Chris Thurston is one of many enterprising Aussie techies living the startup dream in San Francisco Bay Area, nicknamed the ‘Silicon Valley’ for its overabundance of tech companies reliant on silicon chips. As a foreigner in a new city, Chris found that for many coming in to San Francisco for the first time, the runway can be very short due to lack of resources and connections in one of the most expensive cities on the planet with a very competitive startup environment.
Chris remarks, “Plenty of people do all the right things and take good decisions, but still find it really hard. I wanted to change the playing field a little bit.”
This led Chris to come up with the idea of G’Day SF, a weekly newsletter that is aiming to connect newly-arrived Aussies to local networks, events, jobs and housing to help make the transition to a new city less overwhelming than it would otherwise have been. Now in its fifth week, the subscriber list is already in the hundreds with over 60% open rates and dozens of replies to each newsletter.
I had a very interesting conversation with Chris, that went a bit longer than I had planned and we ended up speaking about his startup career, life in the Valley and found an abundance of useful advice that any Australian contemplating exploring the San Francisco startup scene will find extremely helpful.
Journey to Silicon Valley
Chris’ entrepreneurial journey started in Sydney whilst working in a corporate 9-to-5 role. On evenings and weekends, he immersed himself into the growing startup community at Fishburners and quickly realised his passion for the field. “I was quite captivated by it and I thought that’s something I wanted to do”.
In early 2014, he was invited to be the co-founder and CEO of SportHold, a software company that enabled crowd prediction of winners at American sporting matches. SportHold saw him make the move to sunny California just over two and a half years ago. However, the company did not survive and Chris moved on to his next venture as an early stage employee at Gigster, which builds apps and websites for the likes of Airbus, IBM and Mastercard using innovative means like artificial intelligence and reusable code, thus making the development process much more efficient. Gigster had an incredibly rapid growth rate whilst going through the Y-Combinator accelerator program and subsequently raised US $10 million in Series A funding.
CEO vs Early Stage Employee
The most important lesson that Chris has learnt form having worked in two startups till date has been the “huge opportunity cost” involved in the process in terms of the pressure, time commitment and risk. Having been both a cofounder and an early stage employee, Chris recommends the latter to anyone looking to work in a Silicon Valley startup, especially to those who have limited previous experience in the field.
Being an early stage employee in a "rocketship startup" such as Gigster entails working with really cool people who have "deep networks and proven track records in the Valley". This makes for a great learning experience, especially in terms of getting to know how the leaders of tech companies think. Chris believes this is the real takeaway from the Silicon Valley; something he believes more and more Aussies should get a taste of and boomerang back home and add to the local asset base.
The Silicon Valley Experience
According to Chris, “You should be in Silicon Valley if you want 20 years' experience in 5.” There are so many variables that determine the growth and success of a startup that it is very hard to master the skill without having tried one. Silicon Valley through its history of successful startups manages to attract the sort of talent and energy that is hard to find anywhere else. This also creates a tremendous learning opportunity that can help Australian entrepreneurs to leapfrog into the next frontier of economic growth through innovation.
For young Aussies and especially those who have completed their degrees, the E3 visa is a great way to get to experience the startup ecosystem, an advantage which many other nationalities do not have. However, in Silicon Valley FOMO (fear of missing out) is everything and needs to be leveraged in order to secure a good offer. This is only done by arriving on Ground Zero, making connections with local entrepreneurs and companies, and presenting oneself as a strong candidate whose talent is in great demand.
The G’Day SF game plan
Facebook's data suggests that there are over 10,000 Aussie expats in the Valley and Chris reckons that the G'Day SF will form a part of a larger grassroots movement in order to bring together a welcoming support system for Aussies just getting off the plane. There are many knowledgeable people within the Australian community from whose experiences newcomers can benefit from. Chris wants to keep the flavour of the newsletter very community driven and believes that growth will happen in response to the needs of the community. From the initial response, it seems very likely that the G'Day SF has plenty of room for growth in the near future.
Chris’ recommendations for Aussie Entrepreneurs in the Valley
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(The article has undergone minor revisions post publication to clarify a few ideas.)