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Finding inspiration with the best known for it

By Jim Pulcrano - November 2012

One way to understand a place is through the people you meet there. During the IMD Executive MBA Silicon Valley Discovery Expedition of 2012 the class met approximately 140 individuals, from all walks of life. The vast majority were extraordinarily well-educated, amazingly networked, successful, open-minded, experienced in various domains and wanting to make a difference. Few were simply "doing a job" for a pay check. All had the hope and expectation that they would change the world in some way.

Let's start with Guerrino de Luca, former Apple marketing genius and now CEO and Chairman of Logitech, the well-known mouse and PC peripherals company, now extending itself to support tablets and video. Though its roots are in Switzerland, Logitech is very much a product of Silicon Valley, and we saw on stark display the openness and no-nonsense attitude of the region. The firm has not done well recently, and Guerrino gave us a very blunt assessment of the mistakes that he and the company had made, and what they were doing to come back. No punches were pulled. Silicon Valley is a place based on meritocracy, and the visit to Logitech, and the candid talk by Guerrino was a perfect reminder of this.

Like our EMBAs, many come to the Bay area to see, feel and touch entrepreneurs. But what are the essential traits of the successful entrepreneurs and what do these entrepreneurs look like?

I'd argue that many look like David Lazovsky, founder and CEO of Intermolecular. After 9 years in a large company he saw things happening in the semiconductor industry, and his company was not responding to the opportunity, so he decided to go out on his own and do something about it. He took stock of what he knew and had, and started networking with smart people. He had an idea, not yet a technology or even a business plan. But he found the right people, including a good venture capitalist, put together a great team and then started figuring out how they wanted to change the world. Seven years later, before he himself turned 40, Dave took Intermolecular public and they are well on the path to becoming a profitable billion dollar company.

And some of the entrepreneurs look like Paul Towhey. The thirty-three year old, two black belt, computer science geek from Stanford and Berkeley, dropped out of his PhD program to work at Palantir on "big data." He then went on to strike out on his own with his co-founder, Corey Reese, whom he met at a hack-a-thon. Together they created Ness, a beautiful personalized search engine for finding great restaurants. Ness learns your taste, literally… and one day Google or Yahoo! will either buy them or be worried by them.

Alex Rampell, co-founder and CEO of TrialPay also looms large as the entrepreneur poster child, though by accident. He fell into being an entrepreneur, because that's all he has done all his life. When he was young he created a cute software program and posted it online just as the Internet was starting, asking users to send him $5 if they used it. His boarding school post office was inundated with envelopes containing $5 checks. Creating products and a company is a natural thing for him. One thing led to another and today he is running a company that has so far received $75 million in investments, and has 100 million users in 180 countries. Alex has found a niche that pays, one that most of us (any of us?) probably never thought of before: placing advertisements online in unusual but highly trafficked places like bill payments. Today he has 2,000 advertisers using his technology.

And I'd also suggest that Hilary Barroga, the program director at ECH Lifebuilders, is a great example of a Valley entrepreneur. She is helping to run a shelter for the homeless in Santa Clara county. Though she could get a job anywhere, she is using her education and talents to make a difference for those who have fallen by the wayside in one of the richest regions of the world, and she is doing it with the leanest of budgets, like any successful startup founder.

But allow me to weave two more threads into the fabric of Silicon Valley: innovation and people motivation.

If you get a group of people to talk about innovation, eventually someone will mention IDEO, the industrial product design firm headquartered in Palo Alto. Dave Blakely and Bruce MacGregor embody the firm's unending desire to find better ways to do things. To ask the right questions, get the best team together, and then rapidly brainstorm, prototype and test until you have an amazing solution. Any time spent with the folks at IDEO leaves you wanting to innovate and unsatisfied with the status quo.

Some will argue that it is solely money that motivates people in the Valley. Maybe. Others will state that it is the opportunity to work with the sexiest technology. Possibly. But Debra Engel and her band of HR Divas were able to bring much more granularity to this discussion. The Divas are not a startup – they're simply a group of experienced individuals who have helped many companies change the world. Though very much a Human Resource professional, Debra and her friends also bore a striking resemblance to the entrepreneurs that we met: smart, incredibly networked, open-minded, blunt and with a ton of experience. Their simple recipe for motivating people? Hire the best, and they will attract the best. Hire 'A' people, and they will attract other As…. (Or hire Bs, and let them attract Cs, but then don't assume you will change the world).

Spend a week in the Valley with a group of inquisitive EMBA participants from around the world and you'll discover hundreds of people stories like these. Are these people inherently different from the rest of us? Not really. Most of us have the education, experience and intellectual breadth and acuity necessary to create and nurture a business. But most of us are caught up in the comfort of our current jobs, and the inertia of life. And perhaps with good reason, as entrepreneurs take enormous risks when they take the leap without the safety net that a job usually provides. But any of us could do this if we wanted to or had to.

Jim Pulcrano is Executive Director of IMD, and a member of the teaching team for IMD's Executive MBA. His doctoral research is on entrepreneurial networking.

For more on entrepreneurship see Pulcrano's piece "You Must Own Your Reputation: Networking, Entrepreneurship and Reputation," in The European Business Review.

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