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  • Writer's pictureLeo Wang

Back from Silicon Valley: 3

Updated: Nov 29, 2023

The original Chinese version was published on 2014-11-03 01:00 at HERE

Silicon Valley has become synonymous with innovation. Entrepreneurs from around the globe share a “Silicon Valley Dream.” Every visit offers a fresh perspective on the differences between Chinese and American culture and the innovation environment. It has become my little tradition to use the ten-plus hours of flight time to reflect on the insights and experiences from each trip and to share them. Here I am, ready to present “Back from Silicon Valley 3” with passion.


 

1: Data-Driven



Upon arriving in San Francisco, we immediately visited LinkedIn to delve into the big data strategies of the world’s largest professional networking platform, boasting 350 million users. LinkedIn had envisioned a data-driven business and revenue model since its inception around 2003. By 2010, it started offering services to businesses, leading to a revenue surge. Currently, LinkedIn’s income streams include 20% from premium subscriptions for individual users, 20% from marketing solutions for businesses, and a significant 60% from talent solutions for companies, totaling around $2 billion. Additionally, a new enterprise sales solution has also started contributing 1% to the revenue, with prospects of increasing.


While I can’t disclose specific business details due to a signed NDA during our visit—and there are detailed articles online for those interested—the story I want to share is about data-driven thinking:


LinkedIn hosts numerous professional profiles, frequently updated with job changes. From this data, you can track the latest company moves. We met with Simon Zhang, the head of LinkedIn’s data department, a talented Chinese individual who was once a neurosurgeon in China before switching careers driven by his passion for computers—a true embodiment of the YOLO spirit. LinkedIn effectively monitors talent movement within Silicon Valley, which begs the question: can you gauge a company’s value based on its talent inflow and outflow?


Simon developed a program that calculates companies’ weighted scores within LinkedIn’s system using public market data, combined with individual profiles’ work and educational backgrounds, to derive a talent weighted score. By analyzing talent movement over a period, he could infer the “potential market value” of various hot tech companies, which was later substantiated in the market. This method even accurately predicted the overvaluation of Groupon’s market worth.

In contrast to the diverse and often vague “big data” concepts in China, Silicon Valley teams like LinkedIn’s are more pragmatic. They’ve been quietly working with big data for years, optimizing and profiting from it without making a fuss—an admirable showcase of professionalism and practicality.



2: Talent Wars


I had the fortune to visit Dropbox, a standout Y Combinator alum, and sample what’s said to be San Francisco’s best free lunch — their company cafeteria resembles a trendy restaurant where you’d expect long waits. The chef has boldly claimed the menu won’t repeat for a year. Imagine the ambition! When a colleague inquired about the taste of a pasta dish, a Dropbox employee responded, “Haven’t tried it before, I’ll find out soon :-).”


Our host mentioned that many Dropbox employees previously worked at Facebook and Google, with internal referrals playing a significant role in new hires. Once a former Facebook employee joins, more tend to follow.


Curious about the startup incentive schemes here, I learned that getting into companies like Facebook, Uber, and Dropbox is tough, requiring rigorous exams and assessments. But the rewards for those who make it are alluring.


For example, Facebook’s offer for new graduates can reach $100,000 to $110,000 annually, with exceptional ones negotiating a sizable “signing bonus” paid out after a year, plus end-of-year bonuses and stock options. Joining grads could receive stock options valued at around $300,000 over four years.


Dropbox, valued at $10 billion, has shifted from offering stock options to restricted stock units (RSUs), seen as more beneficial since they represent actual shares without the need for an “exercise price,” unlike options which require buying at a set price and can be risky if the company doesn’t go public or fails.


Despite Uber’s valuation of $18 billion, it still offers options, not RSUs. This difference has led some top engineers to choose Dropbox over Uber.


Silicon Valley’s talent war is a perennial topic. LinkedIn’s data on talent movement suggests a company’s potential market value, enticing startups to signal to top engineers and talent, “Join us to be part of the next big thing.” Thus, talent flows from yesterday’s news to tomorrow’s empires.

An engineer colleague decided to leave Dropbox for Google, swayed by an irresistible offer, reminding us once again that for these tech giants, the fight for talent is worth the investment. For entrepreneurs, it reaffirms that talent is the cornerstone of success.



3: Don’t Copy Me


I visited Qihoo 360’s new office in Silicon Valley and noticed while using the restroom that many places require a key marked “Do not duplicate.” I wondered about its effectiveness. A friend explained that most people wouldn’t copy the key just seeing the sign, and even if someone tried, the locksmith would likely refuse to duplicate it due to their policy. This creates a positive cycle where rule-breakers don’t succeed, and eventually, they stop trying to circumvent the rules.

