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Can do attitude – US v UK

By June 14, 2007 8 Comments

At the NMK conference yesterday there was a bit of a debate about the relative merits of American optimism v. good old fashioned English cynicism. It got me thinking – and mostly that we could help ourselves a bit in this area.

This is one corner of the “is Silicon Valley a much better place to do business?” debate, and my view in this area is much the same as elsewhere – that we will help ourselves by having more confidence. It is for this reason that I post frequently about all the good stuff that is going on here – check out this link for a full list.

To set the scene – Jason Calacanis was making the point that at the Geek dinner the night before last he had encountered a lot more cynicism and negative comments about Twitter than he would have at a similar dinner at home in the Valley. To his mind that is a bad thing – cynicism brings people down and sucks their energy. Allowing people to dream on the other hand sets you free.

He got a bit of a negative reaction from the folk on the panel – the key argument there was a bit of British realism, pragmatism, even cynicism can be a good thing. This way people’s ideas get thoroughly tested and we avoid big, expensive mistakes.

Then there was some response from the floor which highlighted the higher cost of failure over here. A failed start-up looks much worse on your CV if you are touting it around in this country than in the US.

To me a bit of realism is essential – I need to be making good investments and not dreaming – but nonetheless I come down towards Jason’s side of the argument. I’ve worked as a VC both here and in the Valley and you can see the pros and cons of both approaches. We make less stupid and expensive mistakes here, but at the same time we have a habit of destroying half decent ideas before they get a chance to flourish – the net result is certainly that they have more big wins than we do (admittedly there are lots of other contributing factors).

I think at the end of the day we would all happily put up with a couple of extra expensive failures if it meant we had produced another Betfair/CSR/Skype – that is what tells me we should try to look more at how things might work than why they shouldn’t.

I can be as bad at this as the next guy by the way. I remember a point a year or two ago when in a moment of introspection I realised I was beginning to hope much more and not look so much for reasons why things might not work. It was at that point I realised how much the dotcom crash had affected me.

Enough preaching (it doesn’t sit easy with the Englishman in me after all) – to finish on a positive note, I think our collective scepticism is partly to do with the maturity of the VC/entrepreneurial community. As I have written before as an industry we are only 10-12 years old at any scale and we are only know starting to see the success stories coming through the nuclear winter of the dotcom crash. Scepticism is perhaps a natural consequence of there being few good case studies to follow. The current wave of success will hopefully change that. Similarly people will hopefully start to look less negatively on the CVs of failed entrepreneurs when there are more examples of successful ones around.

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