Net Dreams

By car, by plane, they come, giving up lives elsewhere for the tremendous opportunity of Silicon Valley. They believe that in no other place in the world right now can one person accomplish so much with talent, initiative, and a good idea. It’s a region where how much money you have and who you know have never been less relevant to success. They come because it doesn’t matter that they’re young, or left college without a degree, or have dark skin, or speak with an accent. They come even if it’s illegal to come, because they feel they’ll regret it the rest of their lives if they don’t give it a try. They come to be part of history, to build the technology that will reshape how people live 10 years from now. They come for the excitement, to be a part of it, to score big. They come to make enough money so they will never have to think about money again.

Every generation before this one has had to make a choice between pursuing a steady career and pursuing wild adventures. In Silicon Valley, that trade-off has been recircuited. Injecting mind-boggling amounts of risk into the once stodgy domain of gray-suited business, young people no longer have to choose. They’ve turned life into a two-for-one deal: career path as roller-coaster adventure. Working has become sport. Here in superachieverland, people are motivated by the thrill of the competition and the danger of losing, and every year the rules evolve to make it happen quicker, on higher margins, with more amazing sums.

I imagine a manifesto for Silicon Valley: Get lean, strip down, live on nothing. Bare bones. Focus. Ration yourself daily one Snickers, one jackoff, and one Dilbert cartoon. Forget about love that nourishes, food that satiates. Forget about long conversations that only get good in the middle of the night, when that third bottle of wine gets uncorked. Forget about poetry: the whisper, the leaf, the tuck of hair. Forget about politics: the bilingual-ed revolt, the dams diverting more water south.

Get ready for ultracapitalism.

The Idealist
I’m on my way out of a Saturday night party when I glance up and see a vaguely familiar face, plastered with a merry whiskey grin, perched on a high stool tipped back against the wall. I had met this guy three years ago when he was in town for a convention. Back then he was based in Knoxville, Tennessee, and he had loudly trumpeted the notion that in the telecommuting age one could work anywhere.

‘Another convention in town?’ I ask.

‘Nope. Moved. Been here a week already.’

A few days later this guy’s put me in touch with his friend, Scott Krause. Scott and I go for some lunch at the Slanted Door in the Mission District. Scott is a modern-day Hardy Boy who wears jungle pants cut off at the knees and a yellow plaid Bermuda shirt, untucked. He’s 27 and a human resource manager’s wet dream; he has an M.B.A. from the University of Tennessee and says right out that he wants to build the technology that changes how the world lives and works. I don’t often hear this kind of idealism; it’s like Scott has time-traveled here from 1994. It’s a plain-vanilla idealism, perhaps the sort of earnest viewpoint that can develop only in the heartlandówhere they know absolutely nothing about what it’s really like in the Valley. I give it three months; then, like an accent, it’ll disappear.

‘If I’m going to work 70-hour weeks, I might as well do something purposeful,’ he says buoyantly. After six weeks of looking, he took a job with Intershop Communicationsóto do ‘business development.’ But that turned out to mean cold-calling for the telesales division. After a while, he could no longer convince himself that this had anything to do with changing the world.

What matters to Scott is finding work he can love.

The Stoner
On the other end of the line is a chummy talker I’ll call Michael Zilly who tells me that, yo, he’ll be moving on out from Massachusetts next week. He says Silicon Valley is ‘phat’ and ‘quite excellent,’ and he calls me ‘homeboy.’ He wants to do the Valley, all of it. He wants to soak it up. This includes (along with snowboarding and meeting mall girls) being a kick-ass entrepreneur. He has hammered together a cardboard-thin featherlight ‘keyboard’ that uses touchscreen technology rather than plastic keys, a superportable typing accessory designed to be plugged in to Palms and other PDAs. He calls it the SupraNova, a cryptic reference to Naked Lunch. His hobbies are running up hills and smoking dope. He listens to Ice-T and Body Count and Parliament. He says we’ll hang. ‘Where’s the party? Where’s the girls? Where’s the fish?’ We trade e-mails, which he signs, ‘Keep on rockin’ in the free world.’

He needs to raise $80,000 in the next three months.

The Artist
At the bar in the Stanford Park Hotel, I strike up a conversation with a Taiwanese American accountant who tells me about a guy he knows who started a karaoke club in Taiwan but didn’t want to do what he’d have to do to succeed, and has come to try life in the Valley. I’m instantly interested; which is a more ruthless place? The accountant promises to put me in touch.

