Silicon Follies

Chapter 17: Wizards with Harvard degrees and $4,000 suits


Thomas Scoville
May 12, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

He might have been the official poster boy for Free Enterprise if the exaggerated cleft in his chin hadn't so strongly suggested a plush, country-club version of Popeye. Andrew Lucre projected his best blue-eyed Harvard Business School potency across the vast expanse of Barry's desk. Barry turned the pages of a glossy, spiral-bound folio, admiring the colorful pie charts and caressing his upper lip with intent.

"Of course, you could finance the technology offering yourself," the nattily dressed management consultant intoned, "but Barry, you and I both know there's a certain cachet to venture capital these days. Venture money creates buzz. Venture partners tend to generate attention for a technology undertaking. That's good -- you want to have a certain number of sharks in the water. It lets the other fish know there's meat.

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"And despite its enormous size, TeraMemory is still a growing business. Growing businesses need cash flow. Bringing in outside money will leave you free to grow Tera as fast as you want -- without having to worry about feeding the new baby. A guy like you doesn't need those kinds of limits."

Andrew had been talking, of course, about WHIP. The prototypes were nearly complete. The official rollout demo was scheduled for Comdex, a scant five weeks away. This would be followed, if everything went as planned, by the spinoff of Whip Technologies and a splashy IPO.

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Ever since Silicon Valley had established itself as the main destination of the global capitalist, various and sundry Masters of the Universe had rushed in, hoping to establish beachheads on the shores of digital commerce. Harvard Business School's faculty had flung a chunk of their campus 2,500 miles from the banks of the Charles River, to the shores of the San Francisco Bay. This brazen poaching so far from their ancestral territory did not strike them as hubris -- or as out of the ordinary, even. Wherever money was being made hand over fist, they claimed home ground.

It was this kind of arrogance that caused them to be despised in certain quarters, especially throughout Silicon Valley, where many savvy technology players considered them to be far outside their depth. But the HBS reputation of yesteryear still persisted in some uninformed pockets of the collective business mind, and earned them an undeservedly high esteem.

This was especially true among newly minted technological moguls like Barry. Many nerds, with their signature lack of academic pedigree, old-boy connections and self esteem, were vulnerable to stroking by Ivy League MBAs in Wall Street body armor. Never mind that MBAs from Stanford or MIT -- schools with engineering intellectual capital Harvard could only dream of -- were far better adapted to the slippery world of high technology. When the anxious captains of Silicon Valley industry piloted their companies through treacherous waters, they often retained a pinstriped consultant to mop their fevered brows. In this capacity, Harvard graduates still projected the best front.

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The problem was, their clients' ships seemed to run aground as often as anybody else's. Though companies arrived almost daily in the promised land of the IPO, the route was ever changing. The gods of digital commerce were infinitely perverse. Their revelries guaranteed that the most rigorous business plans could be blindsided by unanticipated industry gyrations. They took special pains that the naive and the clueless regularly found themselves in fortune's path, becoming moguls overnight.

Today's hot new computer was tomorrow's boat-anchor. Not just companies but whole industries could arise overnight, or sink noiselessly in a moment. Who could even remember those disappeared darlings of yesterday? Artificial intelligence. Virtual reality. Push technology. Vanished.

Silicon Valley wasn't just a jungle; at least the jungle had rules. There were no discernible rules here. It was a fast-forward speedball of blindfolded corporate knife-fighting and high stakes roulette. The carnage was tremendous, but newcomers were not discouraged; the many successes formed a comforting patina on the compost heap of ruined and gutted companies rotting in the high noon of the valley boomtown.

In an industry where observable cause and effect was in chronically short supply, HBS grads practiced a kind of sympathetic magic. On the surface they looked and talked and smelled like profit, wearing $4,000 suits and tossing out terms like "incremental innovation" and "added value." But a closer inspection suggested that any alleged connection to their client's success was difficult to distinguish from a chance association. If there was a genius to it, it was that these manicured management consultants were nimble enough to move on well before their clients cratered.

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But Barry's mind was unoccupied by such misgivings. He concentrated on the multicolored revenue projections of the consultant's folio. Pretty colors. Pretty money. Pretty WHIP.

Still, something troubled him. He ventured to raise a control issue, though it might ruin the mood.

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"I've heard the stories, Andy. Sooner or later the venture guys always want to get their hands into things. And I'm not about to let any bean-counter tell me how to run my technology."

Andrew showed a row of perfectly aligned teeth. "In thinly financed IPOs there's always a worry about venture money stepping in and taking over, but you don't have to worry about it. Collateralized against your Tera stock, we can structure the deal so you'll never lose your majority interest. As long as Tera's share price holds out, you'll be on top -- and you and I both know Tera's got a long way to run. The sky's the limit, as far as I can see.

"You're the king of the world, Barry. You're going to have this valley sewn up. Who knows where you'll go from there. No boundaries."

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"No boundaries," Barry repeated. He liked the sound of that.


Thomas Scoville

Thomas Scoville is either an Information Age savant or an ex-Silicon Valley programmer with a bad attitude. He is the author of the Silicon Valley Tarot.

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