The Silicon Valley Curriculum

And does it contradict contrarianism?

Welcome to Silicon Valley Outsider, a newsletter for aspiring entrepreneuers and investors who live outside the SF Bay Area.

🍎 Quick Bite of the Week: Is the ship still stuck?

I have a confession to make: I don’t know all of the answers.

I don’t know how to replicate Silicon Valley’s success in other cities. I don’t know what is going to happen with the economy, with the SPAC boom, or with the future of hypersonic aircraft. And two weeks ago, you saw what that means for this newsletter as I waded into a new topic — contrarianism — to figure out what I really thought about it.

I did a few things well in that piece: introing Peter Thiel and Balaji Srinivasan; drawing the parallel between disruption, contrarianism, and “first principles”; identifying contrarianism as anti-social behavior; and hopefully more.

But I whiffed on a subtle, tricky point: the apparent contradiction between 🙅‍♀️ contrarianism and the 📚 curriculum of Silicon Valley.

On one hand, Silicon Valley is all about shunning commonly-held wisdom. But on the other, Silicon Valley has very strong cultural knowledge about the right way to start startups. Don’t those two strains of Silicon Valley dogma contradict each other?

I didn’t answer that question well before, so I’ll try again here.

📚 The Silicon Valley Curriculum

I moved from Minneapolis to San Francisco to soak up startup knowledge, and started with a Matrix-style download of Silicon Valley’s dogmatic texts.

I read Accidental Empires, How I Lost 170 Million dollars, Elon Musk, Zero to One, The Lean Startup, Sapiens, Venture Deals, The Hard Thing About Hard Things, Creative Selection, How The Internet Happened, Angel, The Messy Middle, Blitzscaling, Steve Jobs, What You Do Is Who You Are, Secrets of Sand Hill Road, Only The Paranoid Survive, Chaos Monkeys, Uncanny Valley, The Circle, Valley of the Gods, and the entire Tim Ferriss oeuvre.

I participated in Y Combinator’s Startup School, and watched the recording of Sam Altman’s Stanford class “How to Start a Startup.” I listened to the Tim Ferriss podcast. I tried to emulate Patrick Collison’s personal site and failed.

I started digging through blog archives: everyone from Marc Andreessen to Paul Graham to Tomasz Tonguz to Fred Wilson to First Round Review. I started following Andrew Chen to learn about consumer startups, Buffer and Intercom to learn about marketing, and Scott Belsky to learn about creative tools. I made a Twitter list to keep track of these folks.

If that reading and listening gave me Startup 101, starting my own company gave me a 201-level education. It was a harrowing journey, with days when I was inches from winning one million dollars and hours from losing a co-founder.

Although the company failed, my education accelerated massively. I learned firsthand about Silicon Valley’s informal, massively helpful mentorship culture — investors, Berkeley alumni, and fellow entrepreneurs were all willing to give me help — and I learned how the online resources are just a heavily diluted version of that 1:1 mentorship.

By reading, listening, and doing, I learned the “right way” to start a startup (according to Silicon Valley).

I didn’t know any of this when I was living in Minnesota, and it’s why I started this newsletter — to share the secrets of Silicon Valley with the world.

🙅‍♀️ Silicon Valley Contrarianism

But if there’s a “right” way to start a startup, why do Silicon Valley folks claim to be contrarians? Are they just lying?

Alex Danco, an investor who I quoted a few weeks ago, thinks so:

“Being contrarian” in tech isn’t a thought process; it’s a performance. And those performances are often pretty funny… Silicon Valley luminaries take turn[s] listening intently at each other’s Contrarian Takes, becoming progressively unable to distinguish between their imitative attempts versus the real thing.

All kinds of funny things happen when people realize that there is no higher status symbol among our Bay Area peer set than being seen by the group as interesting. People here brag about their angel investments; not because it implies they’re rich, but because it implies they saw something no one else did. The irony, of course, is that this social obsession with being seen as an independent thinker drives everyone towards the same narrow band of nervous conformity…

Contrarianism in Silicon Valley is certainly performative, particularly when supposedly contrarian takes are posted to Twitter — there is nothing less contrarian than begging for social validation. But I realized only after posting my last piece that there’s another, better way to square the circle of Silicon Valley’s contrarian rules:

Silicon Valley strongly differentiates between received wisdom and earned secrets.

Received wisdom is the way things have always been done — meaning, assumptions about the way the world is, formed by observations about how the world was. Identifying and exploiting those kinds of stale assumptions is how startups make their millions.

Earned secrets are similar, in that they are nuggets of wisdom about how the world works, but there’s one key difference: they are passed down only by someone who learned the lesson themselves through firsthand experience.

Ben Horowitz said:

Founders and investors in Silicon Valley pass down knowledge to other founders and investors. In my experience, people in Silicon Valley are disproportionately likely to act on advice from folks who have started companies of their own. This explains why Silicon Valley folks crave the approval of their peers — if other entrepreneurs listen to you, it means your suffering while eating glass and staring into the abyss was worth it.

The folks that I listed above — the authors of the Silicon Valley curriculum — have all been in the trenches themselves. They aren’t academics who theorize from the sidelines, they’re warriors who have (barely) survived to share their earned secrets about how to start successful startups.

There’s a lot to unpack within this phenomenon. There’s the insular nature of the Silicon Valley curriculum, the resistance to external sources of wisdom, the importance of generational mentorship, the cultural importance of proving you’re in the arena with everyone else, the many, many ways that this kind of knowledge can be faked or gamed for social (or financial) profit, the “us against the world” antagonism, the “barbell” efffect, and far more.

The net effect of these phenomena is outward-facing contrarianism and inward-facing consensus based on earned secrets.

These don’t seem contradictory to me. If anything, the existence of the latter can give people the courage to act on the former — which shouldn’t be necessary for the idyllic countrarian founder, but is often necessary for mere mortals trying to found a successful startup.