Tea With Strangers

6 strangers..one cafe..2 hours..that’s the basic premise of Tea With Strangers. A host announces a time and a venue, 5 other people sign up, meet, and have conversations over a beverage of their choice. I had come across the site a few months ago and was intrigued enough to try out the meetup. And luckily, one was scheduled for the day I had planned my maiden trip to San Francisco. I signed up for the last spot for the meetup, and boy am I glad I did!

I took the Caltrain from Mountain View to San Francisco and Ubered to Another Cafe (that is the actual name of the cafe 🙂 ), where I met the host – a charming, affable Australia-born Indian living in the Bay Area. I also met my fellow attendees – a world traveler, who has traveled to 30 countries and still counting, and also does improv and social dances; a Korean techie; a French entrepreneur who just launched the US version of his startup; and a maths genius who recently moved to SF and is having fun exploring it.

It was an eclectic mix of people who would not have crossed paths in the normal course of life, and definitely would not have had the open, deep conversations that we did. Credit goes to our excellent host, who ensured a comfortable and open space for everyone to voice their views and made sure everyone was included in the conversation. He did not waste time in small talk and asked us to answer a simple question – What are you about? And this deceptively simple question made us self-reflect and find out how we define ourselves, what do we identify with the most? I went through several iterations of the answer in my head – is it my job, my career that defines me? Is it my love for sitcoms? Is it my family and friends? What is it?

Thankfully, my turn came last. By then, I had the privilege to hear the amazingly insightful answers that my tea-mates had given – from experiences to family to doing something good for the world. Their answers led me to mine – being happy. Or rather choosing to be happy everyday. Celebrating and enjoying the smallest of things – like a cup of tea or a good read. This habit that I have consciously developed over the years has now become so ingrained that it is what defines me now. I had never realized that before.

I realized that no matter how diverse our backgrounds are, our aspirations and fears and concerns have a common thread – and so is the need to share them with someone and find answers together. What we offered each other is perspective – a different way of looking at things. In those two hours, we not only got to know each other, but also ourselves. At the end of the two hours, we dispersed and went our own ways, probably never to meet again. But the experience left me feeling satisfied and enriched – two hours well spent indeed. I look forward to the next round of tea with strangers!


Founder Institute – Silicon Valley

In my first week in the Silicon Valley, I attended a meetup organized by Founder Institute. It was advertised as a meetup for aspiring entrepreneurs to ask questions about how to launch a startup in the Silicon Valley. I wanted to learn how Silicon Valley works behind the scenes, and this seemed like the perfect segue.

The meetup started with a round of introductions. Around 25-30 people were in attendance – they introduced themselves, their current occupations, and their pet projects that they want to convert into successful startups. It was a mixed group ranging from serial entrepreneurs to corporate professionals looking to break into the startup world. The most interesting attendee was a 15-year old high school student who already has an app in the making.

The speaker at the event was founder of the Founder Institute, Adeo Ressi. The first slide of the presentation was a photo of Elon Musk, with Ressi telling us he was Mr. Musk’s roommate in college and that he had spent the previous weekend in Mr. Musk’s company. It was supposed to impress the audience and establish credibility, but I found the name-dropping to be a bit off-putting.

Having said that, I like the concept of Founder Institute. The institute runs a 3-months course in which individuals work on their startup for 3 months. Not everyone gets in. You submit your application and the admission team reviews the application. If selected, you pay $2200 (early bird) or $3000 (normal fee). The course lasts 3 months and the class meets every Wednesday.

Over the course of 3 months, you work on sales, legal, marketing, perfecting your pitch – basically all things you need to do to get your startup up and running. You also get access to 20-40 mentors – all industry leaders – and get the opportunity to have your idea vetted by them. You may pivot several times during the process to align your product with the market needs.

There is also the Shared liquidity pool: Once you graduate from the program, you enter the shared liquidity pool. As I understand it, you commit certain percentage of your profits to the liquidity pool, and so does every other graduate. When one startup of all the startups in the FI list makes a huge profit, everyone gets a share of the pie. As Ressi put it, that share can be thousands of dollars. Not bad, right! I am not sure what happens if your startup fails – if you are still a part of the liquidity pool or not.

I think the idea is valid. If you are passionate and sure  of your idea, it makes sense to invest $3000 and 3 months to get help from a one-stop source instead of trying to handle all business-related functions, such as legal, registration, sales, visa and so on. A single, systematic, step-by-step process to make your startup functioning seems like a good idea.

The most enticing aspect of the program is the access to the brilliant minds of SV. You can talk to  mentors that normally would be out of your reach. And if you do somehow happen to meet them, might not have enough motivation to spend their precious time and energy on you. With the shared liquidity pool of FI, the mentors also have vested interest in your success – if you succeed, they stand to make a lot of money. It’s a comparatively easy way to gain access to the shared mind-space of these successful entrepreneurs.

