Seven years later -- having already won, then lost, a fortune, two houses, and another wife -- Paul was having difficulty with the board of directors for his second start-up company, so he called the man who had sued him for $18 million and told him of his troubles. J.T. asked Paul if he wanted to come work with him again. Over the phone, he told Paul to pick his position and name his price. It was a Friday afternoon. My father decided he'd like to be Senior Vice President, at $20,000 a month; he wanted to fly only first-class; he wanted to travel all over the world; and he wanted instantaneous round-the-clock access to the company plane. And he wanted a car.
"Great," J.T. said instantly. "See you on Monday then."
J.T. later mugged his own company of $22 million in inventory and sold it secretly overseas. The company went bankrupt, J.T. permanently disappeared, and Paul was out a job.
In the '80s, there wasn't anybody to chronicle the stories of Silicon Valley; the '80s are ancient history there, as obsolete now as the Commodore 64. The Valley revises its past like it revises its technology: new versions trump their predecessors and old versions are instantly forgotten. The legendary freewheeling financial side of the Valley has likewise been busy revising itself: The old stories of instant millionaires don't mean much next to more recent stories of instant billionaires.
More legend than news story, the tales of the Valley are at last attracting official chroniclers. Recently Seattle was host to the "Silicon Valley Bleeding Edge Tour" -- whatever the hell that means -- a three-author pile-up of populist computer lore in the form of a book tour. Included was The Nudist on the Late Shift author Po Bronson, who also writes missives from the Valley for Wired magazine; Gary Rivlin, author of The Plot to Get Bill Gates; and Kara Swisher of the Wall Street Journal, who wrote a book called aol.com. Po's book follows what he calls "pilgrims," the penniless potential billionaires-to-be in the Valley. Gary writes about Valley tycoons who sabotage their own success in attempts to ruin Bill Gates. Kara's book is about America Online's survival in spite of Microsoft. Each book acts as a cross-reference for the others, establishing by a kind of triangulation the location and history of Silicon Valley, which is less a place than a destination or source-point, existing only in stories of disaster and/or stupefying excess.
Kara didn't have time for interviews, so I met with Po and Gary in the lobby of the Alexis Hotel. (If you don't know, the Alexis means these authors' books must be doing extremely well.) Po', a freakishly handsome man, made a point of shrugging off the lobby's décor and decorum in his old hipster Adidas zip-up, putting his foot up on the leather couch. Gary was, I gathered, the bent-forward, earnest, talkative type.
We chatted and watched the expensive people pass by. I talked broadly about my own experience in the Valley and mentioned the time a friend's father bought a Ferrari on the day his company went public and drove it off a cliff. Po swings his head around. "Eagle Computers," he says. "I know that story." He knew, as well, my friend's father's first and last name, the history of his business, and the circumstances of his demise.
Po wants to know more about the '80s old guard; Gary jokes that this should be his next book. I ask him if he ever hears what happened to all the entrepreneurs who are now approaching 60 or 70, the ones who have fallen off the charts. According to Po's book, the success rate goes like this: "1,000 business plans are sent to venture capitalists, 6 are accepted. Of those 6 companies, 4 will go bankrupt. Only one will go public."
The characters I remember from the Valley had wild successes and terrific failures. One of the foremost former millionaires of the Valley is now an alcoholic tending bar in the little town between San Jose and Santa Cruz, a tiny town with no name. Speaking with my father on the subject, he has no idea what happened to the others, but his guess is that they could in no way be part of the business anymore. "We hawked everything," he says. "Everything, everything. You have to super-believe. Believe beyond a human capacity, because you've sunk all of your children's college funds into the adventure and you've mortgaged the house three times over. You cannot decide in the wake of bankruptcy and the house being foreclosed on and the kids suing you for their money -- you cannot at that point regret. You have to disappear or start over."
Po's lead character in The Nudist on the Late Shift is one of these struggling entrepreneurs. "I was following this pilgrim," Po says. "After his company failed, and he was down on his luck, he e-mailed me: 'I've always been an entrepreneur, I'm so scared. I've been shivering and crying for two days. What should I do? I didn't think this would ever happen to me, I'm worried about making the rent.'