Now, I’m trying to get the guy, Ben Chiu, to tell me about Taiwan. The information’s not going to come without trust, so I ask a lot of questions about his background. Ben is wearing the exact same thing as his three employees: brown leather saddle shoes, dark hard jeans with the ankles cuffed, black belt with silver buckle, and a short-sleeved black polo shirt. He’s 27.

It takes a while for Ben to understand that I’m interested in him, not in his technology. He’s not used to anybody caring about his life story, and when he finally gets it, he goes ‘Ohhh,’ and walks out of the room. He returns with an artist’s portfolio.

Inside are photos of his wild-animal paintingsórams and bald eaglesódone in painstaking, stunning detail. Every feather, every hair is rendered. Each one, hours of work. ‘Anal, huh?’ Ben says, embarrassed.

‘You do these recently?’

‘Not since I moved here.’

‘How about dancing; you go dancing?’

‘I used to go every night. In Taiwan. But not here.’

‘How about karaoke?’

‘Oh, sure. I still do that.’

‘When?’

He can’t remember when. Is he sapped, worn out? He’d prefer to think his ‘creative energy is now channeled into [his] company.’

Ben was born in Taiwan but grew up in Toronto. When you graduate from college, you’re supposed to spend time thinking about who you are so you can answer questions about what you want to be. Ben didn’t know who he was, so he went back to Taiwan to find out. There he started some clubs.

In Taiwan, all business is based on guanxiórelationships. Having great ability, a great club, great style, wasn’t enough. Ben worried that in the end the only way to get ahead was to know the ‘right people’ówho would tell you how to make the right payoffs at the right times to ‘the black and the white,’ the organized element and the cops.

Ben came here hoping to get away from that, and he believes the Internet will be a level playing field. His KillerApp is a price-comparison shopping engineóyou can go to his site and find out who has the cheapest computer prices. Ben built the code himself. His days are 18 hours long. He still doesn’t have any friendsóonly business acquaintances.

He walks me out to my car. It’s hot enough to melt the asphalt into that freshly-laid-tar smell. We rehash what we’ve already said. I get the feeling Ben doesn’t want me to leave.

At 10 o’clock Michael Zilly is supposed to hook up with a man named Henry Silva Jr. who might invest that 80 ‘G-large’ Zilly needs. They are supposed to meet at the Big Brother & the Holding Company poster in the front lobby of the legendary Fillmore music hall, which is where we’re standing.

‘There’s no turning back,’ says Zilly.

For the past two years, Zilly funded his startup by growing ganja in the western Massachusetts swamps and selling it wholesale. Giving up that life and coming out here is not a sellout. It is not like giving up one’s noble ideals and deciding to make a killing in real estate. Here he’s continuing the adventure, maybe even ratcheting it up a notch. Having a B.S., an M.B.A., and part of an M.S. prepares a guy for an exotic career track.

But Zilly came here because he’d like to wipe his darker past from his rÈsumÈ. And the experience may prove invaluable. If the metric of success in Silicon Valley is one’s willingness to throw oneself into situations most people would feel are out of control, then Michael Zilly should be a paper millionaire within 12 months. This is his strength: taking risks.

The next month I have lunch again with Hardy Boy Scott Krause. Intershop, the company he quit because it wasn’t challenging enough, had gone public. He’d given up his stock options.

I ask about this near miss with sudden wealth.

‘I don’t think about it,’ he says.

‘As in ëI avoid thinking about it,’ or as in ëIt’s just not on my mind’?’

‘I’ve got the best job now I’ve ever had,’ he asserts.

He’s been working at the search directory Infoseek for the past couple months. His project is ‘a side-bet venture, with the potential to fundamentally change the way that search engines interact with people,’ and then, in case that’s not emphatic enough, he adds, ‘I’m contributing to something that has historical implications.’

I suspect a psychological adjustment going onónobody wants to admit to having made a mistake, so you find a compensating factor. But Scott is so earnest. Maybe I just don’t want to admit I was wrong in predicting the demise of his idealism. I ask him what his project is.

‘I can’t tell you. It’s a secret even within Infoseek.’

