The Silicon Valley diaries – Itembase founder on US expansion

Silicon Valley road
Silicon Valley road

How does a Berlin-based entrepreneur make the leap into a US expansion? Stefan Jørgensen, founder of Itembase, a startup for your online inventory, is currently in the Valley setting up a US branch and learning more about the American startup scene every day. 

Itembase was the winner of the German Silicon Valley Accelerator, which provided Jørgensen with office space and mentors to promote his company launch in the States. In this “Silicon Valley diary”, Jørgensen gives us a personal insight into startup life comparisons between the US and Europe – exploring the culture of networking, pitching, and business feedback.

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I moved to Berlin two years ago. I’m originally from Denmark and I’d only been in Berlin for a short vacation prior to my arrival. That meant I knew absolutely nobody and had to put in all the effort to build my network. But I was determined to get to know as many people from the scene as quickly as possible. After three weeks, I hosted a dinner party at my place for 30 people, and two weeks later – another one with 30 different people, mostly from the Berlin startup scene. I attended every startup event I came across. I then went on to found Itembase, which is now live in four countries and has received funding. We’ve got 30 employees and are working on our US expansion.

width="220"Last Monday, I arrived in San Francisco and had the luxury of having an office waiting for me at the Plug and Play centre in Silicon Valley – sponsored by the GSVA. Our goal is to establish our presence here, and t0 launch our service in the US market. For that to happen, we’re looking for business developers, our first partners and, ideally, US investors.

Surf, ski, trek and talk business

Arriving at San Francisco, the first thing that strikes you is – naturally – the considerably better weather, especially compared to Berlin. For many, the weather has an impact on mood, performance and so on. Coming from Denmark, I’m used to shocking weather and it doesn’t make a big difference to me. Sometimes it can even be counterproductive, since there are too many opportunities leading you away from your focus: I lived in Malaga, Spain, for three years and there the sun had a negative effect on the productivity of most people because they would rather go to the beach.

Something I did learn quickly is that Silicon Valley is different because of the sheer amount of entrepreneurs and the general spirit and culture around work and free time. As one of my mentors from the GSVA pointed out the day after I arrived, here it is important to take time off and go do other stuff. Go surfing in the Pacific, go to Lake Tahoe or Yosemite National Park for trekking, go skiing in the mountains. Not just because these are fun things to do, but because everyone is doing it too and you get the opportunity to meet people from startups in different settings. Since everyone, really everyone, is here, you quickly meet people from Google, Facebook – you name it. Also, everyone is interested in startups, meaning you quickly get feedback on your own startup, but in a non-business surrounding.

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These time-outs are important because everything else you do here is in a business setting. Last week, I went  to the biggest meet-up in the Bay Area, the Silicon Valley New Tech Meetup at the Microsoft Campus. 700 people got together for pizza, beer and, of course, the unavoidable pitching session with supersized networking.

Be fashionably early

We arrived at 7pm sharp, expecting to be a little early since meet-ups tend to start later on (especially in Berlin). What we quickly learned was that people here actually get there before the official start to squeeze in some pre-event networking.

The networking element at all events and meet-ups was the predominant feature, in a way that I’ve never seen in Europe – whether that be in Berlin, London or Copenhagen. In Europe, nobody feels comfortable going over to strangers, everyone always stands in little groups of people they know. On top of that, asking people what they do straight away often prompts laughs and subtle mockery – as if that question is somehow a weird one to start with. This is completely different in the Bay Area…

Networking with a blink of an eye

The crowd is fluid, everybody is somehow part of it. Conversations start from the moment you catch someone else’s eye. The first words are often “what are you working on?” regardless of whether they actually have a startup, or work for a larger cooperation. People identify with their jobs and feel pride in them. They want to tell people what they do, and to hear about what you do. This is also because everyone here has a common denominator, which is the tech scene in itself.

In contrast to Berlin, you can feel how “old” the startup scene is here. It’s been embedded for decades. This is immediately apparent when you meet some of the people, and their slightly less mainstream jobs. One example that stuck in my mind was meeting a woman who worked as a “design engineer”. In Berlin, that would be some hipster name for a web designer or a UI/UX expert. As it turned out, she was an actual engineer who designed hardware chips.

Feed pitchers positivity

Another thing that stands out very quickly is the feedback you get. It comes from everyone, in every situation. At the event we watched four startups pitch (SaneboxJetfreelyGoalsponsor and Gainfitness), at a very impressive standard. The pitches were very fluent and professional, understandable as it is a part of the American culture – their school system places a lot of emphasis on public speaking, too.

width="300"Impressive pitches aside, what struck me was the feedback from the audience as soon as a company finished pitching. Nothing about why it isn’t possible to or why it won’t work. Only interested questions, suggestions for how to improve the service or actual introductions to people that might be able to help out. And not only to the best pitches, but to every single idea. I’ve never experienced anything like that in Europe – and I’ve been to plenty of networking and pitching events – the best pitch might get applause and feedback, but there is always overly critical feedback, even with the best pitches.

The result of this positivity is an incredible energy boost that helps you keep your head high and gives you food for thought – in a positive way. It’s similar to what you get in Europe from great friends or hardcore believers in your startup. I think this moves Silicon Valley startups forward like a canoe in a river current, while European startups stand on the riverbank and have to get along by their own power.

Stay tuned for the next instalment of Stefan’s Silicon Valley diaries…

Image credit: Flickr users GenistaJoe Shlabotnik and warrenski

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