It doesn't matter where you are or what kind of business you're starting, you can learn to be a better entrepreneur by looking at what makes Silicon Valley tick. Even if you own a small neighborhood business, the ability to innovate, adapt and grow is crucial to keeping your company alive. What looks like a sustainable business one day can quickly become obsolete the next. I've seen this happen too many times over the years.
How do entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley adapt? By staying flexible. That flexibility is maintained through a set of unwritten rules about how people interact with one another. These rules form an invisible social contract that supports entrepreneurs as they innovate and adjust to the ever-changing marketplace.
Here are five unwritten rules Silicon Valley follows that you should too:
1. Trust and be trustworthy. I've noticed it often takes longer to forge new business relationships outside of Silicon Valley. In some places, newcomers are eyed with suspicion for years. In Silicon Valley, however, coffee shop meetings can turn into business partnerships the next day. High social barriers, whether caused by geography, networks, culture, language or distrust, can stifle relationships before they are born. The rate of innovation increases when people break down these barriers and create bridges of trust outside their normal circles. Doing so is crucial because innovation thrives when people contribute different ideas, backgrounds skills and networks.
2. Seek fairness, not advantage. I find that most people treat business as a zero-sum game, where one side wins and the other loses. Investors are often the worst at this. However, the most successful venture capitalists know they should treat their entrepreneurs fairly. Here's a lesson some people have a tough time learning: You can't innovate alone. You need partners to take on the journey with you. Wise businesspeople have the humility to seek out long-term, positive-sum collaborations with others, and are willing to sacrifice some of their immediate self-interest for long-term gains.
3. Pay it forward. Take an up-and-comer to lunch. Introduce others to your network. Return phone calls. Become a mentor. You may think you're getting nothing back, but you are getting something of incredible value: a great reputation. You've become an expert, a go-to person, someone others know they can trust and, just as importantly, think of fondly. You also give yourself the opportunity to hear your own ideas aloud, creating the opportunity to assess whether they are still sound practices.
4. Open doors and listen. I once pitched a deal to another venture capitalist who spent most of the time typing a message on his phone. He missed a great opportunity. Listening is a key to building relationships and assessing needs. You don't want to be the one who blows off the next Mark Zuckerberg, nor do you want to be carrying on a monologue in your interactions. Ask questions and keep learning. Create an environment where diverse opinions and talents are valued and where newcomers don't remain strangers.
5. Experiment and iterate together. Here's a little trick taught to me by my design friends at Stanford: Practice saying "yes and" instead of "no" to every idea. Will all of these opportunities be good or even come to fruition? Of course not. But create a workplace where there are no bad ideas, just early incarnations of good ones. Thomas Edison tested more than 2,000 materials before developing a functioning light bulb. Mistakes don't define you. They refine you. Don't let fear of failure stop you from trying something new or taking advice from others. If things don't work out right, adapt, reload and try again.