Ten Thoughts from MIT Sloan’s Silicon Valley Tech Trek


Each year, we at the MIT Entrepreneurship Center at the Sloan School of Management travel to Silicon Valley for a three-day immersion program with our MBA students who have a very entrepreneurial spirit and interest. While we make visits during other parts of the year, this is different in that it is a 24×7 analysis of what is going on in Silicon Valley. We visit dozens of companies, hear guest speakers from the venture capital sector as well as entrepreneurs, attend receptions with other universities in the area (Stanford and Berkeley), connect with alumni in the region, and visit multiple incubators.

While all of this is fantastic, the most fun is the discussions that we all have with each other in the cars, at meals, and at night. These discussions are an analysis of what was heard by the hundred-plus students and staff on this trip. They often carry on and develop over multiple days, and we all get to retest our hypotheses through the many interactions we have each day. We start in the morning together and then spread out over the Valley to multiple companies in groups of usually 4-8 to visit companies and often hang out in common areas in Palo Alto, San Francisco, Menlo Park, or another Silicon Valley spot. We then come back together at night and share our findings.

Within three days, we get a sense of what the new buzz words are and then we gain an understanding of the underlying core concepts—and then, we quickly start to see their limitations and tire of them. Last year it was “pivot” and “lean startup” and this year it was “social graph” and “repotting.” But more importantly, we get a real visceral sense of what the latest trends are that we could not have gotten from anyplace else or a quick drive by. In this vein, here are some of my personal observations:

1. Quora: Wow! Man is this company hot! It is a far from a foregone conclusion that they will be the next huge thing but I would not bet against it. A very quirky company in many regards but they have harnessed a potential major force that we have known about for a while—crowdsourcing—and seem to have found a high quality way to execute it unlike anyone else before them. They have taken the next step to hybridize a key element of Facebook and Wikipedia and are executing on it very well so far. If they can establish themselves as the standard, there are definitely networking effects that could make them the next eBay, Facebook, or YouTube. I had heard their name before but did not realize what a powerhouse this company has the potential to be. They also have Academy Award–winning software developers leading the way. Oh by the way, it is not just me that thinks they are hot, the people in the know loved them too.

2. Facebook Approach vs. Google Approach. While these companies might seem to be similar in many ways, there is a fundamental and profound cultural difference in their approaches. This was pointed out by one very astute entrepreneur and then we tested it for the rest of the trip and it rang true. Google’s approach to problems is a technology-centric solution, i.e., we can solve this with a smart algorithm or some sort of powerful technology breakthrough. Facebook on the other hand has a product-centric solutions approach. This is not to say that Facebook does not have some incredible technologists, they do (and vice versa – Google has some great product people), but rather … Next Page »

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Bill Aulet is the managing director of the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship and a senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management. He is also the author of “Disciplined Entrepreneurship: 24 Steps to a Successful Startup”, published by Wiley, which was released in August 2013. Follow @BillAulet

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