Silicon Valley: Where Ideas Change The World
This story originally appeared in Philippine Panorama, August 16, 2012
Thierry Lewis was at a crossroad. His presentation at a trade exhibit fair in San Diego was a mess, and his plane leaves home to Paris at six that evening. But he doesn’t want to leave. “I can stay here and I may or not may make it,” he thought, “or I can go back and surely I will never make it.”
His mind surging in panic, he decided to take that one-in-a-lifetime shot at making it big in America. So he cancelled his flight and went to Silicon Valley. He’s not really sure what to expect but he was disappointed: There was nothing but suburbs and low office parks. No sense of arrival. Nothing. Except rain and the falling night.
Much later, he met maverick tech writer Po Bronson, and his start-up saga joined the prisms in the kaleidoscope The Nudist On The Late Shift and Other True Stories of Silicon Valley (Random House) which fascinated me so much I read straight through – that rare book that simultaneously entertains and shares precious insights.
Thierry rented an office, smelling like new paint and all six refurbished cublicles still empty, for Quiz Studio, his software that turns Web pages into interactive quizzes. His desk is empty except for a laptop and a mobile phone.
“This,” writes Po, “is Silicon Valley today: Get lean, get stripped down, live on nothing,” but “Get ready for ultracapitalism.”
Nope, Thierry told him. He’ll just make $20 million than go home. “I’m not greedy like them. A fitness buff, he was living on Barilla spaghetti for $1.59. When he gets rich, he’ll upgrade to De Cecco spaghetti for a budget-draining $2.59. He invites Po to come back after 3 months for some pasta.
Three months later, “He’s off food entirely,” writes Po. Thierry has switched to an Apex powdered drink full of amino acids. He had sent a proposal to all venture capitalists for $2.5 million. That was a strategic mistake. Apparently, they will only finance projects worth $5 million and up.
His personal fund is running low. “There’s a knife at my throat,” he says. “Sometimes I get really, really scared.”
Fast forward. Po writes: “Thierry told me he had thirty days before he would be selling his clothes.” At the same time, Thierry had just released the new version of Quiz Studio, which was now compatible with the Javas of both Sun and Microsoft. He then got to meet with the executives at Macromedia, Isometrix, Oracle and Knowledge Universe.
Level playing field. Ben Chiu was born in Taiwan and grew up in Canada. In search of his roots, he returned to Taiwan after graduating from college. It seems everybody was partying all the time so he opened a nightclub. But business in Taiwan, even discos, is based on guanxi (relationships). Success is about having the right connections and he grew disillusioned with that.
He came to Silicon Valley to start a new life, believing that the Internet will be a level playing field. He wrote the code himself for his price comparison shopping engine, KillerApp.com, working 18 hours a day.
Tragically, every venture capitalists on Sand Hill Road turned him down. He was advised by Broadview Associates and Morgan Stanley that for his site to be bought, he would need established venture capitalists like Kleiner Perkins.
But Ben doesn’t know where to start. “I’ve been through hell,” he says, likening himself to the proverbial mouse on the wheel as someone cranked up the speed. He came to the United States alone, not knowing anybody. It took some time for Po to gain his trust because he’s not use to people caring about his life, only his technology. He eventually, shyly, showed Po his sketches of wildlife and Po was stunned by his painstaking attention to detail.
Ben got himself a personal financial adviser, who turns out to be the accountant for Jerry Yang of Yahoo! and Mark Andreesen of Netscdape/AOL. “He was Ben’s ticket to guanxi.”
Meanwhile, Ben added music and consumer electronics – and his start-up doubled in size in a single month. KillerApp.com was later acquired by C/NET for $46.6 million.
Ben was “overjoyed,” Po shares the happy news. “He was stressed and giddy at the same time, goofy, apologetic, sweet – buying me a Pepsi from a vending machine.”
Urban Legend. Billionaires don’t impress Po Bronson. When he first met Yahoo! co-founder David Filo, his first question was, “Do you still sleep under your desk?” There’s a photo (in the book) with Filo all snuggled up, but that was when he was worth only $500 million.
“Not much anymore,” Filo says, looking down at the trash heap under his desk. “No room.”
Friends ask Po if he ever thought about starting a company and making a bundle. What attracts him is not money but access. Only as a “rogue journalist” can he capture the human energy of Silicon Valley, to record stories of “people in pursuit of unusual lives” that make his nerves go “Quaannng!”
Just like David Coons. He is a CGI programmer who’s one of the pioneers of the film-to-digital scanners and an award-winning inventor of digital ink and print technology, but he says that the distorted stories about him taking his clothes off at the office have become urban legend.
“So there’s no truth to it, huh?” asked Po.
“Oh, no,” Coons says. “It is true."
Entrepreneurial fire. Sabeer Bhatia passed the notoriously brain-blowing transfer exam for Cal Tech. He arrived in Los Angeles on Sept. 23, 1998 all alone. He was just 19 and knew absolutely no one in the United States. His plan was to get his university and post-graduate degrees then work in a big company back home in Bangalore.
Something happened in Stanford that changed his life. The series of inspirational talks given by the likes of Scott McNealy (Sun Microsystems co-founder) and Steve Wozniak (Apple co-founder) gave birth to his new can-do attitude and ignited his entrepreneurial fire.
He and his best friend Jack Smith worked at Apple after graduation. His proud parents said their super-smart son is now with a very famous company in America – he’ll have job security! In the meantime, Bhatia would tantalize Smith everyday about stories about some dude selling his start-up for millions.
“Jack, what are we doing here, wasting our lives?” and “Jack, given the enormous opportunities here, if we can’t make it here, than we are complete failures!”
Sabeer shopped around for his Web-based personal database, JavaSoft, while measuring the characters of prospective investors. If he feels he can trust them, he’ll show his ace. He and Jack were always brainstorming, exchanging ideas throgh their corporate e-mail, but afraid somebody night catch them doing personal projects during work hours.
Then an came an idea so simple it them like a tuck – free Web-based e-mail accounts.
Sabeer and Jack are rank-and-file hardware engineers. They don’t have any experience or background in business or management; they’re not even techies. They’re just cubicle worker bees – but they have an idea.
Sabeer has “hallucinogenic optimism,” recalls Steve Jurvetson of venture capitalist firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson. “He had an unquestionable sense of destiny. But he was right. He grew the subscriber base faster than any company in the history of the world.
The popularity of Sabeer’s brainchild, Hotmail, introduced the concept of “viral marketing.” When Microsoft descended, they already have a walloping six million users.
“You’re crazy!” said Microsoft negotiators. But Sabeer showed an “Off-the-charts degree of confidence,” writes Po. Everybody, as in everybody, was shocked when the deal closed.
Free e-mail for $400 million.
Only in America.
Only in Silicon Valley