Notes from The Valley: The real social network

Published 12 March 2013 12:23, Updated 10 April 2013 07:32

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Foreigners landing in San Francisco for the first time are often surprised by how much turns on introductions, says Merav Bloch

A visitor to The Fairmont San Francisco hotel on January 26 might have been puzzled by the chants of “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie” erupting from the Venetian room. The century-old hotel, where delegates of 50 nations once hammered out the terms of the United Nations’ Charter, was hosting the Chevron Australia Day Ball, a 30-year-old San Francisco tradition. Earlier that week, Australia Unlimited had released its list of 50 “Global Australians”, and 10 of the honorees are based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Both the list, and the ball, were striking reminders of the strength of the Australian community in Silicon Valley.

It’s just as well, because the currency of Silicon Valley is networks. Foreigners landing in San Francisco for the first time are often surprised by how much turns on introductions. For entrepreneurs, the best – and sometimes only – way to a meeting with one of Sand Hill Road’s fabled venture capital firms is through a third-party introduction – preferably more than one. For those looking to work for a start-up, the best way through the door is an employee or investor referral. Submitting a resumé to a website is about as useful as throwing a coin into a wishing well.

Alumni of Harvard, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford have long had access to deep and powerful Valley networks. So too alumni of PayPal, Google and other prominent dotcoms. The strength of the so-called “Aussie mafia” means Australians increasingly have the same benefits of access. While the Australian community has limited patience for entrepreneurs passing through town for a few days expecting to find streets paved with gold, those relocating for an extended period of time, and who have done their research about the limits and possibilities of Silicon Valley, will find a warm welcome.

But like any community defined by geography rather than industry, the Australian community is wider than it is deep. It spans a range of different industries – from energy to social networking – but none in critical numbers. So, my advice to newcomers: start with the Australian community, and then keep building. If introductions are the currency of Silicon Valley, then, like the plastic notes in your wallet, some are more valuable than others. The most valuable introduction you can have is from someone who understands your space deeply and is an authority on it. This is true whether you’re working in big data, e-commerce, health technology, or something else entirely.

Last November, serial US entrepreneur Kevin Rose addressed a dinner organised by InnovationBay, a networking group for Australian entrepreneurs and investors. Looking around the room he commented on how lucky we are as a community, to have each other. An Australian passport may not be a silver bullet, but it’s a good start.

Merav Bloch is an investor with Square Peg Ventures. Merav is based in San Francisco.

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