Silicon Valley

Why you shouldn’t be afraid to ask when it comes to networking

Jennifer Fonstad, cofounder of Aspect Ventures and a seasoned venture capitalist, admits she’s more of an introvert than an extrovert. But when it comes to networking with Silicon Valley insiders, she’s a pro. Her advice: Don’t be afraid to ask.

Fonstad offered her advice at the Catalyst Conference in San Francisco this week in a fireside chat with Christina Passariello of the Wall Street Journal. The event was staged by Girls in Tech, a nonprofit group supporting women in tech. It has more than 60,000 members across 60 chapters.

Silicon Valley still has a problem with women. About 26 percent of professional computing positions in the U.S. workforce were held by women in 2016. About 5 percent of tech startups are owned by women, and 17 percent have a female founder. A survey found that 48 percent of women say that a lack of mentors is a barrier for them in the tech industry.

And networking is part of that problem, as the “good old boy network” is a self-perpetuating phenomenon. Fonstad noted that 130 men are promoted to management for every 100 women who are (according to a McKinsey report), and speculated that’s because the men networked better.

Fonstad worked in politics early in her career, and she said she often had to put on a brave face and introduce political candidates at networking events. That was a part of her job, and it forced her to be a better networker than she might have been otherwise. That role took the focus away from Fonstad herself and gave her a larger purpose that motivated her to network better.

Finding mentors is part of creating your own network. But mentoring is not a…

Silicon Valley is blowing its chance to connect with Middle America

Image Credit: IM_photo / Shutterstock

I’ve lived in Silicon Valley for the last 20 years, and recent political and economic events have had me thinking about how Silicon Valley relates to the rest of the country — or rather how it doesn’t. With CEOs boldly proclaiming their primary goal is to beat a rival CEO to $10 billion in revenue, leading innovators talking about sending tourists to the moon, and Uber’s “win at all costs” mentality miring them in multiple scandals, I’ve been wondering if Silicon Valley has lost touch.

Long before boarding the Silicon Valley roller coaster, I grew up in Northern California’s other valley. One of the world’s largest agrarian economies in the world, the Central Valley was (and in many locations still is) a vast world of rice farms and almond orchards mixed with Sacramento’s state politics. Even as Silicon Valley’s influence expands, the Central Valley remains mostly blue-collar and conservative — a place I still consider home.

To be clear, Silicon Valley has a lot going for it. It’s the model that many industries around the world would like to emulate: one that embraces big ideas, innovation, and hard work being rewarded. The aspiration is greatness — not just in making money, but also in making the world a better place. The idea that you can “dream big” and find the right partners and innovators to bring those ideas to reality is our own modern and geeky version of the “American dream.”

However, due to a variety of factors, we have succumbed to Silicon Valley elitism. And that attitude is causing us to miss our chance to connect with Middle America and the rest of the world. Here’s why:

Silicon Valley has become too much like Wall Street

The mind-boggling cost of living, a lack of diversity in leadership positions, and men behaving badly makes more mainstream news these days than the latest and greatest products. Even worse, it seems there are no consequences for these actions. We aren’t learning from our mistakes. Tech culture has become too much like the Wall Street of the 1980s — a lucrative club for the well-connected elite. The win-at-all-cost mentality, where you will screw over your partners and even your colleagues to climb the ladder, has become too prevalent. Uber is just the latest example; before that Zenefits, Github, and many others have been publicly shamed. And, keep in mind, those are just the ones whose scandals…

Building a startup in Wisconsin, the lowest-ranked startup state

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Last month, The Kauffman Institute released its annual Index of Startup Activity, which analyzes entrepreneurship across the country. The report assigns every state a Startup Activity Index number based on the rate of new entrepreneurs, their opportunity share, and startup density.

California, home to Silicon Valley ranks, of course, at #1, while booming Texas came in at #2.

The bottom of the list was is familiar. For the third straight year, Wisconsin sits at #50.

I love Wisconsin. I’m from here, I went to college here, and I’ve kept my startup here, growing it from three high school friends in an off-campus apartment to a team of over 30. I’ve written before about the many benefits of basing my startup in the Midwest: lower initial costs, affordable cost of living for employees, and investor attitudes that help focus and refine entrepreneurial vision. So it pains me to see the Badger State bringing up the rear again.

