Going to school and running a business at the same time – that’s what the participants of the Youth Start Ups business contest learned to master. The contest is sponsored by the Ministry for Education and Research and organized by a not-for-profit unit at the Steinbeis Transfer Center for Business Development at Pforzheim University. The program has enjoyed unbroken success across the country for years: Students spend an entire school year developing an innovative business idea and setting up their own virtual company. During the process, they are challenged by all the highs and lows of running a startup. Steinbeis offered the competition its support by sponsoring the winning team’s trip to the American innovation hotspot, Silicon Valley. Here is the 2013 winning team’s report back:
On July 14, after a year of work, the results of the Youth Start Ups program were finally announced. The ten final teams (from a total of 3,500 participants) had presented their ideas, and it was time for the winners to be rewarded at the Volkswagen factory in Wolfsburg. And we were chosen! For us six prizewinners from the Robert Schumann grammar school in Cham and the Philipp-Holzmann School in Frankfurt, this meant one thing: Silicon Valley, here we come! It was 1938 when William Hewlett and David Packard founded their high-tech company in today’s Silicon Valley, a region that has become the most significant location for IT and the computer industry in the world. Youth Start Ups enabled us to gain insights in the same place where new innovation and trends are born every day.
We landed in San Francisco on September 4 after a long flight. Prof. Nils Högsdal, who accompanied us on the entire trip, picked us up at the airport. Then, following a quick pit stop at our hotel, we headed right off to the Plug and Play Tech Center in Silicon Valley. Any feelings of jetlag immediately disappeared as Bernhard greeted us at the German Silicon Valley Accelerator. He explained to us that the center makes it possible for young startup companies to rent office space at a reasonable price, with access to all technical infrastructure and investor contacts. As a part of the German Silicon Valley Accelerator, an initiative sponsored by the Federal Ministry of Economics and Technology, innovative companies can apply for a threemonth internship in Silicon Valley. A jury selects the most interesting ideas. At the beginning of the program, the fledgling companies take part in a workshop to introduce them to different skills and competences. In addition, the German Silicon Valley Accelerator lines up valuable contacts to investors and ties into an expansive mentoring program that includes several successful entrepreneurs.
To kick off our second day, we visited San Francisco. We caught “The Fog City” on one of its best days: There was almost no fog in sight, so we could enjoy a breathtaking view of the Golden Gate Bridge. The next destination on our itinerary was a garage – no joke! In fact, giants like Hewlett Packard, Apple and Google all cultivated their ideas in a garage. In a brief tour, Björn Herrmann, founder of the successful startup startup-compass.co and the 2005 Youth Start Ups winner, showed us his offices and demonstrated how even the most barren facilities can foster business success. At a delicious lunch in an interesting part of town which personified the alternative San Francisco lifestyle, we could sense Björn Herrmann’s passion for his work.
We continued to Detecon, a consulting subsidiary of Deutsche Telekom. Here we gained interesting perspectives on new developments and trends in the IT world. A case study was used to test our entrepreneurial talent and analytical skills. The brief? To develop a model for increasing the turnover at a telecommunications company. It was quite a task since it challenged us to think about finances, partners, and the concrete implementation of ideas. At the end of the day, we bid farewell to San Francisco with a ride in the world-famous cable cars.
When you hear about a place with a stadium big enough to house 80,000 spectators, one of the best hospitals in the world, and a perfect public transportation network, you typically think of mega-cities like London, New York or Paris. How wrong! All this and a particle accelerator can be found on the campus of one of the world’s best universities: Stanford. Believe it or not, the campus covers an area the size of 6,500 soccer fields. 38,000 of the top students in the US apply to Stanford every year, and only about 6.6% of them are accepted. During our tour of the campus, we could feel the exciting atmosphere. We found it especially interesting just how many companies have been founded by former Stanford students: Google, HP, Ebay, Yahoo, Cisco, Instagram, etc.
After our visit, we set out for a startup called Swipp. swipp.com gives companies the opportunity to interact with customers and generate information about what their likes and dislikes are in an intuitive way. Then, we left the realm of current startups and were sent on a journey through the history of Silicon Valley with a visit to the Intel Museum. There, Prof. Högsdal gave us in-depth information on the production of chips and their importance for technology companies. After all, Silicon Valley did borrow its name from the most sought-after metal in the semiconductor industry: silicon.
Our impression on the next day can be summed up in a single word: WOW! Yosemite National Park is one of the most beautiful places in the world. The gorgeous valley between magnificent mountains with waterfalls, rivers, and wide stretches of forest made our visit unforgettable. Our destination was the top of Nevada Falls at an elevation of 1,800 meters. After a few hours of hiking through steep terrain, we reached our lookout point. An impressive panorama and glimpse of the surrounding mountains and the Half Dome were our reward for the arduous climb. Three hours later (with half of the group wishing for an oxygen tent), we made our way in our van to the next hotel just as the sun went down.
On our drive along Highway One, we enjoyed a wonderful view of the ocean, stopped in Monterey, had a picnic at a lookout point on the edge of the highway, and took a look at Hearst Castle, which was built in the first half of the 20th century by William Randolph Hearst. On our sixth day, we headed south via the picturesque wine town of Solvang to Malibu and directly on to Redondo Beach. At the Redondo Beach Brewery Company, we sat down for some mouth-watering food and football!
All of a sudden, our last day in California had crept up on us. In the morning, we rode to VW, one of the main sponsors of the Youth Start Ups initiative. In its Design Center California, Jae S. Min, one of the head designers, invested a lot of time to answer our questions. The rest of the day was spent in Santa Monica, where we just had to jump into the icecold water. To round out our amazingly interesting and educational week in Silicon Valley, we sat down at a burger restaurant to say goodbye to the typical food in this land of unlimited possibilities.
What did we take with us? Vivid experiences that will impact us in our future careers, probably around 2,000 photos, countless impressions of the culture, nature and business, a handful of good contacts to startups in Silicon Valley, and the realization that the lifestyle in Silicon Valley is so different from what we know in Germany: “Take a risk with a good idea. If you fail, learn from your mistakes and use that knowledge to venture into the next project!”