European entrepreneurs: Beware the Silicon Valley travel trap

European entrepreneurs: Beware the Silicon Valley travel trap

travel_consultantThere seems be a growing trend in startup communities throughout continental Europe that I find a bit fatiguing. It has to do with the plethora of consultants offering to organize tailored travel packages for young tech companies to global tech hubs, usually Silicon Valley.

Consultants are like ants: they usually show up when there’s a picnic. The picnic in this case is generally a positive evolution of the cultural mindset in Europe: European entrepreneurs are increasingly setting their sights on global markets. Traveling to a market that has a critical mass of future business partners or competitors makes sense for a company with global ambitions.

This worldview is a dramatic improvement from when I first arrived in France in 2001, where entrepreneurs I met presented business plans in which international revenue did not kick in until Year 5, and even then usually only from Belgium or Switzerland.

Nowadays, it’s fashionable to make a pilgrimage to Silicon Valley. Entrepreneurs that have done it can burnish their credentials as global company builders while those that haven’t risk being perceived as provincial. A plethora of consultants have cropped up exploiting this very psychological need.

I have nothing against consultants. They shrewdly detected a market need and rushed in to fill the void. Usually, they are European expats that had the courage to move to Silicon Valley years before it was fashionable to do so. They can understand the psychology of aspiring entrepreneurs from their European home country and are clever enough to tailor an offer that opens up the pocketbooks. A typical package spans 3~7 days in Silicon Valley, includes travel and lodging, and purports to organize impactful meetings with key players in the tech ecosystem.

Some of these individuals are very good, and their travel service is worth every centime. However, if your objectives of such a journey extend beyond merely taking a touristic excursion to the mecca of entrepreneurship, I recommend outsourcing at most the travel logistics but organizing the meetings on your own.

The worst of these trips tend to restrict the meetings to the insular community of people from the same country of origin. For example, a French startup mandates a French expat in Silicon Valley to organize a trip to meet a bunch of other French expats in Silicon Valley to pontificate about how great the potential is (or is not) for French tech. What a waste of time and money.

By the way, it’s not just entrepreneurs that are susceptible; I’ve seen VCs fall for these packages too.

If you really want a productive visit that produces actionable insights, initiates business development leads, builds awareness for your company, and even puts you on the radar of future investors or acquisition partners, paying a consultant to fill your agenda with meetings will not be as effective as doing it yourself.

It’s about building deep connections with people

The underlying basis for accomplishing goals such as these involves actually connecting with people and laying the groundwork for enduring professional relationships. Sure, an intermediary could schedule you on an insider’s company tour of Google or Facebook, but you’re not going to meet the Director of worldwide partnerships in mobile gaming at Facebook unless you have already begin cultivating a relationship with that individual that can lead to a meeting.

Only you know your business well enough to determine exactly which role of individual you would love to have a chat with. The generalist meetings — such as with lawyers, investment bankers, other consultants, can certainly be valuable — but rather as a secondary scheduling priority after you nail down meetings with your top prospects. The nice thing about lawyers, investment bankers, and consultants is that they tend to be more flexibly accommodating, since they usually see the opportunity for mutual benefit to taking a meeting with you.

buck's restaurantAs for the must-do tech touristy things — like eating breakfast at Buck’s, or visiting Steve Jobs’ childhood house in Los Altos — you can do these on your own with a rental car and Google maps.

[Full disclosure: I’m guilty of leading such a travel delegation myself. The main difference is that I do not get paid for this. It’s purely to help a select group of FrenchTech startups gain privileged access in Japan thanks to a generous invitation from a fellow Japanese VC.]