This, to me, exemplifies the American spirit of honoring agreements.


It made me think about life sciences and social behavior studies. Cellular replication ensures the continuation of life, while lower animals use “imitation” for skill and social role transmission. Imitation is an innate animal instinct.


We hope good social behaviors are imitated and passed on, but the reality is that bad behaviors spread just as quickly. Take, for instance, the rush to board a bus. Growing up in a society with orderly queues, you might be frustrated and eventually forced to adapt to chaotic boarding behaviors if you find yourself in a place where queues are ignored, an example of the “broken windows theory” in economics.


However, someone used to chaotic boarding might quickly adopt orderly queuing when they encounter it elsewhere, demonstrating that social environments greatly influence individual behavior and that societal progress requires time to take root. If individuals are well-educated and self-aware, they can resist replicating uncivil behaviors, setting new standards and accelerating the advancement of civilization. As the saying goes: Civility starts with me!



4: Hackers and Painters


Do you understand this formula? It’s the core algorithm behind Google’s search engine. A doctoral student at MIT in Boston marveled at how Larry Page and his supervisor simply added a part to an existing algorithm, revolutionizing the technology that founded Google. This breakthrough changed the global internet industry.


The thing is, everyone knows ‘the paper window breaks at a touch’, but often, we can’t even find the window. In the tech world, those who find and break through this “paper window” are what we call “hackers.”


During Silicon Valley’s hottest startup incubation period, Paul Graham of Y Combinator wrote a book called “Hackers & Painters,” suggesting that hackers, like painters, architects, and writers, are creators and thus artists. He conveys that the essence of a hacker is in creation, not just coding. Many successful hackers who’ve breached highly secure systems like governments and banks have done so not through technical prowess alone but through creative thinking to find vulnerabilities.



Creative thinking is an art, and all great artists have their unique ways of thinking.

Higher beings exist to create. Even the DNA in our cells makes mistakes during replication, leading to mutations, which drive the evolutionary process. Over millions of years, these mutations have led to the diverse life forms we see today, including humans with self-awareness.

Genetic mutation is nature’s way of ‘trial and error’, and through continuous ‘trial and error,’ creation happens. Those who push creativity to its limits are known as inventors and artists – and hackers are artists too.


Silicon Valley is full of technically brilliant individuals who may be awkward and earnest, more interested in world-changing ideals than money. They might appear shy but burn with a passionate and inventive spirit.


These are the entrepreneurs I admire most: kind, pure-hearted, driven to change the world, not necessarily gifted orators like Jack Ma but with an artist’s fiery, inventive heart under a timid exterior.


This is the heart of hacker culture in Silicon Valley.



5: Open Source and Crowdsourcing

Jay Bradner: How Will Open-Source Research Help Cure Cancer? : NPR

On my flight to the U.S., I watched a TED talk titled “Open-Source Cancer Research” by Dr. Jay Bradner. His lab discovered a molecule, JQ1, which stops cancer cells from proliferating endlessly by “forgetting” their identity. Rather than patenting JQ1, they published their findings and shared samples with 40 other labs, leading to significant progress and feedback.


This approach is a promising new direction for open-source cancer research. By adopting open-source and crowdsourcing strategies, advancements in biomedical science can accelerate, benefiting humanity and saving lives.


For centuries, life sciences and cutting-edge medical technologies have been locked in pharmaceutical company labs, commercialized based on market dynamics. Often, if an existing, less effective product is still profitable, a new, better, and cheaper alternative may not hit the market. Business decisions can sometimes contradict human decency and morality, with legality being the primary concern over ethics.


However, the open-source and crowdsourcing revolution that began in computing and the internet is now influencing medicine and biotech. Academia is leading the change, prioritizing breakthroughs, life-saving treatments, and accessibility over commercialization and profit maximization. Open-source and crowdsourcing have not only avoided stifling competition but have accelerated R&D through global lab collaboration.


With the help of open-source and crowdsourcing, Dr. Bradner’s lab’s JQ1 molecule has effectively made midline carcinoma cells “forget” their cancerous nature, halting their replication. It’s not a stretch to believe that, with an open and sharing mindset, all cancers can be conquered if we view humanity and our planet with a broader perspective.


During a visit to Tesla, I saw the once patent-filled “patent wall” stripped bare, replaced with a screenshot from the grammatically incorrect Japanese game Zero Wing, with its famous dialogue:


1 WE RE ALL ABOUT YOUR BASE

“CATS: All your base are belong to us.”

altered to:

“OEMS: All our patent are belong to you.”


