Business

Start-up Stories: Mike Malone

"Great entrepreneurs are willing to die for their companies." Advice for those who want to start a business, from technology writer and Silicon Valley expert Michael S Malone.

If ever there was a reporter who could claim to really know Silicon Valley, and what makes its supremely successful entrepreneurs tick, it would have to be Mike Malone.

Mr Malone grew up in Sunnyvale, one of several small towns surrounding San Francisco Bay that are now home to some of the biggest and most successful technology companies in the world.

After working in public relations, he joined the San Jose Mercury News and became one of the first daily news reporters to cover high-technology industries as they began to flourish in northern California in the 1970s and 1980s.

He went on develop a career in journalism and broadcasting, and to be the author of many books, including "Bill and Dave", a celebrated biography of the founders of Hewlett-Packard, perhaps the archetypal Silicon Valley company.

Mike Malone also finds time to act as an advisor to new and established companies alike.

What factors does he think would-be entrepreneurs need to be most aware of?

Commitment

Many people who want to start a company underestimate the amount of time and effort involved.

According to Mr Malone "you can't say, 'well, I'm going to give it 80 percent but I want to spend more time with my family.' That doesn't work".

He recalls one entrepreneur telling him she was prepared to die for her company, if that's what it would take to make it succeed. What is needed is an almost fanatical devotion to the task of getting the company going, he says.

"You have to really believe in yourself and believe that you are in charge of your destiny, and you've got to keep moving forward".

Money

"When I go into a new start-up company and I see that they've got new desks and new chairs, and expensive computers, I immediately write that company off."

Mr Malone advises start-ups to keep a tight grip on their cash - not just because conserving cash will help them to survive longer, but also because it's a sign of the correct attitude, that the company is serious about succeeding in the longer term.

Fire yourself

Getting the right team in place is incredibly important. Do not hire your best friends just because you like them - everyone involved has to be able to deliver a good result.

"Go out and treat your team at the beginning the way you would treat the management team of your company 20 years on" advises Mike Malone.

It's also important to know when to move on. Many people who are good at starting companies are not so good at running them once they're firmly established. If that is the case, be prepared to let others with more developed management skills take over.

Ideas

The excitement that new ideas generate can often be valuable in helping to build team spirit in the early stages of creating a viable business. However, some companies have to develop many different products before they end up with one that they can actually sell.

Mr Malone cites the example of Hewlett-Packard, which tried "automatic bowling-pin setters…escalators…'intelligent' urinals…crazy crop-picking devices...They went through a whole list of ideas before they finally said, 'well you know, why don't we use Hewlett's graduate school project,' and that was the audio oscillator which they sold to Disney."

Sooner or later, product ideas have "to meet the test of the market place… companies that stick with great ideas that turn out to be impractical die."

Location

A sometimes overlooked question is the importance of where entrepreneurs should base themselves. To Mr Malone, Silicon Valley has advantages over many other places in the world. He points to the business-friendly 'eco-system' of the area, with its savvy venture capitalists ready to back the flow of ideas emerging from the campuses of Stanford and Berkeley.

But social attitudes towards business are perhaps even more important. For one thing, there's a willingness to not only accept failure, but also to embrace the learning opportunity it can present.

Another key factor is "an eternal optimism that the future is going to be better than the past. If you have a society where they always feel like the golden age was behind them, then there's no motive to keep going after that brass ring."

Other parts of the world that have tried to copy the Valley usually fail because they don't understand how interwoven the business community is with other parts of society.

"If you're going to build a Silicon Glen… or whatever you want to call it… it has to arise from the culture and the mores of the community in which it appears", says Mr Malone.

Half the battle lies in creating a climate where entrepreneurship is celebrated rather than stigmatised, and where there are business heroes to look up to. "We have our hall of fame. We tell our children stories about men and women that took gigantic risks and pulled it off."