Michael Zilly and I confer briefly by e-mail and phone, and one day he gives me a full update. Since I last saw him, he hooked up with the Fillmore-party no-show, Henry Silva Jr., who turned out to be not an investor but rather an investment scout who takes a finder’s fee. The rest unfolded like dime-store noir. Silva Jr. put Zilly on a plane to Washington to meet Mark Conegan, who turned out to be what is called a ‘Beltway bandit,’ lending money at short-term high (but legal) rates to government contractors low on cash who are awaiting congressional appropriation funding.

Conegan proposed to give Zilly up-front money to manufacture the SupraNova ifóand only ifóConegan could manage simultaneously to prearrange a bulk buy of SupraNovas on the back end. This was money Zilly trustedówhen everyone was in for a cut. Zilly and Conegan shook hands on $500,000. But Conegan didn’t come through with the advance sale, and so his cash never showed.

Now that his mood has recovered, Zilly can say, ‘What’s up? I had an excellent winter licking myópsychic/financialówounds, chasing chicks, and snowboarding. I had a monumental seasonó40 daysóand picked up some decent moves.’

One catalyst for optimism is a job offer from a man named Paul Jain to join his startup. Jain, I happen to know, has been indicted on 27 counts of financial fraud with his last company, Media Vision Technology. The Media Vision fiasco was the big event campaigners used to push California’s Proposition 211, making it easier for stockholders to sue.

I can’t help but warn Michael Zilly that his old dope-growing hobby and his startup flameout were, on the grand scale of things, merely cute adventures that he could put behind him, chalk up to youth. But to get in deep with Paul Jain was, in my opinion, to risk not being able to turn back.

All of this makes it just that much more edgy for Zilly. He takes the job.

I’m having drinks at the Stanford Park with a group of all-around guys in the 25-to-35 demographic. Over by the bar I see Ben Chiu.

‘You’re out making friends,’ I say.

He has a big, happy grin on his lightly freckled face, a sparkle in his eye, a boldness in his posture. There’s more to this than finally making friends.

‘I can’t talk about it,’ he says, which is by now a term of art, nondisclosure-agreement code for ‘I’m in negotiations.’ It’s the hint I need; I crunch on recent news and put it together. First there was a buying spree for e-commerce software companies. Now there is a buying spree for the next piece of the portal puzzle, comparison-shopping engines, such as Ben Chiu’s KillerApp. Amazon.com bought Junglee for a reported $180 million. Infoseek bought Quando for $17 million. Inktomi spent $90 million on C2B, which doesn’t even have its beta ready. KillerApp is in their league, easily; Internet World magazine ranks it the most efficient Internet shopping site.

Ben is sanguine. Tactfully, he negotiates the words: ‘It’s a natural thing to be bought. It’s not selling out, really. I’ve had this vision for a few years, and slowly the rest of the market has begun to value what I’ve done at the same level that I value it. When that happens, when you get offered what you know you’re worth, then every entrepreneur knows it’s the right time.’

Michael Zilly sends me e-mail : ‘It seems prema-ture to write about my adventures in California, because nothing has come to fruition.’ It is the first e-mail he has sent that is not signed ‘Keep on rockin’ in the free world.’ He says he’s thinking of taking a class to help him pass a COBOL certification exam, which will qualify him to be hired as a $35-an-hour ‘implementation consultant’ with one of the many Y2K-conversion firms.

He’s down to his last month’s rent.

Ben has stayed his course through a string of frustrating negotiations. His company has doubled in size to nine employees. He talks about how ‘going public might still be the best option’ and says, ‘Look for me on NASDAQ in 18 months.’

His attorneys recommend that he get a personal financial adviser, and they refer him to the man who advises Yahoo!’s Jerry Yang and Netscape’s co-founder Marc Andreessen. This guy is Ben’s ticket to guanxi. The adviser introduces Ben to the mergers-and-acquisitions bankers at BT Alex. Brown, who are able to revive interest in his company when the stock market rebounds. I am privileged to the negotiations that follow, but under the condition that I not reveal the various parties until the outcome is final.

The negotiations feel as hectic as a sports-tournament ladder with home and away matches. Ben receives a soft offer from a television/Internet media company, which Alex. Brown parlays into a second soft offer from that company’s even larger competitor. Alex. Brown then parlays this interest into informal negotiating sessions with three of the top ten Web portals, and Ben is flying off to Seattle and Boston. Within a month, Ben has five major companies poking him with a stick and has conducted a technical due-diligence session, while another spate of mergers takes the industry by storm, which continues to alter the playing field.