Despite Wisconsin’s overall ranking, it’s well-known within the state that Madison — where my company is headquartered — is home to a burgeoning tech scene. A recent report by TechNet and the Progressive Policy Institute ranked Madison in the top 25 of “next tech hubs”: Silicon Valley alternatives with low cost of living, high job creation rates, and access to top-quality talent. The Brookings Institute ranked Madison #5 in its study of tech industry growth among the country’s 100 largest metropolitan areas.

Still, there are certain challenges endemic to founding a tech startup in Wisconsin. Here are a few of the challenges my company has encountered over the past five years — and a few of the benefits of doing business in the Badger State.

The Midwest Series B crunch

Midwestern investors are revenue-centric, and they expect results. And though the early days of a startup can be really lean — we didn’t pay ourselves at ABODO for two years — that initial leanness forced us to focus on building a product…

3 Reno startups thriving beyond Silicon Valley

This is a picture of the famous sign in Reno, Nevada, a city whose nickname is

Silicon Valley loves to talk about what makes it special: great universities nearby, a networked VC community, quality of life. But rising rents and crowded freeways have strained that, just as other emerging tech hubs are enticing not only startups but the talented workers who want to work for them.

After years of drawing in educated tech workers, some areas of the Bay Area faced an emigration of workers in 2016, according to U.S. Census data. That’s not only enticing some startups to set down roots outside major tech centers like Silicon Valley and New York, but to find talent who want to put down their own roots in more affordable soil.

Three Reno, Nevada-based startups discussed these themes during a panel discussion at a VentureBeat event to launch its Heartland Tech channel ahead of the 2017 Blueprint conference. At the gathering, founders of the companies told their stories of growth outside the world of tech metropoleis.

The bootstrapped biker

In 2011, Nate Pearson was training for a triathalon. But the $20 per class fee was a little steep for the recent University of Nevada grad, so he came up with a solution: He wrote his own workout software do help him perform training on his own. Not long after that, he recruited his former training coach and launched TrainerRoad, which allows cyclists to do power-based training in their own homes.

Above: TrainerRoad CEO Nate Pearson

Since then, TrainerRoad has grown to 56 employees and become a net-profitable enterprise – all without any venture or angel funding. Instead, Pearson and his co-founders bootstrapped the company with $10,000 they scraped together and have since financed its growth through cash flows.

In contrast to the invest-to-grow-fast attitude of many Silicon Valley startups, TrainerRoad hires employees as it can afford to and markets to a niche user base through its podcast and a support staff that responds to mentions of the app on biker forums. Engineers are recruited via sites like Stack Exchange, mostly hailing outside the Bay Area.

“It’s possible to build a successful startup without VC investment and hiring in the Bay Area,” Pearson told VentureBeat. “There’s not just one way to do it, especially if you’re not shooting for the moon.”

That approach also allows TrainerRoad to focus on training its customers without worrying about investor exit strategies. Its next goals are incorporating more outside analytics and adding more planned workouts. “We may not become a unicorn,” Pearson said, “but we’re expanding on what we’ve built…

Pied Piper’s New Internet Isn’t Just Possible—It’s Almost Here


On HBO’s Silicon Valley, startups promise to “change the world” by tackling silly, often non-existent problems. But this season, the show’s characters are tackling a project that really could. In their latest pivot, Richard Hendricks and the Pied Piper gang are trying to create new internet that cuts out intermediaries like Facebook, Google, and the fictional Hooli. Their idea: use a peer-to-peer network built atop every smartphone on the planet, effectively rendering huge data centers full of servers unnecessary.

“If we could do it we could build a completely decentralized version of our current internet,” Hendricks says. “With no firewalls, no tolls, no government regulation, no spying, information would be totally free in every sense of the word.”

But wait: Isn’t the internet already a decentralized network that no one owns? In theory, yes. But in practice, a small number of enormous companies control or at least mediate so much of the internet. Sure, anyone can publish whatever they want to the web. But without Facebook and Google, will anyone be able to find it? Amazon, meanwhile, controls not just the web’s biggest online store but a cloud computing service so large and important that when part of it went offline briefly earlier this year, the internet itself seemed to go down. Similarly, when hackers attacked the lesser-known company Dyn–now owned by tech giant Oracle–last year, large swaths of the internet came crashing down with it. Meanwhile, a handful of telecommunications giants, including Comcast, Charter, and Verizon, control the market for internet access and have the technical capability to block you from accessing particular sites or apps. In some countries, a single state-owned telco controls internet access completely.

