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7 characteristics of Silicon Valley you won’t find in Asia

Anh-Minh Do
Anh-Minh Do
4:00 pm on Sep 19, 2013


After spending a week here in San Francisco, hanging out with Valley startups, and attending TechCrunch Disrupt, I’ve noticed a few things that are rather unique about the Valley that you won’t see back in Asia. They play a huge role in what kinds of startups come out of the ecosytem. And although it’s not Asia’s heyday yet and the Silicon Valley is still the indisputable Mecca of startups, we’re starting to see the inklings of a distinct culture in Asia. Here’s seven things in the Valley you just won’t see in Asia.

1. A strong early adopter culture

I was sitting with a bunch of non-tech friends the other day, when one of them whips out her iPhone. She says, “Hey guys, check out this new app I found called VenMo. It allows you to be able to transfer money to your friends after you get the bill.” I was mesmerized. You just don’t have this kind of situation in Vietnam. Most of the time, if you’re hearing such talk in Asia, you’re probably hanging out with other tech people. In San Francisco, startups have the convenient advantage of being able to assume that early adopters are in abundance.

There is no such luck in Asia. More often than not, ideas die before they even get implemented because there’s no early adopter culture. It could be a great idea, but no one wants to try it. That means startups that do make it, have to work really hard to make sure that their idea actually has value to either businesses or consumers. Valley startups can work on frivolous things like UX design, hilarious marketing tactics, or as we saw at TechCrunch Disrupt’s hackathon, base ideas like TitStare.

2. A willingness to share and grow together

My hat goes off to Valley folks: they really care about each other in a way that I don’t see happening here in Asia. Putting Apple aside, you’d just have to spend a few hours on Quora and its startups topic and you’ll see how much people are willing to divulge about how to do startup, startup culture, and the trials and tribulations of being a founder. Valley people, nurtured in the heart of the yuppie and hippie culture of California, have grown to share and help each other.

In Asia, we certainly see pockets of this, with mentorship becoming an imperative, but Asian culture is held back profoundly by not only an immaturity in how to work together but also a defensiveness in competing. If you fly around Asia meeting startup communities, you’ll slowly start to hear of all the dramas that torment each. Fundamentally, this prevents the kind of growth we see in the Valley. In the Valley there’s drama, but it’s profoundly swept away by 1) the sheer size of the community and 2) the overwhelming sense that “we should help each other for everyone to win”. It’s ultimately all about win-win.

3. Failure as a rite of passage

People have been harping on this one repeatedly and it’s for good reason. Failure, across Asia, remains a stigma. As Dave McClure yelled at the top of his lungs in Japan, “someone in a high position has to publicly fail so that other people can learn how to do it”. Nobody wants to fail and it’s inextricably tied to long-held Asian culture. In other words, it’s not going away anytime soon.

via TVrage.com

via TVrage.com

4. Everybody wants to help everybody

With almost every person I met on this trip, whether it be a startup or an investor or a journalist, everyone offered to help me in some way. And I noticed very quickly that they also offered to help everyone they met.

As competitive as Asia is, offering your help to someone else can also mean doing favors for a potential enemy. But people are unable to see past that and look at the long-term benefits.

5. The Valley is a land of layers

Every time I come back to the United States, it looks exactly the same. The landscape hasn’t changed much except for a few new Starbucks’ and a new building or statue here and there. Offices still have landline phones and people still drive cars on the same exact highways. Everything is like clockwork. It’s this firm foundation that Valley startups can build on top of.

Uber is a great example of this. It takes existing resources and people and fashions a business model that sits perfectly on top of the infrastructure that already exists.

In Asia, especially developing Asia, forget about infrastructure. Forget about widespread usage of landlines and aligned highways. Asian startups are building for a land without layers; they are forced to be the layers themselves. Texting is one beautiful example of how Asia leapfrogged landlines into new technologies that the Western world has only caught up to in the last few years. And today, we’re seeing unique examples of this with payment, logistics, and e-commerce at the forefront.

6. Valley startups create problems to solve because they don’t have any problems

First-world problems include not getting your eggs the way you want them and taking just a few more minutes to get a cab than you wanted to. If you watch American travelers going through Asia, it’s even more vivid. They shout and complain about things the locals take as normal. While chatting with Kevin Chen from Technode, he remarked on a new startup that was present at Disrupt, Spinlister, an Airbnb for bicycles. “They’re looking for problems to solve.”

In Asia, we’ve got more problems than we can bargain for. There’s so many low hanging fruit for startups to pick that most of them are rotten.

7. The ecosystem dreams really really big

I was just about to write “founders dream really really big” when I remembered that Mark Zuckerberg just wanted to have a social network for college kids in the early days. And as Paul Graham stated, starting with a small problem actually pays off in the longer term. So, in a lot of ways, it’s the entire ecosystem around these founders that end up dreaming big.

Conclusion: the bubble and the ocean

Everything in this world is a double-edged sword. Silicon Valley’s bubble is also its greatest asset. All of these elements come together to make the Valley the engine it is today. Our friend Loo Cheng Chuan, Head of Singtel’s Local Life and Group Digital Life had some penetrating insights into where the Silicon Valley has an edge over Asia, and it’s all too true. On the other hand, the Valley’s bubble leaves it a bit isolated. After all, when Americans think of the World Series, it’s really just the States and Canada.

