Innovation immersion in Silicon Valley

If you want to understand how technology is driving innovation and reshaping industries, there's one place you have to visit: Silicon Valley. The 40-mile stretch of office parks and sun-drenched suburbia boasts the world's densest concentration of technology giants, venture capitalists, and entrepreneurs. "We get eight to ten calls a month from executives around the world who want to experience the valley," says Eric Kutcher, who leads McKinsey's US West Coast region from our Palo Alto office.

Our Silicon Valley Innovation Boot Camps are intensive 2- to 3-day sessions that bring these executives face-to-face with innovators who are at once potential business partners and potential formidable foes. Each boot camp typically comprises up to half a dozen executives and board members from a single client company. The McKinsey team puts together a custom itinerary of visits, workshops, and debriefs based on the client's industry and what they are trying to achieve.

Michael Uhl, a Palo Alto-based McKinsey partner and boot-camp organizer, points to three key questions that are typically on the minds of participants:

  1. How are Silicon Valley companies so innovative—what can we learn from an innovation and product development standpoint?
  2. What disruptive technologies coming out of Silicon Valley are going to impact our business model?
  3. How do we connect to the Silicon Valley ecosystem, whether through acquisitions, joint ventures, venture investing, or opening an office on the ground?

Putting together itineraries to address these questions—for clients across a wide range of different industries—requires a broad network of contacts. This is where the collective reach of McKinsey's Palo Alto and San Francisco offices (60-plus partners and about 400 consultants are split roughly equally between the two locations) comes into play. Clients served from these locations include not only household names but also start-ups ranging from the scrappy to members of the "billion-dollar club"—start-ups now valued at $1 billion or more. Combined with a community of McKinsey alumni spread widely across Silicon Valley, the network runs deep.

Part of the magic is having a critical mass of decision-makers together for an extended period. "When you put major players in an industry together with major players in Silicon Valley, the thinking evolves quickly on both sides," says Michael. Follow-up meetings can be arranged on the spot and pilot projects given a green light.

Inspiration can come from unexpected places. Alex Kazaks, a San Francisco-based partner and boot-camp organizer, recalls a recent meeting between the top management team of a big financial-services client and the CEO of a start-up developing middleware for drones: "Who even knew that drones needed middleware? But it was a great conversation and sparked some serious thinking about how drones could be used commercially in a totally new way."

"Putting our network to work for clients is what makes the boot camps tick," says Eric. "It shows that there are a lot of different ways that we can serve. Clients have described them as a perfect launchpad for their digital innovations and initiatives."

What does a typical day look like?

Like all our client work, boot camps are confidential. Here's a recent schedule with company names removed:

  • 8 AM: Breakfast briefing and orientation in Silicon Valley
  • 9 AM: Meeting on Sand Hill Road with a leading venture capitalist
  • 10-11:30 AM: Series of quick-fire meetings with start-up CEOs
  • 11:30 AM-12:30 PM: Networking lunch
  • 12:30-4 PM: Visits with two billion-dollar club companies—explore the industry implications of big data and the sharing economy
  • 4-5 PM: Drive to San Francisco—lively discussion in the bus en route
  • 5-6:30 PM: Workshop on customer experience design—led by McKinsey Digital Labs and external experts
  • 7-9 PM: Dinner and debrief

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