We're all about your base | All Your Base Are Belong to Us | Know Your Meme

On June 12th, Elon Musk wrote in a blog post, “Tesla cars are created to advance sustainable transportation. It would be contrary to our goal to inhibit others with our patents. Tesla will not initiate patent lawsuits against anyone who, in good faith, uses our technology.”


Elon Musk, whom I deeply respect as an entrepreneur and tech geek, aligns his actions with his blog’s message, signaling a future of more open and fair business practices. While patents protect inventors’ interests and incentivize innovation, they can also hinder others’ creativity, a model that is due for change. As open-source, crowdsourcing, and the open internet mindset permeate all industries, I firmly believe this new era is quietly upon us.


Great minds are often heralds of a new era; they are more than entrepreneurs, scientists, or thinkers – they are doers who transform the world, true leaders.



6: Freedom


At UC Berkeley, a hub of academic freedom, their motto “Fiat Lux” or “Let there be light” seems to truly encapsulate the spirit of freedom that pervades the campus. It’s renowned as perhaps the freest university in the world, with a deep respect for free will.


The campus became globally known during the Vietnam War era, with the 1964 Free Speech Movement marking the start of its legacy in civil rights, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, and various minority group movements. Berkeley is also the birthplace of the hippie culture.


A fascinating aspect here is that students can create and teach their own courses with a professor’s endorsement, like an Introduction to Consulting class with 200 applicants but limited to 32 students due to space. Another student offered a course playing the carillon atop the campus’s iconic bell tower.


Another unique tradition is the “Naked Run” during the final week of exams where hundreds participate, although I only have a vague photo to show for it. Both Stanford and Harvard have their versions of this tradition.


Berkeley’s chancellor is so unique in the need for personal security, probably due to the intensely free-spirited student body.


Het leukste evenement van UCLA: De Undie Run | VK Magazine

Despite concerns of indulgence in too much freedom, Berkeley excels academically, ranking sixth globally for Nobel laureates and first for Turing Award winners, with strong performances in the Fields Medal as well.


Nobel laureates here don’t get a cash prize but do receive a coveted lifelong parking spot, highlighting the value of parking on campus.


Berkeley isn’t just about STEM; it excels in humanities and social sciences too. Notables like Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen are from here, and the Haas School of Business ranks above Harvard’s. Its political science and public policy departments are also highly regarded.


The school has produced IT luminaries like Gordon Moore of Intel, SoftBank’s Masayoshi Son, Google’s Eric Schmidt, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, HTC founder Cher Wang, and the youngest academician in China, Dr. Deng Zhonghan.



7: Dream and Action


Meng, also known as Chade-Meng Tan, is one of Google’s first 100 engineers. Noted for his tradition of taking photos with visiting celebrities, his office wall—dubbed “Meng’s Wall”—is filled with these snapshots, making it a Google headquarters staple. His casual business card reads “Good Jolly Fellow,” reflecting Google’s culture where employees can choose their own titles.


Meng is known as Google’s “jolly good fellow” and authored “Search Inside Yourself,” a book on emotional intelligence hailed as Silicon Valley’s most popular EQ course. He’s graced the cover of The New York Times twice and spoken at prestigious venues like the White House and TED Talks. Shifting from software engineering to Google’s People Development team, he focuses on personal growth and has been described as a “soulful engineer” dedicated to enlightening minds and fostering world peace through initiatives like Google’s meditation courses.


Meng’s ultimate goal is to contribute to humanity, aspiring to achieve peace and inner balance worldwide. Through his actions, he hopes to do something worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize, showing that the difference between ordinary people and himself is not the size of their dreams, but the steps they take to realize them.



8: Unity of knowledge and action


I just had a thrilling trip to Silicon Valley where I eyed several promising projects, but still hungry for more, I jetted 6 hours from the West to East Coast to visit the long-admired MIT and Harvard in Boston. The locals call it a “Small big city” due to its modest size despite its big-city status, with famous institutions like Harvard and MIT located in Cambridge to the north, across the lovely Charles River. An early morning run there was pure joy.



Harvard originally began as Cambridge College in 1636, named after Cambridge in England, where many of its founders, including John Harvard, were educated. Harvard University officially opened in 1638 with nine students. After John Harvard, an alumnus of Emmanuel College at Cambridge University in England, passed away in 1638, he left half his estate and his library to the school. The famous statue of John Harvard on campus isn’t actually him since no images of him exist; it was modeled after a handsome student of the time.



