Dispatch From Silicon Valley: The Origins of Innovation

For years, the Snapple Beverage Company has gone by the tag line, "made from the best stuff on Earth." To me, that equally applies to the companies and ideas that are incubated in a 50- mile stretch of land between San Francisco and San Jose, Calif.: Silicon Valley.

In January 2008 Newt Gingrich, my former employer, had a brilliant idea: move me from Washington, D.C. to Silicon Valley with a simple goal: travel up and down Highway 101 and Interstate 280 -- the main arteries here -- and identify promising companies that will help the political sector communicate better, cheaper and faster and also find companies that will improve how government operates. As I took on this new role, I was soon identified as "a bridge from Silicon Valley to Capitol Hill." Effectively, my mandate was to see how we can make D.C. look more like Silicon Valley.

Continuing on that theme, I'm pleased to participate in the inaugural set of blogs here at HuffPostTech. Over the coming months, my self-appointed task is to share with you what I learn, to unlock the secret of the Valley.

So what it is about the culture, companies and innovations that routinely give credence to why Silicon Valley remains the World Capital of Innovation? Well, some think it has everything to do with a name. In fact, investors around the United States and the World have tried to replicate Silicon Valley, even to the extent of adopting the 'Silicon' name (for a comprehensive list see here). There is "Silicon Alley" in Manhattan, "Silicon Prairie" in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area and of course, the Washington, D.C. metro area has the Dulles Corridor which boasts a large collection of technology government-contractors. But while many have tried, none have succeeded because they do not understand the real reason why this area is so special: a set of values, laid down as early as 1956 and continually reinforced, that encourage risk-taking to help people succeed and, indeed, are there to pick you back up when you've failed.

Many ideas in the Valley that go on to become major success stories (Google, eBay, Twitter) start with venture capital funding. So, it's important to identify even at that early stage how these "Silicon Values" are instilled in entrepreneurs. Tim Draper, the managing director of Draper Fisher Jurvetson, one of area's major venture capital firms, has been identified as saying, "I don't fund 8/10 of the entrepreneurs who say their objective is to 'make myself rich' or the 1/10 who say 'to make my investors rich.' I'm already rich and so are my investors. I like funding the 1/10 who say, 'Something is wrong and I have to fix it.'"

There is no model of being a successful entrepreneur here in the Valley. Not everyone has graduated from college. Some come from privileged backgrounds, others grew up poor. Some are born here, others immigrate. But if there is one thing that sets apart those that make it from those that don't, it is in identifying what is wrong, and how can we dream sufficiently large enough to solve that problem. For Bill Gates, it was "a computer in on every desk and in every home" and for Larry Paige and Sergey Brin, it remains "organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful." I plan on writing about other companies and ideas in the months ahead that are dreaming sufficiently big in the model that created Microsoft and Google.

In addition to venture capital funding, there is also a nurturing culture to help you get your idea off the ground by providing things like free software, hardware and even office space. Sun Microsystems created its "Start-up Essentials," which one can apply for in three minutes and most applications are accepted so long as the company has less than 150 employees and under six years old. The program provides at-cost computer servers, hosting, free technical support and visibility to those ready to launch their business. Microsoft has its "BizSpark" program which provides free software for companies that are privately held, less than three years, earn less than $1 million in annual revenue and engaged in software development. Finally, there is the PlugAndPlayTechCenter, founded by an Iranian immigrant, with a focus on providing discounted and flexible office space leases and networking events where fellow entrepreneurs can meet each other. According to its web site, the center has helped the start-ups raise in excess of $400 million in venture funding since its inception in January 2006. The start-up companies have created a cumulative value of $2 billion.

Once an entrepreneur has their idea, some funding and an environment to network and grow, it's still just as important to work hard, stay focused and keep your product simple to explain. There is a saying often repeated in the Valley: "One, Two, Three, Infinity." That is, an entrepreneur can focus at most on three areas at one time. Beyond that, they might as well do everything -- surely a recipe for failure. Speaking of failure, many here in the Valley know that failure is critical to success. In fact, there are more failures than success stories in Silicon Valley. But what's unique about this area is that failure isn't punished or even brooded upon. Failure is almost a rite of passage, but one must obviously learn from their mistakes and learn quickly and maintain optimism that the solution exists to solve a grand challenge.

Prior to 1971, when journalist Don Hoefler first coined the term "Silicon Valley" in Electronic News, a weekly trade publication, Silicon Valley was known as "The Valley of Heart's Delight" due to its heavy concentration of orchards. That title still has meaning as thousands of entrepreneurs begin each day delighting in changing the world and making Silicon Valley the best place on Earth.