Steve Blank's Guide to the Real Silicon Valley

If you’re a visiting dignitary whose country has a Gross National Product equal to or greater than the State of California, your visit to Silicon Valley consists of a lunch/dinner with some combination of the founders of Google, Facebook, Apple and Twitter and several brand name venture capitalists. If you have time, the President of Stanford will throw in a tour, and then you can drive by Intel or some Clean Tech firm for a photo op standing in front of an impressive looking piece of equipment.

The “official dignitary” tour of Silicon Valley is like taking the jungle cruise at Disneylandand saying you’ve been to Africa. Because you and your entourage don’t know the difference between large innovative companies who once were startups (Google, Facebook, et al) and a real startup, you never really get to see what makes the valley tick.

If you didn’t come in your own 747, here’s a guide to what to see in the valley (which for the sake of this post, extends from Santa Clara to San Francisco.) This post offers things to see/do for two types of visitors:

I’m just visiting and want a “tourist experience” (i.e. a drive by the Facebook / Google / Apple building)

“I want to work in the valley” visitor who wants to understand what’s going on inside those buildings.

I’m leaving out all the traditional stops that you can get from the guidebooks.

Hackers’ Guide to Silicon Valley

Silicon Valley is more of a state of mind than a physical location. It has no large monuments, magnificent buildings or ancient heritage. There are no tours of companies or venture capital firms. From Santa Clara to South San Francisco it’s 45 miles of one bedroom community after another. Yet what’s been occurring for the last 50 years within this tight cluster of suburban towns is nothing short of an “entrepreneurial explosion” on par with classic Athens, renaissance Florence or 1920’s Paris.

California Dreaming

On your flight out, get educated: read Paul Graham’s essays and Jessica Livingston’s Founders at Work. Then watch the Secret History of Silicon Valley and learn what the natives don’t know.

Palo Alto - The Beating Heart I

Start your tour in Palo Alto. Stand on the corner of Emerson and Channing Street in front of the plaque where the triode vacuum tube was developed. Walk to 367 Addison Avenue, and take a look at the HP Garage. Extra credit if you can explain the significance of both of these spots and why the HP PR machine won the rewrite of Valley history.

Walk to downtown Palo Alto at lunchtime, and see the excited engineers ranting to one another on their way to lunch. Cram into Coupa Café full of startup founders going through team formation and fundraising discussions. The noise and cramped quarters basically force you to listen in on conversations. 

Or head towards University Café or the Peninsula Creamery to see engineers working on a startup or have breakfast in Il Fornaio to see the VC’s and recruiters at work. Take a photo in front “Lucky 165 University Ave”early office of Google, PayPal, Logitech.

Stanford - The Brains

Drive down University Avenue into Stanford University as it turns into Palm Drive. Park on the circle and take a walking tour of the campus and then head to the science and engineering quad. Notice the names of the buildings: Gates (special exhibits), AllenMooreVarianHewlettPackard (where you'll find HP’s first product, the Model 200A, which began as the subject of Bill Hewlett’s master’s thesis at Stanford University in the late 1930s), ClarkPlattnerYangHuang (special exhibits; replica of the Hewlett-Packard garage, the original Yahoo and Google servers, and more).

Extra points if you know who they all are and how they started their companies.

You too can name a building after your IPO (and $30 million.) The Terman Engineering building (now torn down) was the ground zero of technology entrepreneurship. See if you can find a class being taught by Tom ByersKathy EisenhardtTina Seelig or one of the other entrepreneurship faculty in engineering.

Attend one of the free Entrepreneurial Thought Leader Lectures in the Engineering School. Check the Stanford Entrepreneurship Network calendar or the BASES calendar for free events. Stop by the Stanford Student Startup Lab and check out the events at the Computer Forum

If you have time, head to the back of campus and hike up to the Stanford Dish and thank the CIA for its funding.