With Asia, its time is coming. there’s only about four Asian cities that are globally significant in the worldwide startup ecosystem. But the foundation is compelling. Asian startups are forced to swim in an ocean to survive. It’s the ones that can swim fast that make it.

(Editing by Terence Lee and Josh Horwitz)

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Have Your Say
  • http://twitter.com/yudhadavid Yudha David

    RT 7 characteristics of Silicon Valley you won’t find in Asia http://t.co/PUefckuu1x

  • http://www.ekita.co Efraim

    Yo Minh! I am glad you spent more time there and wrote this piece.

    At least it proves you finally understand our entrepreneur culture.
    I agree with all your points as a veteran of silicon valley but I disagree that these things also wont permeate out here in Asia. They will. They must, or there wont be any successful ecosystems.
    What you just wrote about – the sharing, the stimulation, the win-win scenario building. This is what makes not only silicon valley – but ALL successful ecosystems in the world.

    The level of their success, depending on the level of their ability to MATURE, EMBRACE, and CHAMPION these values of entrepreneurship. Because thats what these values are. The core values of being an entrepreneur.

    Until Asias ecosystems “grow up” just like you said – there will be lots of struggle and little success. Even with all the low hanging fruit which essentially means ANYBODY can succeed (in a small way) just by BEING here. That success factor will only ever become something internationally competitive (which is the hallmark of being a successful ecosystem) when these communities here actually learn to build real communities.

    We have the same thing here in Thailand as you do in Vietnam. Its all over SEA.
    Childish, petty squabbling, lots of noise, lots of noisemakers, and a huge pool of fakes/wannabes/pretenders adding lots of confusion to what actually should be.
    This is leading astray many of the could-be entrepreneurs but in general, the entrepreneurs dedicated to building their products and solving their problems are able to realize fairly quickly what all this is — and ignore it.
    But like I said – we have to change “ignoring it” to “becoming a part of an industry with the others that are also serious”. Until then – we have no ecosystem out here.

    Am glad to see you a part of this because people like you are whats needed here to champion this cause and spread the word.
    Great piece dude.

  • Good Job

    Well written article Minh. Very accurate IMO. Agree with all your points! I find the first point very true. Take e-commerce for example. It’s still very “backward” even in Singapore. It’s so hard to just open an internet merchant account!

  • http://www.actionableanalysis.org Jessica Margolin

    NUMBER FIVE!!! DO #5!!
    Yes, this is a great analysis. DO FIVE!! Five is your ticket!! We are TRYING to change the infrastructure, but it’s got massive inertia. That’s what “disrupt” comes from — disrupt the infrastructure. If Asian entrepreneurs focus on creating a startup culture around a basic premise of infrastructure-transience, you have got one hell of a competitive advantage!!
    (And as an aside, the “1st world problems” that tech is solving right now is a whole other issue, about the romance of the wealthy young men who have very limited life experience, as well as the VC’s, many of whom don’t either. The US has giant problems — we seem to have no idea who needs emotional support or mental health services for starters. There’s this whole healthcare debacle. Our democracy is suffering, as a structure…. check out impact investment and social entrepreneurialism for the leading edge there.)

  • http://www.nestideas.com Simon

    Good write up. You make some good points but having just taken a start up from Asia that we invested in to SV and showed it off at TechCrunch Disrupt (http://techcrunch.com/2013/09/10/foodiequest/) and got early adopters into for example, I think that although Asia does not have it all, it has some of its own upsides (which we talked about on our website http://www.nestideas.com) and we can always take our startups to US and tap into that energy when we need it. I am investing in Asia and startups here as I believe we can get the most out of both worlds and both have their strengths and weaknesses.

  • http://www.tallenge.com Praveen

    Thank you for writing a thought-provoking piece Anh-Minh.

    As an Asian, I am guilty of the I-Me-Myself world which does not experiment with things or support others or care about the greater good. I am afraid of failure and am incredibly busy being inward-focused.

    Valley-style entrepreneurial approach and success is not going to come our way. If we want a place at the table we need to figure out what our SV should be like. Not a clone, but our own version.

  • http://www.gilcruxholdings.com John S

    I disagree with six out of the seven points here – and that’s based on 15 years in the US working with a lot of Valley guys, and 15 years here in Singapore working in startups.

    I see lots of people helping each other in Singapore, a ton of sharing and growing together… there are some very big dreams that are being executed right now, and some of the guys funding and running them have faced failure, learned from it, and moved right on up the stack.

    We have to be careful not to perpetuate myths – Singapore today is providing the kind of support to startups that entrepreneurs in other countries can only dream of. And producing young entrepreneurs who are confident, smart, and not scared to take risks – just like the dozens of the amazingly successful older Singaporean entrepreneurs that almost never seem to get the column inches they deserve in these kind of articles.

    True, our domestic market is small – but more than 50% of US S&P company revenue coming from outside US borders, there is no reason why we can’t compete for at least one dollar in every two. We just need to become more efficient at accessing and servicing these global opportunities – and the follow-on capital will follow.