Given those very non-utopian realities, people in the real world are also hard at work trying to rebuild the internet in a way that comes closer to the decentralized ideal. They’re still pretty far from Richard’s utopian vision, but it’s already possible to do some of what he describes. Still, it’s not enough to just cut out today’s internet power players. You also need to build a new internet that people will actually want to use.

Storage Everywhere

On the show, Richard’s plan stems from the realization that just about everyone carries around a smartphone with hundreds of times more computing power than the machines that sent humans to the moon. What’s more, those phones are just sitting in people’s pockets doing nothing for most of the day. Richard proposes to use his fictional compression technology—his big innovation from season one—to free up extra space on people’s phones. In exchange for using the app, users would agree to share some of the space they free up with Pied Piper, who will then resell it to companies for far less than they currently pay giants like Amazon.

The closest thing to what’s what’s described on Silicon Valley might be Storj, a decentralized cloud storage company. Much like Pied Piper, Storj has built a network of people who sell their unused storage capacity. If you want to buy space on the Storj network, you upload your files and the company splits them up into smaller pieces, encrypts them so that no one but you can read your data, and then distributes those pieces across its network.

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“You control your own encryption keys so we have no access to the data,” says co-founder John Quinn. “We have no knowledge of what is being stored.”

Also like Pied Piper, Storj bills itself as safer than traditional storage systems, because your files will reside on multiple computers throughout the world. Quinn says that in order to lose a…

It’s Time For Silicon Valley to Disrupt Its Toxic Asian Stereotypes

John P. Johnson/HBO

HBO’s Silicon Valley is a world of seesaws. Swift, meteoric rises and abrupt, catastrophic falls govern the lives of the entire Pied Piper team. One day they’re titans of the tech industry; the next, their ideas are rightly referred to as “toxic assets.” And with millions in funding and an ever-moving finish line, that unpredictability leads to constant backstabbing and double-crossing. To make it in the Valley, you have to keep your friends NDA’ed and your enemies out of your incubator—otherwise, you’re hosed.

That zero-sum dynamic applies to rivalries within Pied Piper as well as without. But in the cases of frenemies Gilfoyle (Martin Starr) and Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani) and the hostile partnership of Erlich (T. J. Miller) and Jian-Yang (Jimmy O. Yang), that antagonism takes on racial overtones that reinforce pernicious stereotypes about Asians in tech and other industries. And over the show’s three and a half seasons, the writers’ reliance on those tropes has only become more obvious.

Silicon Valley grapples with the difficulty of translating genius into profit—but only its white characters get the privilege of suffering that dilemma. Richard (Thomas Middleditch) is the show’s tortured artist, consumed by the thought of inventing the next internet. Bemused nihilist Gilfoyle is the only coder who can equal Richard’s skill, imagination, and purity of intent. Loyal Jared (Zach Woods) has come through for his team time and again by looking at the larger picture when the rest could only focus on the details. And Erlich, who last season conjured up a $6 million bidding war over lunch, continues to turn stems and seeds into medicinal-grade sativa. (Entrepreneurially speaking.)

Meanwhile, Pakistani immigrant Dinesh spectacularly screwed up both a CEO position and a relationship—the entire point of his character is that he’ll never…

T.J. Miller Exiting HBO’s ‘Silicon Valley’

Erlich Bachman won't be back in season five of the comedy.
Courtesy of HBO

T.J. Miller is leaving Silicon Valley.

The actor best known for his portrayal of blowhard entrepreneur Erlich Bachman on the HBO comedy will not be back for the upcoming fifth season. HBO confirmed Miller’s exit on Thursday.

“The producers of Silicon Valley and T.J. Miller have mutually agreed that T.J. will not return for season 5,” the pay cable network said in a statement. “In Erlich Bachman, T.J. has brought to life an unforgettable character, and while his presence on the show will be missed, we appreciate his contribution and look forward to future collaborations.”