Mountain View - The Beating Heart II

Head to Mountain View and drive down Amphitheater Parkway behind Google, admiring all the buildings and realize that they were built by an extinct company, Silicon Graphics, once one of the hottest companies in the valley. Shelley’s poem Ozymandias should be the ode to the cycle of creative destruction in the valley. 

Next stop down the block is the Computer History Museum. Small but important, this museum is the real deal with almost every artifact of the computing and pre-computing age. Make sure you check out their events calendar. On leaving you’re close enough to Moffett Field to take a Zeppelin ride over the valley. If it’s a clear day and you have the money after a liquidity event, it’s a mind-blowing trip.

Next to Moffett Field is Lockheed Missiles and Space, the center of the dark side of the Valley. Lockheed came to the valley in 1956 and grew from 0 to 20,000 engineers in four years. They built three generations of submarine launched ballistic missiles and spy satellites for the CIA, NSA and NRO on assembly lines in Sunnyvale and Palo Alto. They don’t give tours.

While in Mountain View drive by the site of Shockley Semiconductor and realize that from this one failed company, founded the same year Lockheed set up shop, came every other chip company in Silicon Valley.

Lunch time on Castro Street in downtown Mountain View is another slice of startup Silicon Valley. Hang out at the Red Rock Café at night to watch the coders at work trying to stay caffeinated. If you’re still into museums and semiconductors, drive down to Santa Clara and visit the Intel Museum.

Sand Hill Road - Adventure Capital

While we celebrate Silicon Valley as a center of technology innovation, that’s only half of the story. Startups and innovation have exploded here because of the rise of venture capital. Think of VC’s as the other equally crazy half of the startup ecosystem. In fact, Silicon Valley accounts for 42 percent of the venture capital in the U.S.

You can see VC’s at work over breakfast at Bucks in Woodside, listen to them complain about deals over lunch at Village Pub or see them rattle their silverware at Madera. Or you can eat in the heart of old “VC central” in the Restaurant 3000 at 3000 Sand Hill Road. While you’re there, walk around 3000 Sand Hill looking at all the names of the VC’s on the building directories and be disappointed how incredibly boring the outside of these buildings look. Now, some VC’s have left the Sand Hill Road womb and have opened offices in downtown Palo Alto and San Francisco to be closer to the action. For extra credit, stand outside one of the 3000 Sand Hill Road buildings with a sign saying “Will work for equity” and hand out copies of your executive summary and PowerPoint presentations.

Drive by the Palo Alto house where Facebook started (yes, just like the movie) and the house in Menlo Park that was Google’s first home. While in Menlo Park see the new Facebook headquarters. Drive down to Cupertino and circle Apple’s campus. No tours but they do have an Apple company store which doesn’t sell computers - but is the only Apple store that sells logo’d T-shirts and hats.

By the way, if you're on Sand Hill Road take some time and drive to the coast via Hwy 84 for a quintessential California mountain road. Go south on Hwy 1 stopping in Pescadero (one-block town out of the 19th century) eat at Duartes, then continue to Santa Cruz. If it’s elephant seal season stop at Ano Nuevo State Park. In Santa Cruz go to the Boardwalk for an amusement park over 100 years old and then go to Henry Cowell State Park to see the giant redwoods.

South San Francisco - Biotech Heaven

As you drive the hour up to San Francisco, you’ll pass through South San Francisco. It’s best known for the sign on the hillside north of the airport that says, “The Industrial City.” Yet in a two-square-mile industrial zone, the city boasts 72 biotech firms. Genentech, Elan Pharmaceuticals, Amgen, Cell Genesys, Cytokinetics, Rigel, Onyx Pharmaceuticals, Solazyme, Catalyst Biosciences - among others.

San Francisco - Startups with a Lifestyle

Continue up to San Francisco and park next to South Park in the South of Market area. South of Market (SoMa) is the home address and the epicenter of Web 2.0 startups. If you’re single, living in San Francisco and walking/biking to your startup job definitely has some advantages over the rest of the valley. 