Scott Krause always seemed to me to be the most representative of the conventional pilgrim experience: Have an M.B.A. from a good school, get a good manager-level job at a big Web portal, make a bundle on your options, and have the privilege of saying that money is not the motivation.

I kept waiting for the wrinkle in that best-laid plan, but it never came.

I bump into Scott on the street outside my gym, and he invites me upstairs to Infoseek’s San Francisco satellite office, located on the third floor of the old Hamm’s brewery. He can tell me at last what his secret project wasóit had been killed at beta phase, just before launch.

Here is my chance to hear about his defeat and aggravation, but no. He is unshakable. I probe for signs of glumness, but Scott is frustratingly buoyant. He’s been reassigned to a new product that won’t go online for another six months to a year. I’m confused by how he can suffer a failed launch without a scar. But Scott’s father is a steamfitter, repairing boilers for a public school district. Coming from that kind of background, just to be in Silicon Valley working in the Internet space is insanely heady stuff.

‘I tell my dad how much money I’m making and it’s just unbelievable to him.’ (During Scott’s first year there, Info-

seek stock climbed from 16 to 90.) ‘I remember when I was back in Tennessee. Just over a year ago. I was so ready to come out here. I dreamed of it, but I never thought that dream would actually come true.’ He is awed. ‘I got to work at one of the most prominent companies, on one of the most cutting-edge products.’

Michael Zilly invites me to meet him on a certain bench beside a certain fountain on the Peninsula at four o’clock on a Friday afternoon. The fountain is a water-driven sculpture, a 25-foot-tall bronze man slowly hammering the air.

He has a much hipper look about him. His hair is brush cut, his jeans jet black, his shoes boxy black leather loafers with chunky heels. He still has a bit of a stoner’s hush to his voice, but his eyes are clear.

Zilly passed the COBOL exam. Properly credentialed, he became a full-time temp, on call for a Y2K-service firm. After two months at one location, he was moved to one of the most respectable firms in the entire Valley, where we’re meeting today. The fountain feeds into an artificial lake, big enough to froth up in whitecaps on windy days. The 12 glass-and-brick buildings that surround it are beautiful monuments.

A couple weeks ago, the company decided to end the service firm’s contract and handle the Y2K conversion internally. They asked the implementation consultants for their rÈsumÈs. Zilly had a moment of panic. Then he fudged it. It worked. The company hired him as employee number umpteen thousand, with full bennies. The security badge he wears is now laminated plastic, not flimsy card stock.

He’s found that he really likes working here, in the warm corporate bosom of a treacherous industry. ‘The people are whip-smart. They get the job done. The company has its act together.’

Despite their apparent bedrock stability, management still creates an atmosphere of transience. To have lasted here three years is a long time. Workers come here to get a seal of approval, to be properly trained in sales or management.

That’s what Zilly wants. The way the Mafia launders money, Zilly will use this company to launder his rÈsumÈ. It’s sort of like getting your Stanford M.B.A. after doing your undergrad at Foothill College. ‘After a year or two here, I can get hired anywhere,’ he says. ‘Anywhere in the world.’

I go to see Ben, catching him when the negotiations are complete and the merger documents halfway signed. He has sold KillerApp to CNET for ‘somewhere north of 50.’ As in $50 million. And the portion of the company he owned prior to the sale? Also somewhere north of 50. As in 50 percent. He is stressed and giddy at the same time, goofy, apologetic, sweet, buying me a Pepsi from the vending machine.

Four nights later, it’s official. Ben’s cut of CNET’s half-million shares is more than $23 million.

The next day, I call him one last time. ‘I didn’t know what hit me,’ Ben says. He was walking on air. Yet the day he found out about the merger, he didn’t do anything special to celebrate. He didn’t have anybody to celebrate with. ‘There was nobody waiting in the wings for me, to give me congratulations,’ he tells me. His parents were more relieved than overjoyed.

But Ben, he’s overjoyed. His thoughts jump from memory to observation to not-fully-considered conclusion. He is trying to get used to his new situation. ‘When I got here,’ he tells me, ‘I didn’t know a soul. Every venture capitalist on Sand Hill Road turned me down when I went for money.’ He tries again. ‘It’s so easy to lose faith,’ he says. Nothing he says seems enough. This is the closest he gets: ‘The entrepreneur’s life is not balanced.’

Po Bronson (www.pobronson.com) is a Wired contributing editor. Adapted from The Nudist on the Late Shift (Random House). Some names and some details of the characters

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