I stepped into the room and did a quick scan. It was absolutely packed.
To the left, several Facebook engineers were huddled in deep discussion. To the right, a group of coders hacking away intently on laptops. Deeper in the noisy room I spotted an ex-colleague from Cisco, chatting with a well-known VC. I had heard earlier that he was considering leaving Cisco and this was probably one of many meetings he was having on his way to a new startup.
I edged my way carefully through the crowded room to my friend’s table.
“This place is jamming today,” he said. I ran into two guys from my last startup and they have an interesting idea in the security space. We should stop by and say ‘hi’ on the way out”.
Was this a tech conference? Demo-day event? Startup accelerator? It could have been any of those places, but this time I was at Coupa café in Palo Alto.
Coupa café represents the heart and soul of Silicon Valley. More value has been created at Coupa – and other places like it – than can possibly be imagined. Deals and term sheets have been done, serial interviews completed over multiple cups of coffee, introductions to friends and friends-of-friends, a constant stream of ‘hello’, exchange of contacts, and catching-up on new directions. Coupa makes the world feel like two degrees of separation.
Coffee shops are great places for networking – and constant networking is the lifeblood of Silicon Valley. It is a distinct attribute that stands it apart from the rest of the world.
Not every business meeting needs to be held in a cool coffee spot, but a healthy amount is important. This can be an odd concept, particularly among my non-Silicon Valley colleagues. I often get a response like: “Why would you want to meet at a noisy, crowded coffee shop where we will probably be interrupted, when we can talk in the quiet of my meeting room? What’s the point?”
Ah. But that is point: to meet in these noisy, crowded, energetic places, complete with the occasional interruption. Coffee shops are about spontaneity, randomness and serendipity; places where unexpected ideas, insights and innovation run wild. I’ll wager some of our most valuable, life-changing events began with such random encounters. Networking (like crazy) opens oneself to new encounters and new possibilities.
Networking is sitting next to a stranger at your child’s soccer game, starting up a friendly conversation, being introduced to his/her friend-of-a-friend’s startup – and investing in it (I’ve done this – twice). Networking is reaching out to an old colleague and inviting them for coffee for no other reason than to see what you’re both working on. Networking inspires equally familiar and completely new ideas.
Networking is also about opening up and sharing. Good ideas shared and with smart people quickly turn into great ones. However this does require letting go of the belief that a great idea is some type of competitive advantage. Not true. The real competitive advantage is the ability to execute that idea, to build and motivate a team around it, to develop customer traction and to create a profitable, scalable business.
Coupa café happens to be one of my favorite networking places. However Silicon Valley has many, many other places like it: unique, packed, noisy, interesting places where smart, innovative, passionate people meet. Where ideas and visions are explored; where success and failure are shared openly.
Back to the meeting that morning… As we were getting ready to leave, someone was settling into a coveted spot at the table next to us. He glanced our way and suddenly said, “Hi Chris, long time no see!”. He was a blogger at a very well known internet site; one of the ‘super-connectors’ with unusually high leverage in the online world.
I chatted with him briefly and then (most importantly) introduced my friend, who was working on his next startup (note to entrepreneurs: my friend was about to meet someone who could bring thousands of eyeballs to his company’s home page, with one stroke of the keyboard – from a random meeting at a coffee shop).
“Nice to meet you” the super-connector said. “I’m curious to hear about your new idea. Got a minute…?”.
I smiled as I left the café, leaving the two of them to talk. Serendipity.
In closing, whether you are an entrepreneur in Buenos Aires, Beijing or Barcelona, can you name the places where everyone meets? Do you know where your local startup ‘world’ gathers and chats over a coffee, tea, lunch or dinner? Where ideas are shared, connections made and teams created?
If you don’t have these, go out and start one. Pick a great spot. Make sure the coffee/tea/food is awesome and the place has a special feeling. Start to have as many meetings as possible there. Let word start to travel that this is the place to meet, network and connect. Let chance and serendipity take over.
Create your own Coupa.