Guns, Germs, and Silicon Valley?


Yesterday I finished reading Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond, and in the final hour of reading something sparked my attention:

Throughout history and despite relatively uniform intelligence across all of humankind, Diamond argues that widespread innovation had been limited to only certain countries in particular geographical contexts. He goes on to mention that innovation (as seen in those countries) was driven by the presence of higher population densities, close proximity to a number of neighbouring countries, and higher degrees of competitiveness between countries.

Naturally, I wondered, could this concept explain why so much technology innovation has led to an abundance of successful tech companies in the Bay Area, and to a lesser but still significant extent, the Greater Boston Area? On the flip-side, could this concept also explain why so many technology companies created in other regions have higher failure rates?

According to Diamond, innovation is driven by population densities of sorts. The Bay Area has one of the richest selections of successful and pioneering IT/internet/mobile technology entrepreneurs on the planet. As far as competitiveness, the US is the epidemy of a Capitalist nation, and competition is as fierce domestically as it is internationally (if not more fierce).

Note: As far as the Bay Area goes, I believe it remains at the apex of innovation due to its abundance of human capital, sharing of know-how, entrepreneurial culture, access to world-class research facilities/universities and venture capital financing. However, I do buy into the fact that proximate competition can help to turn good ideas into great ideas when the developers of the ideas have the ability to see and innovate on top of other very good ideas very quickly.

Although I don’t have the time and/or resources to explore this in further detail, I find this to be an interesting theoretical discussion about how a local geography can evolve in such a way that promotes rapid innovation in a particular niche. If you have an opinion on the matter, I invite you to please share it below.

5 thoughts on “Guns, Germs, and Silicon Valley?

  1. Paul Graham has an essay that talks about this to some extent (http://www.paulgraham.com/marginal.html). He begins:

    A couple years ago my friend Trevor and I went to look at the Apple garage. As we stood there, he said that as a kid growing up in Saskatchewan he'd been amazed at the dedication Jobs and Wozniak must have had to work in a garage. "Those guys must have been freezing!"

  2. Very interesting read — Paul had a few great concepts in that essay. I particularly liked the closing where he mentioned a technique for determining when you're on the right track in developing a product or business idea/strategy:

    Quote: "You're on the right track when people complain that you're unqualified, or that you've done something inappropriate. If people are complaining, that means you're doing something rather than sitting around, which is the first step. And if they're driven to such empty forms of complaint, that means you've probably done something good … So that, I think, should be the highest goal for the marginal. Be inappropriate. When you hear people saying that, you're golden. And they, incidentally, are busted."

  3. Coming from the Research Triangle Park (RTP) area in North Carolina, my classmates and I often wondered why a vibrant startup culture never arose here. Some facts:

    – RTP is the largest technology research park in the country

    – Very strong in IT, biotech, and more recently, gaming. Big players here include: IBM, Lenovo, CIsco, Nortel, Sony Ericsson, Intersil, National Semi, Tekelec, EMC, ABB, SAS Systems, GlaxoSmithKline, Bayer, BASF, Monsanto, DuPont, Biogen IDEC, etc. My friend mentioned that 22 different gaming companies are also located in the Triangle area.

    – Big name universities. Duke University (MBA, Law, Medicine, Engineering), University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (MBA, Law, Medicine, Journalism, top 5 public school in the country), NC State (engineering, textiles), Meredith, NC Central, Shaw, etc. I heard a stat once that because of so many universities, RTP has the highest per capita population of PhDs. Might be Cambridge though.

    So tons of high tech companies and a lot of good universities. Yet still no vibrant entrepreneurship culture. It's trendy (and accurate) to note the scarcity of venture capital in the area. But venture capital is at the far end of the investment risk profile. A scene where players take big bets on uncertain ideas. Could the fact that the South having a more conservative and traditional culture results in a lower tolerance for risk? That it instead pushes students to get jobs in established companies rather than have them start new ventures?

    I think Boston and NYC don't suffer from this too much because of the higher population density, the faster paced lifestyle of big cities (RTP isn't the kind of metropolitan than big cities are), and having high profiled venues and names.

    California was founded on people trying risky things — of setting out into the frontier with high hopes. When our group asked Randy Komisar of KPCB about this, he said that out in Silicon Valley, there isn't "fear of failure." If you fail, you aren't looked down upon or blacklisted. Instead you're expected by others to learn from your mistakes and do better the next time — and out here they actually give you money for that 'next time'.

    – Saket

  4. About Paul Graham's advice to "be inappropriate", I've long found it fascinating that although "exceptional" is a common term of praise, people often don't seem to realize that being exceptional requires being an exception, which they see as bad. Groupthink seems to rule in most places. Agreement is valued more than disagreement, even though disagreement can be more useful. Top Canadian computer scientist Ken Iverson (one of only two Canadians to have received the Turing Award, computing's equivalent of the Nobel Prize) was once speaking at the University of Waterloo and a professor in the audience, as a followup to a question he'd asked, said "um, I don't want to get into an argument here", and Ken replied "Oh, but I do!" and pointed out that arguments are a great way of getting to the bottom of things and perhaps discovering something new.

    I find it appalling that here in Toronto (and I'm told that this is true across English Canada), great accomplishments are often devalued with reactions like "yeah, but remember that other thing he did that was a failure" or "yeah, but what has he done lately?" I've gotten more respect for my Canadian achievements in the USA than I have here in Canada.

    As Saket points out in the comments, Silicon Valley is that rare place where trying radically innovative things (as opposed to what usually passes for "innovation" around here) is appreciated — and where it's understood that failure doesn't mean that the people doing the innovating are idiots. Regions around the world often try to become "another Silicon Valley", but they miss the irony that imitating others is exactly the opposite of Silicon Valley's strength. This isn't to say that lessons can't be learned from Silicon Valley, only that those lessons might be culturally unlearnable.

  5. Rohan, it was great seeing you last night. I returned to the blog post to view your comment and I agree with you that attitudes in Toronto should be more accepting of potential ideas and of failure in general. It would be great if more people could give thoughtful and helpful advice to those that are spending their days and nights working on making "their baby" successful.

    As an addendum to the blog post, I came across a chunk of text on the Y Combinator website that really hits it home for me:

    "Part of our model is to bring in outside experts to advise the startups, and there are just so many more of these people in Silicon Valley than anywhere else."

    It continues "YC alumni are now a significant subset of this community. The 118 startups we've funded so far have about 300 founders between them, most of whom live in the Bay Area. They are a uniquely valuable resource, because they're particularly committed to helping other YC startups. They tell the new startups things they can only learn from their peers."

    This is a fundemental component of why the valley is the home of technology innovation. I should also mention that I have heard rumours of a YC-like group starting a similar thing in Canada. More to come in a post in a couple weeks … fingers-crossed!

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