Tales from a Spaniard lost in the Valley

9 in the morning, I am running through the door of my friend Georgina’s house on top of Balmes Street (Barcelona), just in time to catch the last rush-hour train to Montjuic where the largest event in mobile industry –MWC- is just about to begin. I have my blazer hidden in my backpack when I meet the person that was supposed to hand me a “cleaners pass”, and minutes after I find myself sneaking through the back door of the venue. I was 15, not old enough to  even be allowed to pay the 699 euros a normal pass costs, and my whole life was about to change radically.

Apparently they call people like me “serial entrepreneurs” here, whereas I see myself as a curiosity-driven person with an extraordinary ease to get myself entangled into new projects that grow bigger and bigger before I begin to notice. It is indeed safe to state that my entrepreneur story is very different from those we all hear all the time in big name conferences or even Hollywood movies. Well, maybe an exception to that is the lemonade stand I used to run with a friend when I was 9 or 10, of which I am sure Harvard will make a study of some day when they discover it’s the best business model on earth (unlimited supply of ingredients –new lemons reappear in the fridge magically- and the “cute” factor is a big barrier of entry for older entrepreneurs).

My story is not one of dropping out from college because I found the bag of magic beans (with all due respect and admiration to those who do it for the right reasons, knowing what you want in life is more important than higher education without a purpose). I started my first 3 projects still in highschool, and one of them began to have so much traction that even having been accepted to study at MIT, I chose to attend a local university in order to not leave it behind. Geeksphone’s growth was always limited because of three things. First, lack of manpower. Second, we never asked for external investment. And third because, after all, it was a former musician and a highschool student running a tiny company with multinational operations. But those are also the only reasons why, against the odds, Geeksphone was a pioneer in many aspects in the mobile industry, competing in a world of giants (and making money out of it).

If anything surprises me of Silicon Valley, is the gigantic percentage of companies that do not aim to make money. Making money is essential for any company (even nonprofits), not for flying its founders in first class but for creating value in the society by generating quality jobs and useful products. And I struggle to defend my position in an environment where it’s true… innovation is born, but sometimes the motivation behind it is more geared towards raising more VC money or accumulating awards than generating wealth towards the society.

It’s not long since Blackphone was born and I relocated to San Francisco in order to finish my studies and materialize the new project. My time here has allowed me to gain a new perspective, which I find both stimulating and frustrating at times. For example, I find SF a fabulous, vibrant city, where urban art, passion for quality food and the Spanish names that most streets carry constantly remind me of Madrid. Yet, the city slowly dies as the moon comes up, and even people in their 20’s have every second of their day scheduled, not leaving room for improvisation. Engineers and employees in general are truly valued and it’s not uncommon to get free Michelin-star meals and massages in the office; whereas skyrocketing rent is pushing local middle class residents to the rather unsafe suburbs, and the city is left to the richest in their condos -and the homeless in the streets-.

I’ll keep discovering the magic of the valley, and I will be proven wrong along the way on some of these contradictions I find. Even though, I will still find hard to say that my company is valued 1 billion after saying my name, or to believe that the cashier at Safeway truly cares about how my day is going (of course, he is just trying to be nice). Magic happens here, it’s true, it’s exciting, and it’s a privilege to be part of it. But there is no success story without its crude parts, no matter how many times the tale is pitched. And no good pitches happen inside elevators. Keep your card in your pocket and ask for a 20 minute coffee instead. Make it worth their time.

Javier Aguera.

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