Part 2 of Cross Creative’s Silicon Valley trip

The group on the roof of the new Dropbox HQ

Seven people from seven digitally-focused Scottish companies meeting some of the great and the monstrously successful in Silicon Valley on an immersive, once-in-a-lifetime, fact-finding mission. This is part 2 of Cross Creative’s trip to San Francisco and you can find part 1 here.

Day 3 of our trip started with a visit to Turo. While not yet an instantly recognisable name outside the US, Turo are part of the burgeoning mobility space that includes Uber and Lyft. Turo’s mission is to fix the fact that there are 300M cars and only 200M drivers in the US so the majority of these cars sit idle most of the time. Specifically, Turo let you rent your car out when you’re not using it to other people in the same way as AirBnB do for homes.

We met with Michelle and Adam and they took us through how Turo differentiate themselves from car rental companies. What’s great about Turo is that they think a lot more about the experience of choosing that car, and the adventure you want to take that car on, with a heavy emphasis on design, amazing photography and the personalised experience that hosts can bring to their renters.

Dealing with trust issues

They also talked at length about how Turo have broken down barriers in a market that might at first glance have significant trust issues. All rentals require relatively new vehicles in great working order and come with breakdown cover. Renters can purchase damage protection packages to further reduce their exposure. From a host’s perspective, they are covered by up to a million dollars of damage insurance provided by Turo themselves.

Michelle also went on to give a masterclass in how to navigate the tricky world of government stakeholders from engaging and education through to giving back and thought leadership.

The final piece of insight was around how Turo have created a product that actually changes the economics of car ownership. On average a car is rented out for 9.7 days per month which generates an 8% yield over and above the cost of repayments. Turo themselves push the message that you can “Pay for your car by renting it out”. They also indicated it is “uncommon for someone on our platform to have no other touch points in the sharing economy” – i.e. if you are renting out your car on Turo, chances are you are also renting your house on AirBnB or spending some of your time driving for Uber or Lyft.

The perks of being a Dropbox employee

After Turo we headed over to Dropbox’s relatively new offices, also in downtown San Francisco. Dropbox are at approximately 2000 employees worldwide with 1400 at this site and within minutes of arriving it was clear that Dropbox take staff perks extremely seriously.

Our host Mariko showed us into the Little-r coffee shop for employees where Dropbox not only supply free coffees made on demand by the baristas, they also roast their own beans. Those beans come from a brazilian family that Dropbox support in exchange for an exclusive supply of high quality coffee beans.

Our tour took us on to see a replica of San Francisco’s Mint music venue, complete with instruments and lounging area; free IT equipment and food dispensaries dotted around almost every corridor; a rooftop terrace with sensational views of downtown; before eventually ending up at the pièce de résistance – the free gourmet restaurant the Dropboxers unassumingly call The Tuck Shop. While we wandered through wide eyed we came across the chef photographing the fine dining plates he’d put together for that day. Unbelievably his remit is that no dish gets repeated on the menu, ever.

Moving towards content-based collaboration

After the tour we sat down with Ross to hear about the broader Dropbox strategy and how the company sees its product evolving. From the outside it can seem that Dropbox are primarily a consumer focused business but Ross made the point that actually they’ve “always been an end-user company” with “70% of the users using it for work”. This acknowledgement has allowed Dropbox to refocus much more on the enterprise space. With 200k paying companies and $1Billion in revenues they are a major force to reckon with. Dropbox in 2014 thought of itself as a file sync and share company. In 2016 they identified as a file-based collaboration platform but in 2018 they see themselves moving to a content based collaboration platform with a mission to “make the experience of the user seamless across the content creation workflow”.

Like many of the companies we have visited in the Valley, Dropbox are intensely proactive in working to get the best out of their staff through culture and work practices. They self-identify as being very mission-driven with a particular emphasis on simplicity for the end user. The organisation is very flat and transparent with a weekly all hands which always has open Q&A. There’s no decision that’s a sacred cow and individual sprint teams have a high level of autonomy to succeed within the overall vision and broad swim lanes of the strategy.

Stirring the soup pot

One of the areas that really highlights the bottom-up approach of the Dropbox culture is the company-wide hack weeks that we were introduced to us by our final hosts Shake and Rory. Dropbox believe in a so-called ‘soup’ model of innovation where they cultivate the best ideas from throughout the company and then ‘give the pot a stir’. They took us through how Dropbox guide innovation by laying out a number of values around company, product and engineering and then feed that into a dedicated week of hacking on ideas across all functions in the company. Any and all ideas are can be presented in the run up to a hack week and teams are formed by self-selection onto the idea teams that garner interest. Crucially it is an immersive environment where they try to create an intense act of learning and creative freedom that defies the status quo and pushes the boundaries. Hack weeks work as an incredible tool to foster communication and relationships across the company, inculcate the culture of innovation, and give people a meaningful way to contribute to the product roadmap. Crucially, above all it works. In 2015 for example, 30% of the product road map was based on ideas that came out of the 2014 hack weeks.

Visiting a legendary accelerator

Lastly we ended our visits of the day with a trip to PlugAndPlay Tech Centre in Sunnyvale. Our hosts Lynnette and Megan walked us through the process that this legendary accelerator takes companies through. PNP (as they like to call themselves) have a huge number of past alumni listed on the walls of their reception celebrating exits and valuations. Being able to name PayPal, Google and Dropbox in their ranks give some sense of the success the accelerator has helped to create.

PNP sift through the thousands of applications they receive to select just 2% to come onto their programme within one of the twelve industry verticals they currently focus on. This includes companies innovating in everything from Fintech to IoT, Media to Mobility. The key differentiator for PNP versus other accelerators is the 3rd parties they also bring to the table. They work extensively with large industry partners to give them access to their early stage startups, in exchange for the startups gaining access to early industry customers, partnerships and even investments. They also have successful Valley Executives in Residence who spend time mentoring the startups; pitch days every Friday in front of Valley VCs; and over 300 networking events each year to give their founders the best possible exposure.

Finally, PNP described their international reach to us, with programmes and partnerships in many countries around the world, including 8 in China alone. While they’ve yet to set up shop in Scotland, the CrossCreative team did a great job selling them on the potential that exists in our burgeoning Scottish tech economy and we will watch this space with baited breath.

Cross Creative  is a transformative training and development programme run by TRCMedia for senior tech/creative professionals in Scotland’s digital media sector.

 – Matt Farrugia is the CEO of Bemo