Café Centro is South Park’s version of Coupa Café. Or eat at the American Grilled Cheese Kitchen. You’ll be just a few blocks from the S.F. Giants ballpark. If it’s baseball season take in a game in a beautiful stadium on the bay. And four blocks north is Moscone Center, the main San Francisco convention center. Go to a trade show even if it’s not in your industry.

See the Exploratorium. It's a great hands-on science museum. Lots of kids, but I still love going there and getting my mind blown.

Visit the California Academy of Sciences. Recently rebuilt, this place is practically a temple to the glories of the natural sciences. Live penguins, a rainforest, impossibly gorgeous aquatic habitats, a great planetarium, and more. Thursday nights they have a DJ and serve drinks, which means the hordes of tots are absent.

If you got time drive across the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito and see the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Bay Model. It’s a giant hydraulic model of the San Francisco Bay.


While Stanford was becoming an outward facing technology university in the 1950’s and ’60’s, Berkeley, east of San Francisco and across the Bay was facing inward. Why? It’s technology products were nuclear weapons.

Berkeley has since turned its gaze outward and entrepreneurship is blossoming in all departments.  Take a tour of the Lawrence Berkeley Labratory - for Nobel prizes, museum and sight seeing. Walk the grounds of the 1964 free speech movement: Sproul Plaza, Sather Gate and Telegraph Avenue. Check out Cory Hall and Wozniak/Soda Hall for the birthplace of CAD, BSDUnix and MEMS.

The Valley is about the Interactions Not the Buildings

Like the great centers of innovation, Silicon Valley is about the people and their interactions. It’s something you really can’t get a feel of from inside your car or even walking down the street. You need to get inside of those building and deeper inside those conversations. Here’s a few suggestions of how to do so.

For the ultimate startup experience: talk yourself into carrying someone’s bags as they give a pitch to a VC. Be a fly on the wall and soak it in.

If you’re trying to get a real feel of the culture: apply and interview for jobs in three Silicon Valley companies even if you don’t want any of them. The interview will teach your more about Silicon Valley company culture and the valley than any tour.

Meet some locals in tech: attend at least three tech-oriented Meetups or Plancast events in the Valley or San Francisco (Meetup is a deep list. Search for “startup” meetup’s in San Francisco, Palo Alto and Santa Clara.)

Go to the best events: Check out the meetups from iOS Developers and Hackers and Founders and 106Miles and Ideakick and Startup Grind. Catch a monthly hackathon. Subscribe to StartupDigest Silicon Valley edition before you visit.

Cowork with a startup: Find a real 3-10 person startup, working from a small crammed co-working space and sit with them for an afternoon. Offer to code for free. San Francisco has many co-working spaces (shared offices for startups). They’re great to get a feel of what it’s like to start when there’s just a few founders and you don’t have your own garage. Visit Founders DenSandbox SuitesCitizenspacepariSoma Innovationthe HubNextSpaceRocketSpaceStartup HouseThe HatcheryPeopleBrowsrDolores Labs and DogPatch Labs. Check out here for more SF sites

See where hackers hang out: Driving down the valley see Studio G in Redwood City, Hacker Dojo in Mountain View, the Plug & Play Tech Center in Sunnyvale, Semantic Seed in San Jose.  Check out this site for the latest updates on co-working spaces.

Rub shoulders with the makers: Head to an event at or Galvanize. See if there’s a Startup Weekend or SVForum event going on in the Bay Area. I'm serious - talk yourself into a job.

Get a job: Sneak into the Soma Central Incubator on the 9th floor at 153 Townsend St in San Francisco and try to get hired by one of the 30 startups.

Meet the investors: If you’re visiting to raise money or to get to know “angels” use AngelList to get connected to seed investors before you arrive.

Build and learn something new: Use your entrepreneurial skill and get yourself into a Y-Combinator dinner or demo day, a 500 Startups or Harrsion Metal event. Go to a Techcrunch event. And of course go to a Lean Startup Meetup.

Never leave.