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Silicon Valley (the TV Show) vs Silicon Roundabout (the Reality)

By Gerald Lynch on at

Mike Judge may be responsible for two of the dumbest characters in TV history in the shape of Beavis and Butthead, but Judge himself is no air-headed slacker. Before finding fame with shows like King of the Hill and movies including Office Space, he had a stint working in the start-up nerve centre of Silicon Valley. His latest show, the imaginatively-named Silicon Valley, takes a satirical look at the start-up culture and tech giants of California.

But how close is the show to the real, day-to-day workings of a start-up, and how does it compare to life in London’s own tech hub, Shoreditch’s Silicon Roundabout? We took Sarah Drinkwater, Head of Google Campus (which offers mentoring, educational events and co-working space to start-ups) in the heart of Silicon Roundabout, to a screening of the first two episodes and spoke through the similarities and differences between the show and the start-up centres either side of the Atlantic.

You Don’t Have to be an Asshole to Succeed

Silicon Valley centres around Richard, a young programmer who unwittingly creates a compression algorithm that could change the world. As the investors start knocking on his door, his pals claim he’ll never get anywhere unless he toughens up and becomes an “asshole”. Is being an asshole a necessary character requirement in the start-up scene?

“I think it makes really good TV, but I think assholes don’t tend to get ahead to be honest. London is a lot smaller than California -- one of the things I love about the city is it’s really hard to walk about (particularly Shoreditch) without bumping into people. If you were that level of asshole as depicted in Silicon Valley, you’d be walking around and nobody would want to talk to you. You just wouldn’t get very far.”

Securing Investment is Tougher Than it Looks

Richard’s algorithm sparks a bidding war between rival tech firms looking to wrestle control of his potential money-spinner. But in the real world, getting interest in your project takes a hell of a lot more work.

“It’s a myth. People always make comparisons about Silicon Valley and Silicon Roundabout in terms of funding. It is true that there is decent money to be had in the Valley, but I think that’s changing a lot. In terms of London I don’t think you’d see those sorts of sums being thrown around without business plans being closely examined first -- that’s not realistic.

“You see how nervous in the show Richard becomes when he has to put together a business plan with two days' notice. If you’re seeking that level of investment and you’re not ready it can be really scary. People can see investors as intimidating, but we host sessions once a month at Campus with a couple of VCs who are really friendly -- you’re not there to get funding, you’re there to get advice on your pitch and some feedback. I think that’s really been valuable in helping people to know when they’re ready to seek that level of investment. The whole point of Campus is that there’s something there for everyone.”

Silicon Roundabout and (the Real) Silicon Valley are Full of Diverse People

The Silicon Valley show is full of white American and Asian men. But that’s just not reflective of the start-up scene on either side of the Atlantic, says Sarah.

“There’s this presupposition that start-up teams are all aged in their 20s. I don’t think that’s true anymore. It’s becoming much more diverse than that, and much more mainstream. We’re seeing 16 year olds, we’re seeing 60 year olds. I think that’s pretty exciting.

“It’s such a shame that the only two women in the first two episodes are a stripper and a secretary. I don’t think that reflects Silicon Valley, and it definitely doesn’t reflect Silicon Roundabout. 25 per cent of people coming into Campus are women; we have a lot of programs that are particularly aimed at bringing together that network of female entrepreneurs, and Campus for Mums (aimed at women AND men, ed.) a nine week pre-incubator program who’ve just had babies.

“Silicon Valley is so focussed on American men, but we see so many women and 98 different nationalities and counting at Campus. If you were a young girl watching that show, you’d think there was no room for you in an engineering field and that’s a bit concerning. It’s a funny, aspirational show, but they could have made it seem a super appealing career to a much wider range of people.”

There are More Tech Heroes Than Just Jobs, Page and Brin

Home grown talent is just as important to Silicon Roundabout as the Californian icons that Silicon Valley focusses on.

“I think people’s heroes are a bit more diverse. The show picks up on Jobs and Wozniak as being household names, but if you ask the entrepreneurs in Silicon Roundabout who inspires them, they’re more likely to pick the founders of TransferWise for example. When you’re trying to find your path through this industry I think its nice to pick someone’s path that you can understand.”

Start-Ups and Tech Companies Can be Geeky, Quirky Places. But Us Brits are Cynics

Wellness and relaxation is one thing, but having a meeting on a tandem bike or recruiting your own personal meditation guru just won’t fly in London.

“Some of those stereotypes surrounding Californian HQs and big companies probably have an element of truth to them. But I think in London we’re a lot more cynical; Brits are always a bit more hesitant to embrace that sort of thing. Wellness is a big thing right now, and knowing when to step back and when to work hard is an important balance to find. But “spiritual healers”? I’m not so sure about that. But maybe we’re behind the curve!

“One of the things I love about Campus though is that it does create a shift in mindset. Joining up is like saying, “I’m an entrepreneur.” You’ve got to be realistic -- a lot of companies do fail. But what my favourite thing that I see is when a first company fails, the founder is grown up enough to just say 'on to the next one.' They have some time out, some time to reflect, they learn and they move on. And I really respect that as it’s a hard thing to do. At Google there’s a culture of failing fast, and at Campus that’s very important to us.”

Silicon Valley airs on Sky Atlantic and Sky Atlantic HD on Wednesday 16th July at 9pm.