Networking & Business Culture Silicon Valley Style

January 19, 2019
by Charlotte Danielsson
An understanding of the unspoken business and networking culture in Silicon Valley is the key for Nordic entrepreneurs to build the relationships needed to succeed in Silicon Valley. Everyone is speaking English but cultural differences lead to misunderstanding. This article provides insights into common misunderstandings between Nordic entrepreneurs and Silicon Valley locals and gives concrete recommendations on how to build an effective network.
Living in the US with a mix of Swedish and US culture for over forty years and working with Nordic companies over the past nineteen years in a professional capacity, there are two areas where I believe cultural differences are the greatest and most misunderstood: networking and business culture.  Ironically, they are both the most difficult to master and the most important to understand for business success in Silicon Valley.  After countless articles on the topic, most Nordic entrepreneurs understand that networking is the key to success here and do their best to mimic the American bravado they view as the difference in networking here versus in the Nordics.  In terms of business culture, Nordic entrepreneurs often label American business people as less trustworthy saying that they misrepresent themselves and don’t follow through on their promises.  The Nordic bubble in Silicon Valley tends to reinforce that these interpretations by Nordic entrepreneurs are accurate.  In reality, bravado is not the key to effective networking in Silicon Valley (or anywhere in the US for that matter) and the trustworthiness impression is not a result of some inherent American dishonesty but rather a result of not understanding that you are speaking different cultural languages because you are both speaking English. 

Bravado scale

Bravado is the appearance of confidence that someone shows in order to impress other people.  It is the first thing people from the Nordics tend to see with Americans.  Coming from the more introverted Nordic cultures, it is often very intimidating and something Nordic professionals believe they need to mimic to be successful.  While genuine confidence is something that every entrepreneur needs to master and that will yield respect in the US, bravado is not.  What Nordic entrepreneurs typically don’t understand is that there is an unspoken bravado scale.  Growing up in the culture, Americans instantly can tell where someone is on the bravado scale and then they weight what the person is saying appropriately.  If the Nordic business person’s transformation to American business person includes adopting American bravado as part of their business persona and they land wrong on the bravado scale, they risk losing credibility.  If they don’t understand American bravado when doing business, they risk selecting the wrong employees, business partners, etc.

Silicon Valley Hierarchy

Silicon Valley is known for its “pay it forward” culture and being very open--introductions are easy to get, work spaces are open, management is accessible, etc. Many Nordic entrepreneurs misinterpret this as being similar to the flat management and egalitarianism they are used to at home.  Not understanding that there is a hierarchy typically leads to frustration for the Nordic entrepreneur because his/her deals don’t close, his/her networking is ineffective, etc.  You must simultaneously show the appropriate level of deference for your place in the hierarchy and display confidence.  If you get the balance wrong, you are arrogant---and potentially even insulting.

​​​​​​​“Pay it forward” really doesn’t mean free referrals and connections.  In the Nordics there are lots of government agencies that help startups so Nordic entrepreneurs are accustomed to receiving assistance and introductions so the connections they receive in Silicon Valley often just seem like a familiar thing.  If you are a Nordic entrepreneur who gets a meeting with someone important that meeting is most likely the result of someone else’s network and that person’s level of influence.  In practice, what does that mean?  It means the important person accepted the meeting with you not because you have the most amazing startup they have ever heard of but because the person who made the connection is someone that person trusts and respects (ie the person who connected you has spent years developing their own network and working hard to gain trust in the Silicon Valley ecosystem).  Anything you do is a positive or negative reflection on the person who made the introduction (if you reschedule the meeting, arrive late, take up too much of the person’s time, don’t follow up with a thank you, don’t answer their emails quickly, etc you reflect badly on the person who made the connection). You are the beneficiary of the “pay it forward” culture but if you don’t show the appropriate level of respect and professionalism and also continue to “pay it forward” those introductions will dry up quickly.  Circling back to say thank you to the person who made the introduction is proper etiquette. While your initial introduction is a free introduction into the Silicon Valley ecosystem from someone who has already earned a place in the system, in order to really penetrate the ecosystem you have to earn your place in the hierarchy through hard work, integrity, and building a powerful professional network of your own where you can continue the “pay it forward” culture.

Why arent’ they telling the truth?!

I was recently at an event where a Nordic entrepreneur was talking to an audience about her success in the US.  The “success” she talked about was getting a meeting with her dream client about a month prior.  She talked about how much the person she met with said he loved her product and she was assuming a big sale any day.  My American colleague was perplexed after her talk and asked me, “why was she talking to a room full of people about this ‘success’ when she had only had one meeting? It sounded like he was just being polite when he said he loved her product.” The Nordic entrepreneur and my American colleague both heard the same words but attributed completely different meanings to them.  A few years back, another Nordic startup was so sure they were close to closing a huge deal with a Fortune 500 company because they had multiple meetings with that company over a period of time that they focused all of their efforts on the deal with that one client…but two years later they were actually no closer to a deal and had run out of money.  The cultural language the Nordic startup and the Fortune 500 company were speaking was not the same.
US companies are all hierarchies even if it doesn’t look that way on the surface.  Know who you are dealing with in the company and who the actual decision maker(s) in the company are.  The company gatekeeper is the one who has the power to decide if you get to move on within the company to the next level of decision making.  The gatekeepers will almost always exaggerate their level of power; you need to get past them so you must display respect for their authority but you shouldn’t actually believe they have the power to make the decision to buy your product.  Effective networking can be a way to bypass the gatekeepers to get to the actual decision maker(s) directly which is one of the reasons networking is so important in the US. In the story of the Nordic woman meeting with her dream client, she was undoubtedly only at the gatekeeper level because this was her first meeting with the company.

