Network: I've joined the riches to rags set

Why would a guy do such a thing? In a word, or rather two, stock options
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The Independent Culture
THEY FEATURE less-than-deluxe quarters, long hours and a shortage of staff. They don't pay overtime. By most estimations, four out of five fail to become full-blown companies. And, of course, here in Silicon Valley, they're all the rage - if you don't work for a startup, you don't let strangers at parties know that.

Now I'm the kind of guy who grew up in a period when the Grade B folks worked for wonky little companies and the Grade A ones worked for big outfits with recognisable names.

In my boyhood home of Erie, Pennsylvania, if a guy worked at Great Lakes Fence Company, he'd proudly talk about stuff down at Great Lakes. And he'd lord it over the poor slobs who worked at the petrol station or the corner shop.

He did, that is, until somebody sat down who worked for one of the really big outfits in town, like General Electric. Then he'd fold his bragging tent and slip away.

Everyone knew the big companies paid better and were less likely to go out of business or make people redundant. They also had benefits - health insurance and credit unions - that were unheard of at run-of-the-mill employers. Guys at those big outfits had cars, and houses that had been painted, in the past decade. Regular folks at the downmarket salt mines had weather-faded exterior walls on their house trailers and, if they had a car, it was the variety that burnt lots of oil and sported rust blossoms around the wheel wells.

So when I first ventured into Silicon Valley, I made my way to a big name computer company and signed up. It had a logo that's known the world over, and, sure enough, the pay and benefits were pretty darn good. Four and a half years at the computer factory left me in dramatically better financial shape than the preceding 24 years in the newspaper business.

An average job stay in the Valley is something like three years, so after four, I had inherited most of the cushy accoutrements that come the way of people who stay in a big company long enough. There was the corner office with views of well-kept gardens and a couple of acres of lush lawn. There were fashionable, overstuffed chairs and a sofa, to go with the live plants, stereo system and state-of-the-art network and computer gear.

There were two well-paid assistants who were so competent that it was a constant challenge to keep them both busy. When I wasn't giving computer- aided presentations over a state-of-the-art global video conferencing system, I was being flown business class to Sydney or Paris or Tokyo to attend conferences and visit special customers.

Then there were the two espresso bars with cheerful staff and a cafeteria that featured a chef and dishes like handmade salmon cilantro pizza freshly baked in a wood-burning oven. Add to that a health club, a bookstore, a computer store (with steep employee discounts) and a branch office of the local Silicon Valley credit union, and, well, the term "spoiled rotten" probably comes to mind.

So you're probably going to wonder what ever possessed me, one fine summer day, when I pitched the whole thing and headed off to a startup. It wasn't as if they were trying to get rid of me - my boss actually asked what he could do to keep me when I went to him and announced my departure.

That Friday I left my cushy corner office with the garden view - a 15- minute commute from home - and on Monday reported to my new HQ, a tough hour's drive away, consisting of an old house and office building under a motorway flyover.

My new "office" was previously the conference room, and it came with company - composed of the vice-president of sales, some cardboard boxes, a few dozen ants and the antenna that links our network to the old house across the parking lot. I'm at an age where I don't worry about the microwaves making me sterile, but hair loss is another matter entirely.

The garden view has been replaced by a vista of the private security guard office which sits above the thrift shop next door. The espresso bars and pizza oven have been replaced by a coffee machine and a Mexican restaurant a mile or so away.

So what would possess a guy to do such a thing? In a word, or rather two words, stock options. Like many other Valleyites, I left a stable, well-paid job to go into a risky startup in the hope that I was getting in on the ground floor of a future Netscape or Yahoo.

And then there's the challenge. In a big company, its hard for one person to do either much good or much harm. In a small one, a single person can easily be the difference between success and failure. And since everyone has to master many trades in a small, resource-short outfit, there's a big opportunity to learn everything, from public relations to insect control.

So now everyone's rushing for the wonky little companies. If this keeps up, pretty soon the poor slobs at the petrol station will be lording it all over me.

cg@gulker.com

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