A friend doing a research project at LSE sent me some questions about the relationship to culture and entrepreneurship. I think my answers might be interesting, so I’m reposting them here.
Please describe your past or current internet projects.
Currently I make websites for startups under the moniker Bubble Foundry. I’m very passionate about improving the climate for tech startups in the Netherlands, and even Europe, and so I organize a variety of events, from Lunch 2.0 to BarCamp to iPhone Dev Camp. As for current projects, beyond my clients, i have made the should/ought series of websites with my friend Raina Kumra: www.hillaryshould.com, www.mccainshould.com, www.obamashould.com, http://[any name here].ought.to.
Please describe your cultural background.
I grew up in Menlo Park and my father has been working at tech companies (startups or ones that have grown beyond that title) since before I was born. I grew up in the environment and the culture so on one hand it seems natural to me. At the same time, living in France in 1997 got me interested in the EU and I went on to study that, first at the University of Chicago and then at the London School of Economics.
From your experiences, how does culture influence the success and approaches of internet entrepreneurs in general?
In a variety of ways. First, there’s the conceptual barrier to being an entrepreneur. Too often people are dissuaded from starting a business, both my internal self-doubt and by acquaintances (well-meaning ones!) that worry about the consequences of failure. A friend in Helsinki believes that this ostracism of unsuccessful entrepreneurs is one of the single greatest barriers to a vibrant startup scene in Finland. Beyond the issue of (fear of) failure, there’s also the question of what types of work people are comfortable with: some people definitely prioritize working in larger, more predictable organizations while some people, and some cultures, are much more accepting of smaller, more fluctuating groups (by their very nature, the basic format of every startup). If there isn’t a general culture/acceptance of risk-taking and entrepreneurship, there will accordingly be fewer support systems for entrepreneurs and startups: there may be fewer tax breaks or government benefits, there may be few sources of financing beyond bank loans, etc. At it’s most basic I think it’s a question of how cultures handle new and different things. Those more open to change will be more supportive ones for entrepreneurs.
How has your own culture influenced your desire to become a web entrepreneur?
I took one computer science course in high school and started making websites for people, but it was basically a hobby. I also was determined to avoid startups, as I didn’t want the draining lifestyle that goes with it. However, after London I started a magazine (print and web) with a friend. It was about politics, art, design, you name it but was also my first time starting my own company. The magazine folded last fall but already a few months earlier I knew that I needed to start making some money. I went back to the Bay Area and decided to really devote myself to a way that could get me back to Europe and make me some money. Working in EU politics wasn’t an option: as an American it was almost impossible to get a job in Brussels or London, and, to be honest, I had lost interest in it. I decided to fall back on my old stand-by, making websites, and the discovery that I could get a Dutch work permit to be self-employed sealed the deal. I dived into the Silicon Valley world and by the time I hit Amsterdam I was ready to go. So in some sense I’ve fallen back on my Silicon Valley background while using my academic background in European politics.
How can entrepreneurs succeed in surpassing home-grown startups when it comes to understanding a target market that is different than their own background (international expansion)?
Well, it’s just a plain hard – a local startup will know the language and culture better (hiring locals to run your campaign in the country obviously helps). That being said, often it’s a case of making something that is generally interesting and not getting caught in the trap of national navel-gazing. I see a lot of Dutch web companies that have nice plans for success in the Netherlands but it never scales, because they rely on personal connections to large (dumb) organizations that want to do something on the web and are happy to sign a partnership deal – think of various government bodies and semi-official organizations like the KNVB (the soccer association). Ironically enough, these deals seems hold back some startups and not make them work hard enough to acquire users and customers on their own. Because they’ve spent so much of their energy on striking local deals, a few years pass in no time at all and another, foreign company is doing the same thing but with 10 times the users and in 20 countries. And of course, there’s no way you’re going to cut such cozy deals in all 200+ countries across the world!
Do you see the internet and startup community converging or maintaining regional or international clusters?
There’s definitely some convergence: there’s more and more a European tech circuit (from LeWeb in Paris to Seedcamp in London to Web 2.0 Expo in Berlin) and a lot of people read the same startup blogs (mostly American, but also things like TechCrunch UK). The free movement of people allowed by the EU is definitely an important factor. That being said, it’s more an attitudinal convergence than a practical one. People are generally doing their own thing and aren’t in much contact with startups outside of their own city, let alone their own country! The startups that are able to keep plugged in, not surprisingly, are more exciting companies, both as they tend to have products or services with wider appeal but, just as importantly, they have a much more open and ambitious attitude. There is starting to be clusters of startups in London, Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin and Helsinki but they’re just drops in the ocean. There’s nothing yet like the concentrations of startups and, importantly, experienced tech entrepreneurs that all the major US tech clusters have (and maybe the Indian and Chinese? I don’t know them well….).
I think clustering is a key factor for success. It’s easier to build teams and grow if there are lots of good people in the same city as you and because of . It’s much easier to court VCs in the same city than ones in London or on Sand Hill Road. While the internet collapses distance, . That being said, there are some interesting and long-running links between, for example, the Amsterdam and the Bay Area.