Ascertaining whether a company is just browsing or actually shopping is often difficult because the language is similar.  Most seasoned US sales professionals know that companies are browsing if there is no definitive current need.  They are also aware, however, that the onus to move a potential customer from browser to purchaser is on them not on the potential customer (they need to clearly state what the benefit of their product is to the customer, they need to follow up quickly and follow up at later intervals if a current sale isn’t possible, they need to be aware of any potential competitors moving in, they need to initiate any next steps in the sales process to effectively move the sales process forward, they need to ascertain whether there is someone more effective within the company they could be dealing with, etc)…and they know they need to keep have a deep sales pipeline at all times because talking to a potential customer (even at the later stages) is not equivalent to actually having a sale.  “I love your product” can mean “I love your product and I’m interested in potentially buying this,” “I love your product I want to move this up to our management to purchase this,” “I love your product but we have no current need for it,” “you seem like a nice entrepreneur so I don’t want to quash your dreams but this product is no good,” etc. US business politeness is not misrepresentation or not being honest, it is culturally understood that the true meaning of their words will be ascertained by the actions they take in response to your follow up.  Note, even when “I love your product” actually means “I love your product and I’m interested in potentially buying this,” it is important to understand that Nordic time and US time are not the same thing.  Even US time and Silicon Valley time aren’t the same thing.  Especially in Silicon Valley, time is such a limited resource that attention spans are often short as a result and business priorities are constantly in flux.  What I mean by this is that no matter how interested the person was in your product at the time of the meeting, they will have other things become a priority after the meeting so the onus is on you to follow up quickly and to repeatedly move your product up on their priority list. 

Building a network of value

The mistake I see Nordic entrepreneurs make most often with regard to networking is that they come to one event, don’t find a potential customer at the event, and then never attend another event because they didn’t feel they got anything out of it; they conclude that networking doesn’t work.  Building a network is not about finding a direct pipeline to customers; it is more about building a personal network of diverse contacts that make you a valuable resource and contributor to the Silicon Valley ecosystem and the level of influence you gain through that is what will ultimately lead to new customers. It is not a one-shot type of activity but rather a strategic, long-term focused, and time-consuming endeavor that requires discipline. Some keys to successful networking:
  • Any influential, connected person has the potential to be helpful to you at some point even if they aren’t a VC, prospective customer, etc.  Basically, the more influential people you know, the more influential you will be…so don’t rule them out just because they aren’t a direct benefit to you now. Again, building a strong network is a long-term endeavor.
  • Avoid bravado and just be sincere.  You don’t need to be the most popular person at an event, you just need to be effective.
  • Identify 2-3 organizations that have influential people in them.  Don’t just attend an occasional event but rather actually invest time in those organization so that the leaders of the organization know you well (i.e. be a regular attendee, volunteer, chair a committee, etc). Ultimately this may also lead to you being invited to be a board member of the organization and/or lead to you being invited as a panelist or moderator at an event—both of which help further build your credibility in the ecosystem.
  • Get to know other entrepreneurs.  Sure, they are struggling like you currently so you don’t see them providing any benefit to you now but if you become part of the entrepreneurial community, the entrepreneurs that you have invested time in getting to know may be able to help you make connections you need in the future. Also, never underestimate the power of current knowledge sharing—their experience might save you from making the same mistakes or help you find better ways to navigate the market.
  • Attend pitching events even if you aren’t pitching.  VCs are typically willing to talk to you before or after the pitching event.
  • In terms of events, the following techniques may help increase your effectiveness:
    • Arrive early
      • so you have the maximum networking time available to you;
      • so you will have a chance to see all of the names, titles, and companies on the name tags at the registration table; that way you have the time and information needed to develop a strategy for the event
      • so you can meet the event organizer(s) who are often the most important people to know in the room because they are an ongoing connection source
    • Don’t stick with the first person or group you meet the whole night because it’s comfortable and don’t spend the whole night talking to the people you already know! Talk and move on…you only have a limited amount of time to make the rounds in the room.
    • Don’t promote your business or product.  Networking is about making a connection with people at the event not about selling.  The goal is to make a personal connection, get their business card. 
    • Ask open-ended questions, focus on the other person instead of yourself…and if they are in any way influential or connected and you have any information or connections that would be beneficial to them, help them.
    • Introduce people at the event to each other.  Being someone who is seen as a resource is one of the best ways to build your level of influence and solidify a new connection. This is one of the reasons why attending events of specific organizations regularly and/or becoming involved in the leadership in some way is important…you will know more people that you can introduce others to at the events.
    • After each event, you should prioritize the contacts made, develop a strategy for each contact you want to move the relationship forward with, and follow up (even if it is as simple as just sending a LinkedIn invitation).