In Silicon Valley, A Language All Its Own
By Elizabeth Corcoran
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 2, 1998; Page C13
SILICON VALLEYAnn Winblad, one of the software industry's leading venture capitalists, leaned back in her chair and issued the ultimate put-down.
"He was sucking his own exhaust," she declared of one executive.
Winblad wasn't describing a failed entrepreneur attempting suicide, but someone so full of himself that he believes his own press releases.
Welcome to the 'hood of venture capital, Silicon Valley, incubator of computer companies, fortunes, entrepreneurs and, increasingly, its own way of describing the world.
Anthropologists say that the more isolated a culture is, the more rapidly it develops its own language, norms and, ultimately, values. No physical barriers separate Silicon Valley from the rest of the country, or even from the rest of California. But what makes the valley different is a potent mixture of technology and money.
In the past three years alone, billions of dollars have washed into Silicon Valley, from venture capitalists financing new companies and stock market investors helping enterprises go public.
"Money is a commodity" taken for granted in the valley, contends Winblad, who co-founded Hummer Winblad Venture Partners, a San Francisco-based venture capital group that specializes in software companies. And when money flows so freely, it changes how people work and, ultimately, how they talk about their world.
Those dollars are going to the geeks, people who started speaking in bytes and bauds around the same time they discovered the Who. Pulling all-nighters, fueled by Diet Coke and pizza, was part of the initiation into the club. The technoids could do anything, provided they had enough RAM (read: random access memory in the computer).
The technology they have built is changing their lives as well as everyone else's, and in Silicon Valley, it has even blurred the once rigid boundaries between work and home, said Charles N. Darrah, head of the anthropology department at San Jose State University.
Darrah is in the midst of interviewing dozens of people in the valley, from janitors to corporate executives, as part of a research project aimed at making sense of the culture.
Some are seeking "value-added relationships," the sort that might lead to marriage.
Others schedule "work groups," not with colleagues from 9 to 5 at the office, but at home on Saturday morning, with the family. Keeping a happy family, to some, is the same as creating a "killer app" you boil down a complex challenge into a series of smaller problems and then apply the classic problem-solving techniques that work so well on the software.
An entrepreneur, who requested anonymity, confessed that he had trouble remembering the precise day of his girlfriend's birthday, but that it takes place in "Q2," during his company's second fiscal quarter.
"What's your space?" is an increasingly common question around the valley. It's a way of asking someone what they do for a living, implying that the living is more than a day job, it's a way of life.
No Silicon Valley entrepreneur worth his or her stock options simply goes to work. Real entrepreneurs "do a company," that is throw their heart, soul and waistline into creating a business.
For them, a napkin is not an implement of table manners, but the canvas for sketching million-dollar ideas, said Paul Bergevin, a watcher of Silicon Valley norms and managing director for global technology at Edelman Worldwide, a public relations group in Palo Alto, Calif.
Some startups flunk the "elevator test" namely, the founder can't describe the market potential and money-making opportunity in the time it takes an elevator to reach the desired floor.
Then there's the what-who-who-what, a crucial series of questions for a startup: What's the innovative idea? Who is backing it? Who is managing it? What's the "exit strategy?" (In valley argot, does the entrepreneur hope to sell out or cash out if the idea turns to gold?)
The status worth more than gold these days in the valley is being "pre-IPO" possessing stock options that could one day make an entrepreneur rich, should the company reach the promised land of an initial public offering. Within such startups are talented engineers, "vesting in peace" as they accumulate options over time, said Neil Weintraut, a partner with Twenty-first Century Internet Venture Partners, based in San Francisco.
As a Silicon Valley startup gains momentum and needs to hire more people, recruiters are called in. Though most are ethical, some resort to "dumpster diving," or scouring another company's trash bins to find the names of talented engineers to recruit.
In the meantime, a startup also has to "position itself" describe its business, its products, its markets and its strategy in a few compelling points. Some chief executives are widely known as visionary leaders who can inspire their troops to get the products out. Others are charmers who create a "reality distortion field" promises of tantalizing technology that are ultimately impossible to keep.
Once upon a time, "hard-wired" technologies meant computer chips and printed circuit boards. These days, the hard-wired are those people who are most in tune with the latest and greatest technologies.
The most hard-wired are able to "think out of the box," or discard conventional ways of thinking to come up with imaginative ideas.
At the same time, they can also make a discussion veer off course by paying too much attention to some minor matter of technology at which point a smart manager tells the techies to "take that offline," or talk about it somewhere else, said Robert Reid, author of "Architects of the Web," a book about the people who built the technology of the World Wide Web during its first three years.
What every venture capitalist fears are entrepreneurs or companies that "run out of cycles," or simply lose the drive and momentum needed to win in the marketplace. They rely instead on the "serial entrepreneurs," people who keep starting company after company and are addicted to the excitement of new products and the frantic pace of change.
Of course, if none of their startups pay off, some entrepreneurs may slide into another group "the white boys on welfare," who somehow succeed in wooing venture capitalists, in spite of their record.
And those are just the folks who might be sucking their own exhaust.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company