News of Miller’s departure comes just hours after HBO renewed the comedy for another season. The tech-spoofing…

In ‘The Circle’, What We Give Up When We Share Ourselves

Tom Hanks stars in The Circle as a tech CEO who is part Steve Jobs and part Mark Zuckerberg.

, the film based on the novel by Dave Eggers, presents a dystopian view of the direction Silicon Valley is taking the world. And, as a longtime Silicon Valley correspondent, I have to say there is a lot that this comic and spooky film gets right.

Let’s start with the main character, Mae, a recent college grad played by Emma Watson. Mae is eager, idealistic and versed in the kind of marketing verbiage that rolls off the tongues of way too many young people in Silicon Valley. When she goes for a job interview at the Circle — the world’s biggest tech company — she impresses her interviewer with a comically perfect description of the company’s main service.

Sounding like a commercial voice-over, she says: “Before TrueYou, it was like you needed a different vehicle for every single one of your errands. And no one should have to own 87 different cars. It doesn’t make sense. It’s the chaos of the Web made elegant and simple.”

Mae rises up the corporate ladder quickly. She is taken with the company’s charismatic CEO, Eamon Bailey, played by Tom Hanks. Hanks’ physicality and manic focus bring to mind Steve Jobs; his zealous belief that his company will make the world better evokes Mark Zuckerberg.

Bailey convinces Mae to take part in an experiment. She will be the first person to wear one of The Circle’s small livestreaming consumer cameras all the time. “I’m going fully transparent,” she announces at one of the frequent company meetings, where the staff applaud with cultlike enthusiasm.

Mae’s authenticity and good looks turn her into an Internet star. But life in the spotlight turns out to have its dark side. Her best friend is having a breakdown and they have to hide in the bathroom to talk privately with a time limit of 3 minutes.

Mae tries to promote her friend Mercer’s business — he makes chandeliers from…

One Man’s Quest to Get Elon Musk to Change His Mind

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SpaceX CEO Elon Musk listens to US President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with business leaders in the Roosevelt Room at the White House in Washington, DC, on January 23, 2017. (Photo credit: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)

Unusual full-page ads in Sunday editions of the New York Times and the Washington Post called on the iconic entrepreneur Elon Musk to “dump Trump.” The ads were taken out by a Silicon Valley startup investor Doug Derwin, who told CNN he paid $400,000 for 4 ads (which also ran in the San Francisco Chronicle and San Jose Mercury News).

What motivated Derwin to make such an extravagant expenditure? He believes Elon Musk has too close a relationship with Donald Trump, serving on his advisory council. Derwin maintains a site for this campaign called “Elon Dump Trump” where he calls Musk a “an important propaganda symbol for Donald Trump”. More specifically, the site says Musk’s relationship with Trump legitimizes the President’s “disastrous” policies on climate change.

The newspaper ads are actually just part of a larger $1 million campaign by Derwin which already included ad vehicles and a billboard close to Tesla HQ in Palo Alto. The effort also has an additional $1 million dollars to be donated to charity if Musk denounces Trump’s environmental policies and changes to the EPA.

Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla Motors, SpaceX and Neuralink, is a man of many ideas. What makes him a modern-age Edison (with a touch of Tesla) is that he finds a way to put his ideas into action. Which is why it is not surprising he would be looking to work with President Trump. Especially if you consider Trump’s stated goal of investing into large infrastructure projects.

Musk has…

Snapchat Went Public, and This Silicon Valley School Made a Cool $24 Million

When I was in high school, we held bake sales, car washes, and carnivals to raise money for things like shiny new uniforms and ski trips. Now – at least if you go to school in Silicon Valley – investment opportunities have gotten quite a bit more sophisticated.

And, if I remember the $200 we made after an entire day washing cars in the heat correctly, quite a bit more successful, too.

It all started back in 2012, when venture capitalist Barry Eggers came home to find his children at the kitchen table playing with a new app – Snapchat. In a world bogged down with social media, Snapchat offered something new and just different enough, with its filters and the disappearing content element.

At least that’s what Eggers thought, and he subsequently negotiated a $500,000 investment in the company.

That’s where St. Francis High School (where Eggers’ children go to school) came into play. The school set up a fund in 1990 that aims to…