Start-Ups

Silicon Valley's unspoken rules: Four rules to help you survive as a first-time entrepreneur

Being a first-time founder in a tech hub like Silicon Valley can be intimidating. Here are some things to remember before you set up shop in the Valley.

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Silicon Valley can be an intimidating place. Everywhere you turn it seems that you are confronted with the success of other people. While that can be disheartening, it can also be liberating and inspiring.

As LinkedIn's Reid Hoffman once said, "Silicon Valley is a mindset, not a location. That's part of what modern work for all industries is going to be like."

For those looking to step out on their own and start a company in the Valley, it is difficult to learn the proper social cues and how to conduct yourself. Silicon Valley has its own ecosystem and its own rules of operation that founders — and would-be founders — need to follow.

Here are four rules to remember if you are trying to make a name for yourself in Silicon Valley.

1. Don't be a jerk

The first rule may seem obvious, but your ego is the first thing you need to keep in check; especially once you have a little success. It will feel like you are on top of the world, but the truth is that you aren't.

"Silicon Valley is a very cerebral environment and its culture strives for meritocracy," said Doug Dooley, a partner at Venrock. "However, when someone operates in a very aggressive, arrogant, boastful, or condescending style - very few tolerate this behavior regardless of how accomplished those people might be. There are lots of rich and successful people in Silicon Valley but those who operate with little compassion and a lack of humility tend to get isolated."

The Valley, much like any other startup scene or tech hub, is a powered by relationships. The ripple effect is huge, and people make a point of knowing what is going on so be sure to closely vet your words and actions so that they work for you and not against you.

"Everyone knows everyone else in the Valley. Investors, other founders and the entire pool of talent will remember everything you do for a long time," said Bo Lu, CEO of FutureAdvisor. "No one speaks poorly of anyone in public, but everyone knows who to call for backdoor references. So guard your reputation with your life."

2. Ask the right questions

The social capital, or economic and social benefits, of your friendships with people in Silicon Valley can only be leveraged if you are asking the right questions. When considering new relationships, don't look at what you can get out of that person, look at what you can learn from them or what value you can add to their life.

Most people don't like it when they are always being asked for things. Sure, part of securing a deal or getting an opportunity is asking for it, but you have to be willing to provide help when it is asked of you. This is especially true of raising capital. Angels and VCs are bombarded with entrepreneurs asking them for money, and it has the potential of fostering bitterness. Dave McClure, founder of 500 Startups, said this is the unspoken rule of raising capital:

"Ask for money, get advice... ask for advice, get money," McClure said.

Chances are, someone will probably help you out when you get started in the Valley. You need to be willing to help people out too.

3. Pay it forward

A big part of establishing yourself as a respectable entrepreneur, especially in Silicon Valley, is building rapport among other members of your startup community. You can do this, in part, by offering advice and support to other new entrepreneurs and people in your community.

"Take care of the up-and-comers," said Steve Sarner, the vice president of marketing at Tagged. "The Bay Area is teeming with young talent and it can only help to throw them a bone and provide guidance. Take a coffee meeting, listen to the pitch. One of these folks could be your next boss."

Helping out can be hard, but it will also be rewarding. Stepping into the lives of other founders will help you establish yourself as a thought leader, but it will serve to help you validate your skills and ideas. According to Craig Walker, CEO and co-founder of UberConference, it's part of your job as an entrepreneur to help people when and where you can.

"Always Help a Good Entrepreneur," Walker said. "This is a tough one as your time is scarce and you'll get hit up a lot by folks who 'want to run something by you' or who 'want to grab a cup of coffee.' These are usually time killers and can sometimes be painful, but it's part of your job to pay it forward and help where you can."

4. Make noise (but not too much)

Making noise is just part of the startup game. Most startups don't have the resources to farm out their marketing to a big firm, so it's on you to make sure people know about your product or service. Exabeam CEO Nir Polak said it is all about who you align yourself with.

"The only real way to make a name for a small startup is to create as much noise as you can, whether it's by hiring a kickass public relations team or attaching your name to one of the big-time venture capitalist firms (many start-ups are considered hot only because they have hot investors). For start-ups that don't have these resources, much of creating the noise to make a name for yourself relies on building a solid platform of thought leadership and industry networking," Polak said.

While you should be loud enough that people associate you with your business and know what you do, there's a fine line between evangelist founder and obnoxious entrepreneur. No one wants you to introduce them to your company before you introduce them to yourself.

"Never appear too pushy," Walker said. "Sometimes, you run into guys who tell you how their amazing companies are killing it before you even ask."

Also, remember to have fun. There's a reason you left your corporate job to chase your dreams, and you should always keep that in focus.

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About

Conner Forrest is Enterprise Editor for TechRepublic. He covers startups and enterprise technology and is passionate about the convergence of tech and culture.

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