"Then it was kind of interesting," Po continues. "There is no place for people like him to go. There is no story. And what I mean by there is no story: It is the unspoken. Because there is no story, no homeless shelter for the people that have fallen out of start-up [businesses], and as a result they go back to the one story that is there. The story is: You start something new. I mean, they're scraping. They don't have credit cards to finance themselves, and they're a long way away from getting a venture capitalist involved."
Po clearly hears his story closing on an inspirational note. I'm not convinced: That is a pretty sad circumstance. It sounds so archetypal, like Prometheus and his ever-growing liver or Sisyphus at the top of the mountain, watching his rock roll away again. Yet the entrepreneur is the true American archetype, and Silicon Valley -- that unplace -- the archetypal American landscape. Here, the freedom to succeed or fail is absolute: With only hard dealing and genius, the entrepreneur can rise to the brink of impossible wealth, or fall endlessly from it. All one needs is faith, desire, and narcissism. I suggest that the Valley is like the legends of Hollywood, where women flock to either make it or lose themselves permanently to pornography or prostitution; Po is clearly annoyed. To him, it's blasphemous to view the risks of the Silicon Valley -- this capitalist Autobahn -- as anything other than golden opportunity.
Po interrupts me. "You know, you make it sound like you'd rather he [Po's pilgrim] went to IBM," he says, "or Procter & Gamble, or some insurance company. Sat in the back room and had a nice steady life and lived a boring life.... You want to find meaningful work in your life. It's the ultimate challenge. One of the ways people find meaning is from excitement, and clearly this business is exciting. Who wants to work in a big dumb cement building down here where you come to work for 30 years in a cubicle?"
Gary sees his opportunity at the mention of cubicles, which automatically recall Microsoft, that once-plucky start-up that swallows young hopefuls whole. He speaks up. "A woman employee at Microsoft granted a male employee whose wife was having their third kid a three-week leave while the baby was delivered," Gary rebuts. "Gates screamed at her for that. And then it turns out she has a test show she might have cancer, so she put off an exploratory operation until she got the project done and then she rushed back before the doctors wanted her to. Gates screamed at her for not being aware that a deadline had moved in her absence.
"Some people love that the idea here is not simple entrepreneurialism," he continues, "it's gluttonous entrepreneurialism. It's not a making-a-business-so-I-can-hire-10-people-and-send-my-kids-to- college kind of business. It's like, 'I want to be worth zero or I want to be worth $3 billion.' You look at a company like Microsoft: Microsoft has been gluttonous. They've bribed people, they've crushed people they didn't have to crush, because they believe in 100 percent. I love this quote about Gates' money: 'If you rendered it in dollar bills it would reach to the moon and back 20 times. He has 950 tons of $100 bills. He has more money than the poorest 100 million people in this country [put together]. The bottom 40 percent of this nation!
"Entrepreneurs are a weird breed," he insists. "I look at a guy like Larry Ellison [described in The Plot to Get Bill Gates]. Larry Ellison is really driven, but then he disappears for a few days at a time. He would work, work, work and then he would just be gone. I have to imagine that he had that slip of faith. You tell yourself all these lies that everything is going well. I remember reading about this entrepreneur who had to smile to show confidence wherever he went because really he was hanging by a thread. So when he would take a shower, he would cry or throw up. The one time you're just with yourself, when you're the naked guy in the shower. He wasn't at peace with the world."
When Paul quit a very prominent computer company to start his second company, the CEO told him that if he stayed, he could become a rich man over time. But to the American entrepreneur, the phrase "over time" (not "overtime") is sudden death. My father has been consulting for the last two years and was unemployed for six years before that. He's scraping by. When I ask him if he'd really have been a millionaire by staying, and if he regretted that he left, my father is almost offended. "I would have been a multi-millionaire," he says promptly, "but no way, I don't regret it." He sticks to his story because that's what he has left.
With hyperbole and hard-headedness as the ethic, it's hard to know what is true of Silicon Valley. Po Bronson believes in asserting the myth of imminent success; his book is simply a retelling of what the entrepreneurs have decided about their work. Gary Rivlin studies the stars of the industry, whose exceptional circumstances inspire suicidal grabs for glory. We cannot trust the entrepreneurs to tell us the truth of loss or failure, or understand its toll; they simply reinvent it and sell it as success.