A Visitor’s Guide to Silicon Valley

2/22/11Follow @sgblank

If you’re a visiting dignitary whose country has a Gross National Product equal to or greater than the State of California, your visit to Silicon Valley consists of a lunch/dinner with some combination of the founders of Google, Facebook, Apple, and Twitter and several brand name venture capitalists. If you have time, the president of Stanford will throw in a tour, and then you can drive by Intel or some cleantech firm for a photo op standing in front of an impressive looking piece of equipment.

The “official dignitary” tour of Silicon Valley is like taking the jungle cruise at Disneyland and saying you’ve been to Africa. Because you and your entourage don’t know the difference between large innovative companies who once were startups (Google, Facebook, et al.) and a real startup, you never really get to see what makes the valley tick.

If you didn’t come in your own 747, here’s a guide to what to see in the valley (which for the sake of this post, extends from Santa Clara to San Francisco). This post offers things to see/do for two types of visitors: “I’m just visiting and want a ‘tourist experience’” (i.e. a drive by the Facebook / Google / Zynga / Apple building) or “I want to work in the valley” visitor who wants to understand what’s going on inside those buildings.

I’m leaving out all the traditional stops that you can get from the guidebooks.

Hackers’ Guide to Silicon Valley

Silicon Valley is more of a state of mind than a physical location. It has no large monuments, magnificent buildings or ancient heritage. There are no tours of companies or venture capital firms. From Santa Clara to South San Francisco it’s 45 miles of one bedroom community after another. Yet what’s been occurring for the last 50 years within this tight cluster of suburban towns is nothing short of an “entrepreneurial explosion” on par with classic Athens, renaissance Florence or 1920s Paris.

California Dreaming

On your flight out, read Paul Graham’s essays and Jessica Livingston’s Founders at Work. Then watch the Secret History of Silicon Valley and learn what the natives don’t know.

Palo Alto—The Beating Heart 1

Start your tour in Palo Alto. Stand on the corner of Emerson and Channing Street in front of the plaque where the triode vacuum tube was developed. Walk to 367 Addison Avenue, and take a look at the HP Garage. Extra credit if you can explain the significance of both of these spots and why the HP PR machine won the rewrite of Valley history.

Walk to downtown Palo Alto at lunchtime, and see the excited engineers ranting to one another on their way to lunch. Cram into Coupa Café full of startup founders going through team formation and fundraising discussions (noise and cramped quarters basically force you to listen in on conversations) or University Café or the Peninsula Creamery to see engineers working on a startup, or have breakfast in Il Fornaio to see the VCs/recruiters at work.

Stanford—The Brains

Drive down University Avenue into Stanford University as it turns into Palm Drive. Park on the circle and take a walking tour of the campus and then head to the science and engineering quad. Notice the names of the buildings; Gates, Allen, Moore, Varian, Hewlett, Packard, Clark, Plattner, Yang, Huang, etc. Extra points if you know who they all are and how they … Next Page »

Steve Blank is the co-author of The Startup Owner's Manual and author of the Four Steps to the Epiphany, which details his Customer Development process for minimizing risk and optimizing chances for startup success. A retired serial entrepreneur, Steve teaches at Stanford University Engineering School and at U.C. Berkeley's Haas Business School. He blogs at www.steveblank.com. Follow @sgblank

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  • Michael H

    And don’t forget every Thursday, you can attend for free the amazing lectures at PARC! As someone who moved here 2 years ago, I loved this article.