Thirty Years in Silicon Valley: Life’s Biggest Lessons Come from Life’s Biggest Failures

Written by Geoff Baum

Thirty years ago, Michael Meirer came to the U.S. looking to make a change not only for his professional but also for his personal growth. He wanted to expand his horizons and challenge his way of thinking, to depart from the small town in Austria where he had grown up. In Silicon Valley, people were not afraid of failure. Instead, they invented and innovated, and were bold about what they were doing. This mindset fascinated Michael, and he decided to settle in this new and exciting world. In the following interview, the recently retired Program CEO of German Accelerator Silicon Valley, Michael Meirer, talks about his life, career, and what he has learned on his journey.

You’re originally from a small town in Austria that most people have never heard of. How did you end up in Silicon Valley?

I travelled all around the world, North America, Asia, and throughout Europe. Exploring new places was quite a shock for me, after growing up in tiny, traditional Lienz, Austria. Around that time, I read a book by the philosopher and polymath Alan Watts called Psychotherapy East and West. In particular, one part of Watts’ writing stuck with me. He wrote that you never truly know how your culture shapes you until you leave and spend time in another society with a different way of thinking.

I travelled to Silicon Valley frequently, through my work and travels with Siemens, and it was a fascinating place for me, such a contrast to my hometown. In Silicon Valley, there is social freedom you don’t find in central Europe. People in Silicon Valley didn’t care about traditions or the way things have always been done. They weren’t afraid of failing. It’s okay to live any kind of life there as long as you are living a full life and have a growth mindset.

I thought about what Watts had written and decided I had to move there. My first job in Silicon Valley in 1986 was at a small company called Veritas Technology in Santa Cruz.

And then you met Larry Ellison, the founder, and at the time, CEO of Oracle, and went to work for him?

Yes. I met Larry in 1989 through some business contacts and mutual friends. He had invested tens of millions of dollars in a parallel computing startup called nCube. Larry wanted to use it to crush IBM, Microsoft, and everyone else. He wanted to dominate the entire computing world.

Larry Ellison is one of the most famous entrepreneurs and CEOs in Silicon Valley’s history. It must have been a fascinating experience working with him. What did you learn during this time?

Several things, but perhaps the most important one is that you must be bold. He is a great salesman. He has self-confidence like no one else I’ve ever met. He gets people excited about his vision and isn’t afraid to make claims about what he could do. Sometimes before he even knows if he can deliver on these promises.

This is an important lesson that German startups need to learn and understand. They must be bolder if they ever want to win in the global market. The minute they try to sell outside of Germany, especially in the U.S., they need to compete against companies that have learned how to market and sell from high tech legends like Larry Ellison and Steve Jobs. If they take the traditional German, humble, and product-centric approach to selling, they will lose. Even if they have a better product and better technology.

Is this the most important lesson you have learned in Silicon Valley?

There are a couple of other lessons that are even more important. In 1998, I co-founded a CRM startup called Zadu. Everything was going great. We raised $7M in the first seven months. We had big customers, some even paying us millions to license our software. VCs were knocking on our door.

Right around 2000, a much bigger CRM company offered to buy us for nearly $100M. At about the same time as the acquisition offer, we had a term sheet for a $6M investment. Foolishly, I turned it down. I didn’t think we needed it. I was sure I would be able to thread the funding needle. I was going to preserve equity, avoid further dilution, and deliver us to the acquisition promised land. Boy, was I wrong. The buyer backed out, and then the economy collapsed in 2001. It was the dot-com bust. That was right around the time that the stock market crashed. I couldn’t raise any more venture funding, and we ran out of money. I had to lay off everyone and shut down the company.

What was the biggest takeaway from that experience?

This was a terrible failure for me, a personal failure. I didn’t take the funding that would have allowed us to continue through the recession and give us a chance to succeed. This experience taught me a couple of lessons.

First, as a leader, you don’t always have to be the smartest man or woman in the room. You have to surround yourself with good people who tell you when you’re wrong and can help you get to the right answer.

Second, you need to have the courage to go out and do something meaningful, even at the risk of personal failure. Do something that helps make the world a better place and helps you grow as a person, even if you face high risks.

Silicon Valley can be a hectic place. How do you find balance?

Everything here is “Go Go Go!” all the time. Traffic, people, money, and everyone is always in a rush. It’s a workaholic culture. People don’t know how to relax. I do think it’s essential to keep balanced. I try to get away frequently. Just leave everything behind to clear my head and soul. I bike, motorcycle, hang glide. I gravitate towards activities that allow me to separate myself from the pace and pressure of work and culture.

Why did you get involved with German Accelerator?

Initially, I was asked to be a mentor to the companies in the program. My interest in participating was two-fold. First, I’m a curious person. I knew working with startups would be a great way for me to learn about new technologies and innovation.

Second, I wanted to give back to entrepreneurs and the German startup community. I felt that I had experiences and expertise to share. German Accelerator seemed like it would be a great platform to give back. And it has been. Better than I could have ever expected.

Can you tell us about your favorite German Accelerator experience?

One of my favorite experiences has been working with the founder of Holobuilder; a startup focused on documenting construction site progress.

The founder Mo Akbari is an impressive guy. When he came to Silicon Valley from RWTH Aachen just a few years ago, he brought an AR technology he and his team had built. The problem was that he had no idea what to do with it; he hadn’t figured out a business case. He worked with me and other mentors. He listened. He grew. He came with a willingness and desire to expand his horizons as an entrepreneur and as a person.

Now, a few years later, you can see how he’s gone through a complete transformation. From an engineer who didn’t know much about business, to a successful, confident, even, I would say, a bold founder who has built a company from scratch into a fast-growing scale-up. He’s raised money from U.S. VCs and created a product, team, and business. It’s an incredible story and a real joy to witness. That’s the reason I’m involved in German Accelerator.