ezekiel's chariot - 張敦楷 (pjammer) wrote,
ezekiel's chariot - 張敦楷
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Po Bronson and the Fall of Silicon Valley

Author Po Bronson, best known for his investment-banker skewering novel Bombardiers and Silicon Valley roman-a-clef The First $20 Million is Always the Hardest was the apotheosis of late-90s technology-startup hipsters at the cutting edge of cool. Reading that last sentence, I realize the brutal irony of how a statement that would be such a compliment five years ago sounds like a downright slur today. But for better or for worse, Bronson embodied the spirit of the times: credentialed by a Stanford liberal-arts degree, glib prose and fashion-model good looks rather than an MCSE or CCNA ... in short, everything that MBAs love and engineers hate. As a good friend of mine best put it - "Po Bronson IS Wired Magazine (which, again, has the effect of either sounding like an insult or compliment depending on which side of the 21st century you're standing).

I found Bronson through his novel Bombardiers in 1996 - and we traded a few emails in the months before he rose from relative obscurity into Silicon Valley stardom - where I continued to read his nonfiction pieces in magazines like Forbes ASAP and The New Yorker.

On July 11th, 1999, Bronson wrote an article I (and a half-dozen friends) felt perfectly captured the zeitgeist of the tech-startup/dot-com economy: Instant Company. Young, brash titans walking away from millions of dollars worth of nearly-vested options in a gambit to start a brand new company - the story practically wrote itself:

This particular second-generation Internet company has managed to recruit top people who were still handcuffed -- what people in the Valley call "the unhirables." Naval Ravikant walked away from what at the time was $4 million worth of unvested @Home stock options. Ramanathan Guha walked away from probably more than $4 million (a figure he is contractually forbidden to confirm) at America Online, which had acquired Netscape. Sabrina Berry's previous employer, CommTouch Software, was planning to go public. Berry walked away from all of her shares in that company. For Lou Montulli to join, he resigned from a hot, well-financed start-up called Geocast Network Systems. At the time Nirav Tolia left Yahoo!, the unvested options he left on the table were worth $10 million.

It was the turn of the century ... the future was littered with prizes, and everyone knew that the spoils of IPO wealth and glory went to the reckless and headstrong Ivy League-educated young men and women with good cheekbones and firm handshakes who were willing to live on adrenaline and caffeine. At the time, I was working as a Mergers & Acquisitions analyst at the Technology Group of a prominent San Francisco investment-banking firm - and we were ridiculed endlessly for accepting our compensation in the form of W-2 paychecks. As banking analysts, we were constantly courted by corporate clients with offers of vaguely-defined positions that promised stock options whose levels of absurdity were only eclipsed by the grossly inflated titles that came along with them. Overnight, the Valley became awash with 22-year-old Vice-Presidents and Managing Directors - and the torrent of venture-capital money became the grease that kept this bizarre machinery humming at breakneck velocity.

Until.

Until the house of cards built upon hyperinflated equity valuations collapsed and former millionaires-on-paper young titans suddenly find themselves stealing laptops and Aeron Chairs from their money-hemorrhaging employers to hock on eBay. Until investors started to demanding to see profits before opening their purse-strings for another round of financing.

Until Silicon Valley became a graveyard of thwarted ambition, a dust bowl holding the charred cinders from a thousand failed entreprenerial dreams.

Hell - even PoBronson.com doesn't load reliably any more.
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