Posted: 3rd Jan 2011
I live in quaint part of the Cotswolds in England.
I don't live or work in Silicon Valley, yet...
Lots of businesses start and grow in Silicon Valley, and tech news comes out of there on an hourly basis (even at weekends). I've been following the news this last year by reading blogs like Hacker News, Mixergy and Techcrunch (there are loads of others!). However it's true that lots of startups come from places outside the Valley, and even outside of the United States.
It's possible to do it, because I've been able to build a successful startup and I live in the countryside in England, but it's not without its frustrations and difficulties.
A lot of community happens online, thanks to blogs, comments, forums, Skype, social media etc. You can almost feel like you are living in the Valley even though you don't by being a regular subscriber and participator of these online communities. This is what I've done and I regularly 'hang out' online in these communities:
I also chat regularly on Skype to entrepreneurs that I've met over the year. It's awesome being able to be part of the 'Startup Culture' without needing to be physically located in the place where most of the successful tech startups actually reside. However there are a few things that I miss, and a few things I've struggled with building my startup where I live here in the UK.
People Don't Understand
Most people get the Internet where I live. They all surf Facebook, use Ebay and of course Google. We even have quite a few design agencies here in the town where I live actually. However when you explain cutting edge technologies or new business models like the 'value of Freemium', they switch off and don't understand - and these are the 'tech-savvy' people I'm talking about.
People don't really understand SaaS, they don't understand things like good UX or UI design (which is essential to any online service), they'll be quite far behind on new trends like 'checking-in', mobile payments, HTML5, Quora and the Q&A buzz, The Streaming Cloud and so on.
In a way, why should they? They only really care about what their friends are getting up to, or how they can find a killer deal on a pair of jeans, or where they can get the cheapest mobile phone contract. However for me my conversations at a coffee shop or pub basically never end up with me talking about work, because then I'm just 'geeking out' and they don't understand.
One of my friends recently went to Palo Alto and said that in the coffee shop everyone had a laptop and was talking about their latest startup idea. How cool!?
So what's the solution? I annoy my friends and bore them with the latest web trends, soon they'll understand.
The Time Zone
Running a US focused startup in the UK is hard because of the time zone difference. Most of our customers are in the US because they are very comfortable paying for cloud based apps on a monthly basis over there. Here in the UK people tend to rather pay up-front or 'download something', but we are slowly catching on and we do have a few UK customers.
We are at least 5 hours ahead here, so when it's 2PM in the UK things are just kicking off in the US. At 5PM (when we should be winding down for the day) things really get busy because the people in the west coast have just started work.
The timezone difference can have an affect on family life and be quite disruptive.
So how do we get around this?
The quiet mornings can actually be a great time to get work done without distractions. Fixing bugs, rolling out server updates, building new features and uploading them without affecting too many customers using the web application - the mornings are a great time to do this stuff.
iPhones do wonders for customer support in the evenings. Yes it can be a little distracting when you are at your family gathering and you're pulling out your iPhone every half an hour and tapping away - but doing it discretely is key.
Anyone building a startup knows it will take its toll on 'free time', but I always think as long as your friends and family understand what you do then they will give you extra grace when you have to send the odd email. Also you can promise them that although it's annoying now, you'll pay them back later when you are very successful and can afford to take them on a luxury cruise in the Caribbean.
Note - don't get me wrong I don't spend every minute of my evenings and weekends on my iPhone sending emails! Also understand that my wife actually works for the company, so that is a massive advantage!
We also tend to start work quite late in the day. Sometimes we don't actually start work until 11AM if we've had a busy evening the night before, so there are ways to adjust. Working like this also helps us when we go on one of our regular trips to the US because then the jet lag is more bearable.
Lack of Face to Face Contact
Face-to-Face contact is really important in business. When you walk in to a shop and someone greets you, smiles and tells you about the offers in the shop you are more likely to buy. This is true too in the web, and lots of web companies are now running workshops and seminars showing their customers how to get the most out of their web applications (or whatever it is they are providing).
For an entrepreneur, when you're not physically connected to the tech scene (e.g. living in Palo Alto, New York or London) there is a big lack of face-to-face contact. If we lived in London this wouldn't be so bad, but because we are in the country it's just us and the occasional trip to the city or the US. Face to face has to be done via Skype, which is great but not as good as actually being with someone.
So the way I get around this is making sure that every email I send, or Skype message, or voice call is really focused on building relationship as best as I can, making things personal and real. Customers really appreciate this, and so do business partners. Then when you meet them it's not like you are meeting a total stranger because you've been working on the relationship the whole time despite the lack of face-to-face contact.
"So Just Move!"
No, I do love it here in the country and for us now where we are in this phase of the Startup, it's perfect. Low overheads, little commuting, walks in the country side to get inspiration and motivation - I love it.
If we were living near to a 'tech hub', I think we would still try to live out in the countryside. I recently was offered a job in a city and while considering the job offer we were looking at houses that were 20 miles away and had a really nice 'community feel' and were near to national parks.
Inspiration from the countryside is so important for someone like me who is a Creative. To be honest I'm not sure I'll ever be able to live in the city for long periods of time, but if things get really big we might have to consider it and 'just move'.
I think you can make your Startup succeed wherever you are located. Some really big web startups have come from little known places across the world. You don't have to be in Palo Alto, though it can help.
I think the most important thing is the flame at the center of the startup. This is usually the entrepreneur and founders. How are they motivated? What fuels them? Is it the buzz of chatting with other entrepreneurs in a coffee shop, or is it taking a walk in the countryside alone? Their motivation and drive is going to be the key to the success, so if they can get that they will surely succeed - even if they live in Antarctica? (we'll see about that one).
Where abouts do you live? What's your startup and is it successful yet?
PS - The photo above was taken by me on my iPhone 4 with HDR, the location is a place we often go for walks. Beautiful.... the phone and the countryside!
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