Going to Silicon Valley? Plan carefully.

I recently came back from a 3-week long business trip to Silicon Valley and thought I'd share my experience, in the form of a list of recommendations, for those who are thinking about expanding/moving their startup to SV. This is going to be a mix of things that I think went well during this trip, things learned the hard way, and things learned from other people.

Let me start by giving the context of this experience. During this trip I was helping out VA-Live, a Paris-based startup who is indeed looking to expand to the US. They are developing a click-to-chat solution for the Real Estate sector that offers 360° virtual tours of properties, guided in real time. It's a B2B technology product in an industry that's not particularly tech-savvy. I made the trip to SV with the CEO as part of an immersion program led by US Market Access. The main objective was to learn about the US market, validate the solution and get people on board the pilot program. In true lean startup fashion, we did get the heck out of the building and we did a lot of problem interviews with potential customers.

Why a trip to SV specifically? Among the many reasons, there was the hope that, in SV, we would find early adopters for our technology product more easily. It took us a dozen meetings to finally realize that this wasn't true, and we didn't find people to be particularly more tech-savvy in SV — at least in comparison to Paris, London and Dublin which are the European cities I know the most. Besides helping VA-Live, I also wanted to expand my network, promote my upcoming Machine Learning book and meet some people I had talked to online. I went to quite a few meetups. They were of similar quality to those in Europe except for the presentations which were often much better than what I was used to.

Unfortunately, trips from Europe to SV are costly and life in SV is expensive. Being abroad with a 8-hour or more time difference means that you have to put business at home on hold. For these reasons, it is particularly important that you do not waste your time with such a trip. Below are some recommendations to help you make the most of it.

Prepare a dream contact list

  • Do your research on your target market and on your industry in the US, how it is structured, who are the key players, who are your potential customers, and from there figure out who you should meet. This will make up the first version of your dream contact list.
  • Talk to people in your network and in your industry who've been to SV before, ask them who they think you should meet and which meetups you should go to. Can they provide any intros?
  • Find a helper who has experience doing business in SV, who is well-connected locally, who is familiar with your industry, and who can get you meetings with people on your list and also help populate it. This helper can be a local accelerator/incubator specialized in working with foreign companies, such as Blackbox, Hubtech21, US MAC, etc. A very good way to communicate with your helper around your business/product, in addition to the traditional pitch+demo, is with a business canvas — prepare one if you haven't already.
  • Check that your helper's work is pertinent: see who the people they're adding to the list are, get info on their organization and on what their business is.
  • Prepare an email script and a one-pager (plus a demo video?) to describe your business/product and to make it easier to ask for meetings. Have different versions for different targets (or check that what you have works for each target).
  • Agree with your helper on tentative travel dates. Look out for bank holidays and for thanksgiving week (or don't expect to do much business then).

How your time in Silicon Valley should be organized

  • A 1 week trip seems too short while 1 month seems too long. You should aim for 2-3 weeks.
  • Line up as many meetings as possible in the first week. It should be crazy. This is when you can allow yourself to see a wide spectrum of people, all your potential targets and partners, so you can determine who are going to be your early adopters in the US market and how would you reach them.
  • Don't plan too many meetings for the second and third weeks. You want to keep some free time to meet people who will be recommended to you from your first meetings, to write down your conclusions, to adjust your dream contact list based on the first week's learnings and to line up more meetings in consequence.
  • Your second week would be the best time to go sightseeing (if you have time and can afford to). Usually I'm not a big fan of working crazy hours because it kills inspiration and you can't step back and reflect, but such a trip could be an exception — you're trying to make the most of it!
  • In your third week, you should again maximize your time doing meetings.

Fill your calendar

  • When you reckon that your helper has lined up enough interesting meetings, then (and only then) you should book flights and go ahead with the trip.
  • For each meeting, have a specific idea of what you want to get out of it (not just "feedback"), which questions you want answers to, and what are the desired outcomes.
  • Keep in mind that 3 meetings per day is a lot, given that you'll be jet-lagged, that meetings are energy-consuming and for each you have to prepare, travel and debrief. Plan for one hour on average to go from one place to the other.
  • Line up some more meetings on your own. One way to do that is to use LinkedIn and to search for people in your industry who are in SV. I found that 2nd degree connections are not that easy to meet, and that 3rd degree connections are very long shots. Good old cold calling/emailing can also work. When contacting people out of the blue it helps to show some (local) peer validation, e.g. that you're with a local business accelerator.
  • Check out Meetup, the Startup Digest and Eventbrite to find conferences and other events of interest... You can filter by topics you're interest in and see where your Facebook friends have been/are going. Go to a few events to learn and to do some networking. The next person you'll be tracking down on LinkedIn might be a 2nd degree connection thanks to someone you met at one of these events.
  • Add all additional meetings and meetups to a shared calendar with your helper to avoid double bookings.

Practical advice before flying

  • Get a US SIM card (I'm a Lycamobile guy) and have it delivered at your helper's address in advance. Get a permanent US number on Skype or Twilio which you will redirect to your new US number as soon as you've put that new SIM card into your phone.
  • Order business cards with your permanent US number on them, and have them delivered to your helper if delays are too short. You don't want to go to Kinko's to have last minute business cards printed. Stay with a provider you trust (Moo in my case).

If you end up going to SV after following these recommendations, let me know how it goes! If you've already been to SV in order to expand your business there and if things weren't as you expected them to be, I would be interested to know your story, in the comments below or in a private message.

As I said in the beginning, we were surprised that in our industry people weren't as tech savvy or tech-minded as we thought they would be. I know that some French companies are going to the US because they have trouble finding tech early adopters, but I'm not sure it is systematically easier in the US or in SV...

Another thing that surprised me was how people made themselves available to talk to us. We got quite a few meetings on relatively short notice, and it made it possible to learn a lot in a short amount of time. It may be because people in the US are very efficient, punctual, and when there's a meeting everyone knows what time it will be over (unless one of the persons you're talking to is becoming very interested in what you're saying, but it will be normal for others to leave). It may also be that they're investing some of their time to discover, before every one else, new stuff that may be useful to them. Or it may be that they're just happy to help out! Fellow SV people who have been to Europe, what do you think about our differences?

Did you like this post? Follow me on:

BusinessLouis Dorard