During an evening with MIT-CHIEF, I shared insights with Chinese postgraduates, PhD students, and entrepreneurs and learned about MIT’s motto “Mind and hand,” which resonates with the Confucian principle of “unity of knowledge and action.” Compared to MIT’s hands-on approach, Harvard’s motto emphasizes truth and the pursuit of knowledge, which reflects in the different types of graduates they produce: Harvard alumni often lean towards academia and research, while MIT’s are heavily involved in entrepreneurship and practical projects.


MIT’s Media Lab is an elite space with projects extending far beyond “media,” delving into high-tech fields like Affective Computing and Synthetic Neurobiology. Despite the Lab’s innovative atmosphere, local investors warn of getting too caught up in its hype.


During dinner with students from both Harvard and MIT, I noticed the dominance of Tsinghua University alumni—reflective of its significant presence in top U.S. universities. Our new Silicon Valley investment, “Hesei Technology,” was founded by a team from Tsinghua and Stanford, intending to revolutionize atmospheric quality detection with lasers.


I’ve gained a firsthand understanding of MIT’s hacker culture, pragmatic and solution-oriented, especially through the use of new technologies to assist large companies. Unlike the free-wheeling investors of the Bay Area, Boston’s prefer enterprise-facing startups, which is evident in the prevalence of such projects at Bolt, a local hardware incubator and accelerator.



Lastly, I got to know Dheera, an MIT star known for his hacks, photography skills (showcased on his blog, Dheera.net), and for cycling from Beijing to Suzhou without GPS. Despite offers from companies like Facebook and Dropbox, Dheera chose his own path, and now he’s partnered with another impressive MIT PhD, Li Rui, on a promising app project.



9: Embrace Your True Self


Each of us possesses an innate spirituality, a source of creativity that, in childhood, we expressed freely and with boundless imagination, living authentically, joyfully, and with love.


As we grow, societal, cultural, and customary constraints, particularly the fear of others’ perceptions, inhibit our true self-expression, leading us to abandon our innermost desires and live for “others” in a state of busy distraction.


Nietzsche described three spiritual transformations: the camel, bearing burdens; the lion, who fights for independence; and the child, existing in a state of “being,” fully present and enjoying the moment.


Most of us are either camels or lions, but more Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are striving for the child’s state, embracing the “You Only Live Once” mantra.


Burning Man Festival, started in the 1980s on America’s West Coast, is a playground for hippies, artists, and innovators to unleash their creativity, embrace the present, and live out their “child” phase through an “art festival.”


Each summer, artists globally converge in the Black Rock Desert to construct a circular city for this seven-day experimental art festival, which is fully supported with medical facilities and strict security. Innovators, hippies, yuppies, artists, entrepreneurs, and soul searchers worldwide compete online for tickets to this utopian event.


At Burning Man, participants, called Burners, engage in non-commercial creativity and immerse themselves in colorful costumes, quirky architecture, innovative talks, and ubiquitous performances. It’s a vast, unrestricted, real-life lab combining flamboyant art and cutting-edge technology, harking back to a renaissance of “hippie geeks.” Despite the scarcity of water, electricity, and even air quality due to the desert dust, the festival is rich in sunshine, laughter, and even more eccentric Burners.


There, everyone sheds their masks and reverts to a child-like state, with hugs and kisses replacing formal greetings, fostering a close-knit, supportive community free from the judgments of the “outside” world.


Steve Brown, a director of Burning Man’s promotional videos, said innovation requires fearlessness and indifference to failure and public opinion, likely why Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are drawn to the festival.


Google’s founders, who selected Eric Schmidt as CEO partly due to his experience at Burning Man, and other tech icons like the founders of Tesla and Facebook, are regular attendees, seeking inspiration in the desert’s freedom.


Elemoon’s founder, Jing Zhou, said of her 2014 Burning Man experience, “It’s a place where you face yourself and stay true to your heart,” a simple yet profound reflection on life’s meaning.

After a week, this pop-up city vanishes, including the giant human effigies symbolic of the event, and everyone leaves the desert as it was, reflecting a return from the colorful facade to life’s pristine essence.


P.S. Catherine from Sina Finance North America, the first Chinese journalist to cover Burning Man, is returning for her second year. Amid the desert storms, Catherine and her friends will capture the festival’s beauty, with stories and videos soon shared with Chinese netizens through her series and my WeChat public account (wanglijie1979).
Author: Leo Wang Entrepreneurship, Investment, Cultivation Founder of PreAngel Fund
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