Another positive aspect about the program is that you can form your core team during the course. A graduate of the course offered an interesting perspective – You do not form a team at a Hackathon over a weekend. Instead, you form a team by working with them over a period of time, getting to know each other, how you handle pressure as a team, and how well do you get along even when things are not going great. I think spending three months with people is a good amount of time to figure out if they can be part of your team.

Founder Institute doesn’t consider a failed startup as a failure – and I agree with them. It’s better to know that a startup idea is not viable enough in the early stages is much better than investing a lot of time and money into it and figuring it out years down the line. Three months is a pretty decent time period in which to fail. As the startup motto goes: Fail fast, fail often.

The only shortcoming I can think of is that program does not schedule any time for actually building the product. I think they assume that either you have already built the product or will work on the product but will not pay as much attention to the business side of things, and hence they focus on business activities instead of building the product. Also, they focus more on aligning the product with the market rather than just keep on building the product without any validation.

All in all, it was a very informative experience. I wish I could stay back and network with the attendees, but I had to rush to another commitment. Looking forward to interacting with them next time!




Computer History Museum

A stay in the Silicon Valley would be incomplete without a visit to the Computer History Museum. With that in mind, I visited the museum on the Memorial Day weekend, and boy am I glad I visited it!

The museum houses several exhibits that document the origins and advents of computers right from the time of abacus and mechanical calculators. The exhibits then progress to super-computers with thousands of wires manually connected to thousands of components. It then progresses to Eniacs and mainframes to the current-day technology.  As a technical writer, the coolest exhibit was the technical notes dating back to 1959, which captured the logic and rationale of the engineers at Texas Instruments.

The audio-visual commentary explaining each exhibit, the interactive design that lets you can play with the abacus and Napier’s bones and other cool stuff, and the ancient artifacts all come together to create a mesmerizing experience. All the things that you read about in Electronics textbooks come to life when you see them, touch them, and marvel at them. The evolution of the computers from the gigantic mainframes and chaos of thousands of wires to the elegant technology of today is truly mind-blowing.

Equally impressive are the brilliant minds who made it all possible. I couldn’t help but feel a bit useless and dumb when I realized the marvels these folks created when they had absolutely no resources, and the things I waste my time on even with all the resources at my fingertips. But I am also glad to live in an age where I have the marvelous technology at my beck-and-call.

I would urge anyone coming to the Silicon Valley to visit the Computer History Museum at least once, though you might be tempted to go back again just to soak it all in. I am sure I will be visiting it again soon!


Silicon Valley Resources

Before moving to the Silicon Valley, I conducted substantial research. I came across some awesome articles that talk about where and how to find accommodation, how to get around, and things to do. I don’t want to rehash the content, so posting the links here for you to explore:

An Intern’s Guide to a Summer in the Bay Area

An excellent starting point to start exploring the Bay Area. Written by Alexey, the article discusses housing and transportation options, as well as things to do and meetups to attend in the Bay Area.

Unofficial Waterloo USA Intern Guide

A comprehensive article consisting of resources ranging from Cell phone plans, banks, credit cards, taxes and much more. A one-stop guide for all the things you need to know if you are moving to the Bay Area from outside the US.

25 Things I wish I knew before moving to San Francisco

Some good-to-know information to get an idea of what life in SV looks like. But no actionable resources.

A Visitors Guide to Silicon Valley

Written by Bay Area veteran, Steve Blank, this is the starting point for a guided tour of the historical landmarks in SV. A very interesting read. Also explore the rest of Steve’s blog, as well as the links mentioned in the article.

Startup Ecosystem Canvas

An exhaustive list of resources for a startup newbie in the SV. Has resources about meetups, contacts, organizations – anything you might need to start your startup in SV.

A few closing thoughts:

  • People in SV are mostly in their own world, working on the next big thing, but when they do emerge from their mental worlds, they are very sociable, helpful, and welcoming.
  • The pace of SV, especially Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Palo Alto and so on is pretty relaxed. When I first arrived here, I had expected sort of a frenzy-like pace. But in reality, the pace of life is luxurious and easy-going.
  • It is as expensive as they tell you it is. Make sure you budget your finances properly and follow the budget you set for yourself.There are tonnes of things to do around here, and it is easy to lose track of the money you spend. One of my friends put it succinctly: If you have the money, SV is an awesome place to be.
  • Public Transit is bad, really bad. Or at least takes a while to explore and get used to. But walking around is a lot of fun – the walkways are well-maintained and you can explore the city at a leisurely pace if you just stroll around it. Google maps are  life-savers, especially if you are directionally-challenged like me.
  • The weather’s tricky. I moved here with the image of sun and warmth and sipping coffees sitting on cafe porches, but was greeted with cold and windy climate – at the end of May! And the nights were so much worse. The first night it got so chilly that I couldn’t even sleep. So bring your warm clothes along – you never know when you might need them.