Guest Blog: Chalk, Cheese, Culture, Switzerland and Israel – why Startup Culture is Universal
The brilliant George Gershwin wrote a song called Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off and I think it is the key to explaining why successful start-ups can be based anywhere in the world. Confused? I hope you won’t be for the long.
The song was written back in in 1937 and is most famous for verses comparing different regional dialects. In the business world, I pretty sure that at some point in your studies you did a module on globalisation and marketing and don’t worry I won’t start giving you loads of examples of failed ad campaigns which meant something offensive when translated into Spanish/Vietnamese….
Read any online title looking at business or starts ups and it won’t be long before you find an article on the next start up nation or the top scale up cities in the world. Given we now live in a global village there is genuine interest in which countries, regions and cities are the place where successful start-ups should be set up. We all know that Silicon Valley is considered as the ‘spiritual start-up’ capital of the world and many recognise Israel as The Start Up Nation (yes I am sure you have the book in your most favourite business book collection). But why?
I live in London which is making a play at becoming the start-up capital of Europe, in 2015 over $2.3 billion was invested into start-ups and it is starting to be seen as major hub for all things Fintech and retail tech but this piece is not about telling you why London is the place to be for start-ups rather I’d like to focus on something often overlooked: culture.
As you know start-ups are made up of people and where they come from makes a big difference. Apologies for the assumptions but I am pretty sure that your experiences will back me up here. English people tend to be display the ‘stiff upper lip’ in business, American’s tend to be overt, it’s fair to say that Israeli’s tend to be forward in sales situations (can you tell I am from England yet), and Swiss people tend to be quiet reserved. Why you may ask is this important? On the one hand it isn’t unless you are a sociologist that is, but on the other I think it is.
I have often heard entrepreneurs in London bemoan the difficulty in securing investment for their start-ups. The conversation goes like this ‘VCs won’t invest in us until we have traction, but we need funding to get customers, they are risk averse compared to Silicon Valley’. There is another adage ‘In the US success is shouted about but in the UK, people are much more reserved’. The truth is both comments are probably a bit dated but indicate the impact that local culture has on start-ups.
People often mull over why Israel is so successful as a start-up nation and you probably know many of the answers: high level of education, can do attitude, social acceptability of being an entrepreneur (my son/daughter/grandson/cousin….the entrepreneur is as legitimate a career choice as being a doctor or lawyer) the need to innovate due to scare resources. I would argue that the culture is right for start-ups to flourish.
By deduction does that mean there are some places where start-ups won’t work? I don’t think so. Switzerland is not known for its start-ups; as a country it is often seen as risk free environment for crafting precision timepieces and ratifying well testing pharmaceuticals. World renowned excellence in these industries gives you an indication that as a business environment it’s about doing things to the highest spec so not quite the lean start-up model approach to product development. But the truth is there is a start-up ecosystem too and we are starting to hear about more Swiss start-ups all the time.
I have worked in a number of start-ups that have people who have come from across the globe and bring their own cultural bias to how they do things but ultimately what matters is getting the product or service developed, finding customers, generating awareness and for this culture might define how you do things but not the fact that these things have to be done. If anything the key culture in a start-up is the fact that it is a start-up and not a large business or small business.
What matters with start-up cultute is the aspiration to scale, take on the world, define a new market and or ultimately make a huge difference to the world. That is a cultural identity and it makes no difference if you are in Basel or Bogota, London or Lima or Tel Aviv or Tallahassee. If you bear these things in mind, it will make no difference how your colleagues pronounce words or where they come from but sharing a common start up culture will make your start up a success.