, the Aussie company often has better metrics.”

Flipping this on its head requires Australians to be less understated, and call out tall poppy syndrome wherever they see it, says Dwyer. It also requires local startup hubs like Melbourne and Sydney to switch their thinking away from being the ‘next Silicon Valley’, which Dwyer thinks is actually a “broken model”.

He points to ecosystems outside of San Francisco such as Boston and New York, where the level of diversity is much higher, and where more businesses are solving real-world problems.

“While we should be striving for moonshots, we should be focusing on building actual businesses. The Atlassians, Canvas and Freelancers of the world let’s get more of those,” he says.

For founders thinking about visiting the Valley to bolster their business, Dwyer says while programs such as AusTrade’s Landing Pad can put you immediately in a community and ecosystem of founders, going it alone is a perfectly viable option also.

You’ll need to send a lot of emails and do a lot of knocking on doors though, he warns, and says founders should make the most of it as it’s unlikely they’ll stay around forever.

“Harness all the energy you can get from the space and build as much of a network as you can, but you don’t need to stay here,” he says.

“Once you have that ball of energy you can take it back to Australia and continue to fuel that next wave of growth.”

NOW READ: “Silicon Valley up to its worst tricks”: Aussie founder of $4.3 billion self-driving car startup Zoox “fired”

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Dominic Powell

Dominic is the features and profiles editor at SmartCompany.

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