Dave Goldberg: on history, Silicon Valley, failure as a virtue, and London as a technology hub

Dave Goldberg, who died in May 2015, was someone I was looking forward to talking with more about the history and significance of Silicon Valley; and about the attempt to emulate its success of east London’s Tech City.

London Technology Week, this week, is a good moment to reflect.

Mr Goldberg was a Silicon Valley executive – CEO of Survey Monkey at the time of his untimely death – who studied History and Government at Harvard University. His widow, Sheryl Sandberg is, as is well known, the COO of Facebook and author of Lean In, an influential book about how women can flourish better in leadership positions in business and government.

When I met him, I asked Dave who was his favourite historian, and he mentioned, as influential on him, the journalist and historian David Halberstam, author of The Best and the Brightest about the origins of the Vietnam War, and the young consiglieri around John F. Kennedy.

He was kind enough to ask me who were mine. EP Thompson and Hugh Trevor Roper was my reply – both great English stylists, though at opposite ends of the political spectrum, democratic communist and high Tory respectively, but I digress.

Does Silicon Valley, I asked, lack a sense of history, and does that matter? He responded: “I don’t know that it lacks a sense of history, but there is a healthy scepticism about incumbency, and a desire to be disruptive that is unusual. Entrepreneurship is about the triumph of hope over experience.

“It’s not that people don’t know the history and don’t think it is important. But they are willing to go against the odds, and any rational decision making process, and do something that does not look probable.

“There is a lot of utopianism and an idealistic view of the future, and I am not sure I believe in all of that stuff, but I am generally an optimist. One of Silicon Valley’s distinguishing strengths is its pervasive optimism in the face of great challenges.

“Also, and I think this is a good thing, failure is a virtue and not a black mark in Silicon Valley. People will look at someone who has started a company and failed and someone who has learned some stuff, and will do better next time. Most other places will say: ‘well, that guy failed, so why would we want to invest in him’?

“So, failing fast, yes, but failure – failure is a virtue. You know, Travis [Kalanick], who founded Uber founded two other companies, one of which failed and one of which was a modest success. Reid Hoffman, who started LinkedIn, founded a previous social networking company that failed. The history is littered with people who had failure before they had success. Even Steve Jobs, being fired from Apple.

“The history of Silicon Valley is about not letting failure get in the way of success, and that is different”.

Could the UK, and London specifically, replicate that?

“I studied American history and government, and we would talk a lot about institutional memory, and where that was located, whether in companies or government. In Silicon Valley that memory lies in the service professionals around the entrepreneurs – the lawyers, accountants, the PR firms, the real estate agents, the recruiters, and so on. That is an advantage that is not well understood, that connective tissue that transmits the knowledge to the next group of 24-year old entrepreneurs who come along. Now, London is becoming one of those places, too, with Berlin maybe second. In fact there is probably more of that connective tissue in London than in New York. That is a big change over the past five years.

“Is London going to be bigger than Silicon Valley for technology companies? That is unlikely. But should it be the hub for Europe? Yes. Big global companies can start here [in London]”.

Nevertheless, Dave Goldberg registered the negatives of Silicon Valley. “We’ve got a lot of things to work on. There is terrible infrastructure – roads, poor mass transit, high real estate prices — rivalling London’s!”

“The biggest issue is we don’t have enough diversity. Not enough women or ethnic minorities. And there is ageism, speaking as an older person myself! There is a myth that all tech companies are founded by 24-year old college drop outs, and it is not true. Most of the data shows that the most successful entrepreneurs are those who start companies in their late thirties”.

Dave Goldberg was 47 when he died. Too young.