Fortune Teller

An Interview With Silicon Valley Voyeur Po Bronson

"It's very hard to discern the extent to which people care about money," Po Bronson writes in The Nudist on the Late Shift, his candid new book on Silicon Valley. "These are high achievers; they want to succeed, they want to win. For the highest achievers, money is an incidental by-product, a side effect—they get it whether they're motivated by it or not. It's as if Rogaine hair-growing cream, once it got into your system, also made your dick bigger. Who could tell why guys were rubbing it in?"

Bronson, 35, a journalist and novelist whose two previous books—the novels Bombardiers and The First $20 Million Is Always the Hardest—are both being made into films, has written the quintessential tale of the human element driving the tech revolution. Bronson takes his readers on a whirlwind tour of every corner of Silicon Valley, both geographically and professionally, from the headhunter whose job is to trick people into providing her with employee names to the guy who traffics in recycled cubicle partitions to the "holistic practitioner of communication" who trains CEOs for their pre-IPO road shows—and of course, the programmers, entrepreneurs, salespeople, and visionaries, a riveting cast of characters in the century's final act.

Bronson (who has been called "the bard of Silicon Valley") operates from the unique position of simultaneous insider and outsider. He has never worked for a Valley company and has shunned offers to participate in start-ups (he even claims to be uninterested in money), yet he routinely networks people, introducing new arrivals to potentially useful contacts. And he has gained unprecedented access: to IPO negotiations, venture-capital deals, and social gatherings. The Nudist is mesmerizing in part because it does not prognosticate or judge, but presents the players' stories and leaves the rest to the reader. Which led Machine Age to wonder, what does it feel like to be so close to this world and yet still have the perspective of a voyeur?

You spent three years with the people you chronicle in your first chapter, "The Newcomers." These weren't people you chose to profile retroactively because of where they ended up. What was it like following them through this highly charged world, not knowing what would become of them?

Emotionally I would grow attached, for sure. I would agonize that I was supposed to have that fire wall, as a journalist. Yet I would see that this guy was lonely and I would hook him up with an entrepreneurs' group. I would comment [to the entrepreneur referred to in the book as David/John], "When you sell, you sell too hard."

Were you up at night, worrying about them?

I've had nightmares about various start-ups' situations, tried to solve their problems. There was this funny psychological transaction: it would be extremely stressful for them, and I would just listen, use the therapy approach. They would come back the next day and they'd be like, I had the best night's sleep. I'd be like, "I kept waking up with your damn problems." I'm fundamentally attracted to the drama of the story.

Are these people happy?

Oh, no. Some people are happy, but it doesn't have to do with what's going on in their [careers]. I'm very convinced that this is in their nature. These people, by and large, are always a little bit jealous, competitive, going to fight to scramble to the top no matter what they're doing. Everybody's slightly unhappy. That's the sort of people that are drawn here.

No sooner do you go public than there's this constant fear that the stock is going to go down. You don't get more than a couple of days' happiness before the next crisis. The golden handcuffs are going to be coming off soon and we're going to see if it's all about the money or not.

San Francisco has existed in popular myth as the place to go to have a challenging, intellectually stimulating job that you can leave at five to go mountain biking. Does that culture still exist somewhere outside the high-tech world? Or did it die out with slackerdom?

What I've found is that they're better at going home at five in Seattle than here, and even better in Minneapolis than Seattle. But nevertheless it's sunny enough and physically beautiful. But San Francisco is not part of the Valley. [People in the city are] urban, cynical, much more aware of what they're giving up. In the Valley it's easier to just work all the time.

In the book you paint Silicon Valley as a highly specific place, whose lifestyle could never really be re-created anywhere else. But how much do you think the culture of Silicon Valley will seep into American culture as a whole?

Once you get critical mass, [with people everywhere] seeing what can be done with the entrepreneurial mind, I can't imagine people going back to work for some big old company. I don't see young people having any desire to do that unless they're convinced they need to do so to support their family. I think we will see that [entrepreneurial] labor model applied around the country.

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