I’ve been taking more breaks from writing lately, but a particularly invigorating discussion with Perry Atwal (one of my colleagues from the Sauder MBA Program, and currently the school’s Director of Special Projects) and a separate thoughtful conversation with Kevin Cheng (my former SFU Engineering Science colleague and housemate) reminded me that I needed to revisit the “BC versus Silicon Valley” thread. I’ve already examined the benefits that population density and a networking-addicted community bestow on Silicon Valley – it seems logical now to turn to one of the results of those two elements: a propensity for thinking big.
When I lived in Ireland during 2000, I went to a lot of First Tuesday meetings to watch how people were trying to take advantage of the ‘Celtic tiger’ to make their fortunes. Unfortunately, a lot of the ideas I saw being pitched were wholesale replicas of existing (and very successful, mind you) online businesses in Silicon Valley, such as eBay. In and of itself, that’s not a bad thing – taking an idea and refining it for the local market is a valid strategy. However, the lack of barriers to entry into the Irish market for an existing Silicon Valley online business, coupled with the relatively small Irish market, doomed many of these businesses to failure. Many of these entrepreneurs just weren’t thinking very big.
For example, at one meeting I talked to one bunch of bright-eyed young entrepreneurs who were pitching a video game based on hurling. Hurling is a notoriously brutal sport that is best described as a cross between field-hockey and lacrosse – the sport is indigenous to Ireland. When I asked the students if it had crossed their mind that perhaps they were limiting themselves by choosing a game with such limited appeal, they balked, exclaiming, “Everyone loves hurling! Everybody in Ireland loves it, and nearly everyone in Ireland plays video games! Everyone in Ireland will buy our game!” Wow – everyone in Ireland? Even if they were right and everyone in Ireland did buy their game, they would still have one major problem: Ireland has a population of less than 5 million people. Once they sold the game to everyone in Ireland, they’d have no place to go.
Then again, maybe that’s all they wanted to do. They wanted to sell their 5 million units, take their money off the table, and retire. And there’s nothing wrong with that – it’s a perfectly reasonable thing for an individual entrepreneur to want to do. It’s when an entire society of entrepreneurs do the same thing that one has to be concerned.
The entrepreneurial environment in Vancouver doesn’t differ significantly from Ireland – it thinks small. It’s rare to see an entrepreneur in BC stand up and say, “Screw you world! I’m going to own this market!” Just look at Crystal Decisions – they were one of the leaders in the business intelligence space, but when Business Objects made them an offer, they rolled over, took the money, and retired. BC’s entrepreneurs are very good at taking their money off the table, quickly and permanently, and retiring in Whistler.
While cashing out is every entrepreneur’s dream, the difference between Silicon Valley and BC is that in Silicon Valley, the entrepreneur doesn’t stay out of the game very long. They dive back in, onto the next big thing, the next market to be chased. Sure, they’re in the game for the money, but they’re also there for the adventure. Adventure implies risk – big payoffs are balanced against headfirst failures. Unfortunately, BC has an overly-conservative attitude to risk and is fond of neither the possibility of big failures nor, as a result of this aversion, big payoffs. This conservative attitude immunizes it against most of the elements required to foster the ecosystem that sustains good entrepreneurs. This is a real shame because BC has otherwise a lot of characteristics that could make it a world leader in many areas – it just needs a cultural shift to make it possible. Regrettably, cultural shifts are the hardest to achieve.
Next time: Recognizing Success