Welcome to Silicon Valley, California, where college graduates magically turn into billionaires, where companies plead for computer programmers on billboards, and staff demand to be entertained. Words by Richard Cook. Photographs by Tom Bible
Ten years ago, if you were a twentysomething American without any particular sporting talent who wanted to earn more money than you could ever use, you had two options. First, put on a suit and head off to Wall Street; second, grow your hair and set up your own rock band.

Since then, the idea of Wall Street has become just so utterly Eighties that the thought of working there is enough to make many college students actually nauseous. Since then, too, the US music industry has become obsessed with either bad-ass rappers or squeaky clean pre-teens. The result has been something of a crisis for budding billionaires.

Fortunately, a new route to prosperity has emerged, and a supremely democratic one. You simply have to know your way around a computer, because the best way to become a multi-millionaire at the moment is to head to Silicon Valley in California and start up a software company.

Last year, according to the management consultancy PricewaterhouseCoopers, a total of $4.5bn was ploughed into Silicon Valley start-up companies by private investors and venture-capital firms. Just five years ago, the total pot of venture capital being spilled in Silicon Valley was estimated to be only around $1bn.

It is hard to pin down exactly when this frenzy kicked off, but one day, just over four years ago now, is particularly important: April 24 1995. On that day, Netscape, the company that created the software that lets us see what is on the web, went public. Overnight, Marc Andreessen, the company's founder - a programmer in his early 20s who looked as though he had only recently started shaving - was instantly worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

To anyone who had thought the Internet was just a plaything, Netscape's success was a rude awakening. The Net was big business and, more importantly, it was only going to get bigger. Suddenly everyone wanted to be the next Andreessen, and every venture-capital company in the country wanted a share of the next Netscape.

The remarkable thing is that to those on the inside of this business, for all the growth we have already seen, the new software market has plenty of boom left in it yet. John Doerr is perhaps the most important financier in the valley. He joined the venture-capital company Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers in 1980, and at the end of last year their portfolio of technical companies employed 162,000 and had a total market value of around $135bn. "I think it is possible that the Internet has been under-hyped," he claims. "It's like Big Bang - it's the creation of a whole new universe. It's going to go on a long, long time. And it's going to affect every part of society."

Captions: The OK Corral and the `Star Trek' control room at PocketScience

Neil Peretz, CEO of PocketScience (far left, pictured right), aims to "bring e-mail to the masses" by providing software for e-mail to be sent and received through any phone. "People tend to get caught up in the whole start-up process," he says. "They're more interested in their share options than in actually making a product that people want. The problem is that in this climate people will do anything in order to get involved in a start-up. But they forget that a start-up can be a real rollercoaster and people sometimes get caught in the downside." Because of this Peretz tries to make the workplace itself more fun. One of the rooms is decorated as the OK Corral, another has a boardwalk and sand pit where they serve banana smoothies in coconut shells. But everyone's favourite is a meeting room adorned with life-sized Star Trek cut-outs and the motto emblazoned on the wall, "To boldly go where no e-mail has gone before".

Meeting in the ping-pong room at Spinner.com

Spinner.com started life out as TheDJ.com, and getting its name wrong was just about the only false step the company has so far taken. Using its software, you can access any one of 100 different radio stations at any time through your computer, playing exactly the type of music you like. "Spinner.com is built on adding balance," says CEO David Samuel (above left, with chief technical officer Steve Levis). For him that means snowboarding, mountain biking and wakeboarding (waterskiing on one board) as often as he can, and creating a very special office environment.

Early-morning yoga at Critical Path

Because they work so hard not to get left behind professionally, the recreational stuff that valley workers get up to inside and outside the office assumes an exaggerated importance. "I think the boundaries of the workplace are eroding in the best companies," says Aiken Maclain, senior architect at Silicon Spice, one of the hottest of the new round of would- be giants, specialising in telecoms technology. "One of my goals as a manager is to create a space where you bring your whole self to work."

Critical Path is another company that subscribes to this cosy New Age beneficence. An innovative e-mail networking centre, it has recently extended last year's experimental pre-work yoga classes to become a daily treat. The classes were the brainchild of founder David Hayden, who used to own a construction company. He learnt there, he says, that a physically - rather than just mentally - tired workforce was a happy and productive one.

Junglee.com executives meet with "angel investors" at Bucks

Everyone in the valley wants to run their own show, or at the very least join a new company, with equity or options that will make them a millionaire one day in the not-too-distant future. To get there, though, a talent for writing code, for hard work and even for shrewd marketing is simply not enough. You also need money - and lots of it. This is where the angel investors come in. These can be venture-capital companies or simply private individuals.

Just as important as getting money is the need to be seen to have it. This is a large part of the reason that ambitious software companies such as internet database specialist Junglee, all lunch in the same place, at Bucks in Woodhouse. This was the place where Junglee executives (pictured far right) concluded its first major joint-venture deal, with Yahoo, and also where it finalised its sale to Amazon last year. If you can't get a table at Bucks, then you're probably not a serious player.

Networking after school

There is a shortage of workers in the valley. Head-hunters are reduced to advertising jobs for programmers on billboards. Every programmer who wants a job can get one - but for many of them, a job is not enough, they increasingly want to run their own show. Daniel Mendez (left, pictured left), a refugee from Cuba, has already achieved his own start-up dream, with Visto, which produces internet-based information systems. Nowadays, his chief problem is finding staff to nurture the company through it next stage of growth. "You've got to be ever vigilant," he says. "I met one of my employees while playing with my daughter in the playground."

Etiquette classes at Magdalen's

If you're going to dine at Magdalen's - the restaurant of choice for evening meetings with the money men - you want to make a good impression. To do that you have to know your Petrus from your Piat d'Or, your steak tartare from your steak hache - not easy for a programmer who has spent the last few years living on Cheetos and Coke. Hence, one of the many start-up companies that feed off other new businesses, The Workshoppe, where English exile and former model Lyndy Janes teaches etiquette to those whose table manners aren't all they could be, for pounds 150 a throw.

Bulk-buying for programmers' late-night snacks

Marathon all-night work sessions are not unusual. The model for this savage work ethic - as for so much else in the valley - is Netscape. There are tales that have subsequently passed into Silicon Valley lore, of programmers working 130-hour weeks during the run-up to the first commercial release of Netscape's Navigator internet software. Visto became the first Silicon Valley company to delegate to its office manager the task of keeping the workforce fed and watered 24 hours a day, seven days a week. "When you are getting ready to launch a product, you can find yourself still in the office at 3am every night," says Cindy Arsenaul at PocketScience. "We find sending out for pizzas and smoothies can really help morale."