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Silicon Valley to Copenhagen: It’s OK to Fail, If You Do It Right

3p Contributor | Wednesday December 16th, 2009 | 1 Comment

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on Grist, and is re-posted with permission.

By Jonathan Hiskes, Grist Staff Writer

If at first you don't succeed... A lesson from Silicon Valley for climate policymakers. Photo Credit: iStockphoto (with permission from Grist)

If at first you don't succeed... A lesson from Silicon Valley for climate policymakers. Photo Credit: iStockphoto (with permission from Grist)

COPENHAGEN—At the “To Be or Not To Be” business summit at Hamlet’s Castle over the weekend, one French executive joked about not trusting a business that was less than 150 years old (ah, those witty folk from “old Europe” …). But there was a very different perspective on display at a “view from Silicon Valley” reception in downtown Copenhagen on Monday.

The carbon-accounting software startup Hara hosted the event, bringing its CEO, its “chief green officer,” and two venture capital partners to speak about what California’s clean tech industry can teach those trying to address climate change. Hara is six months old and has attracted $20 million in investment capital, much of it from the leading valley firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. The company and its investors (who include Al Gore) are betting that businesses will be willing to pay for software that measures their use of fossil fuels, water, and waste and that then calculates how to save money.

On Monday night, Hara executives and their investor friends spoke more about the Valley’s unique business culture. Steve Westly—managing partner at the Westly Group, former controller for the state of California, and an eBay executive during the site’s rapid-growth phase—offered an encapsulation.

“There’s this notion that if you fail, it is OK,” he said. “This is one of the big differences between there and Europe or China. You’re expected to dream big, and if you miss a couple along the way, that is OK. As long as you’re trying to do something with your life.”

His point was that for every eBay there are 10 or 100 startups that fail. Many successful entrepreneurs chalk up a string of these failures before they strike gold. In the Valley’s culture, Westly said, these failures aren’t embarrassing, they’re normal.

I don’t know Silicon Valley well enough to judge if this characterization is accurate. But such a mindset might be one of the best exports the region can offer to businesses elsewhere in the world. To adapt to climate change and the clean energy imperative, businesspeople, even entire companies, might have to reinvent themselves several times before finding a plan that works. Embracing the fluid, expanding landscape of that new economy would seem to be easier than fighting it.

Spread the news on what the føck is going on in Copenhagen with friends via email, Facebook, Twitter, or smoke signals.

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  • Tom Larsen

    The history of striking out and possibly failing IS the history of California. It dates back to why “prospectors” came to California during the largest migration in history. Now it is embedded in California and expresses itself most visibly in Silicon Valley and Hollywood, both places where taking chances, thinking big and possibly failing, dusting one's self off and going again are completely acceptable. Howard Hughes, William Randolph Hearst, Bill Hewlitt and David Packard, Samuel Goldwyn, Louis B. Mayer, the list of industry titans that took big leaps, in all sorts of business efforts is phenomenally long. It's a cultural difference not often recognized in the rest of the U.S., but, very much so in the rest of the world.