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MY JET IS BIGGER THAN YOUR JET

As a youngster growing up in Delhi, Samir Arora was always drawn to the U.S. ''It was like a beacon attracting the entrepreneur in me,'' he recalls. So without waiting to finish a degree in electrical engineering, in 1986 he set off for California to pursue his dream.

It was a rocky start: All of his belongings were stolen, and Arora spent six months bagging groceries before landing a job at Apple Computer Inc. In November, 1995, he founded NetObjects Inc. By early this year, the Web software maker had burned through its funding and was on the brink when, in March, a bolt struck from the blue: IBM invested roughly $100 million for a 50% stake--making 31-year-old Arora a multimillionaire. ''It's the one-year instant success that took 10 years,'' he jokes. ''It's weird. You have to ask 'Why is this happening to me?'''

PALACE, ANYONE? That question is cropping up a lot these days. A booming tech market and stock-option culture has helped swell the ranks of Silicon Valley millionaires by 45,000 since 1994, to 186,511 in 1996, according to Payment Systems Inc. The area now boasts one of the highest per-capita income levels in the country--$32,548 in 1996 for the San Francisco Bay area, vs. a national average of $24,324.

In the Valley's toniest neighborhoods, one might think money really does grow on trees. In Woodside, for example, where high-tech luminaries such as Larry Sonsini and Scott Cook rub elbows with neighbors Neil Young and Riley Bechtel, ''starter'' homes begin at $800,000. Most sell before they even hit the market, and buyers often plunk down cash, as Arora did for a sprawling $2 million home in the Woodside hills.

Not far away, Oracle CEO Larry Ellison is building a $40 million-plus replica of the Japanese Katsura palace on 23 wooded acres. Presumably, he'll be parking his new Marchetti Italian jet fighter elsewhere--perhaps next to the aerobatic plane he just bought as an eighth-grade graduation gift for his son. In Atherton, Tom Proulx, a co-founder of Intuit, recently bought three neighboring lots so he could build a 9-hole golf course in his backyard. One Woodside programmer bought 24 acres just to land his helicopter. ''Keeping up with the neighbors in Silicon Valley is getting weird,'' says Daniel H. Case III, president and CEO of Hambrecht & Quist Inc. ''It's not, 'do your kids go to private school.' It's 'do they have a private jet?'''

But for a surprising number of young, newly minted millionaires, wealth hasn't changed their lives much. There's simply no time for that. When Excite, a Net startup, got its first venture funding, the founders celebrated by going for ice cream at the local Denny's--then it was back to work. ''There's just so much opportunity,'' says co-founder Joe Kraus, ''that you never get a chance to celebrate your successes.''

Even at Netscape Communications Corp., whose 1995 IPO unleashed startup fever, folks are, well, normal. Take Aleks Totic, a founding engineer. He figured that if Netscape was a wild success, he stood to make some money. But the real draw, says Totic, was ''fun coding.'' Totic wrote a small check that bought him ''a boatload'' of Netscape shares. The IPO made Totic millions, yet he still lives in the Palo Alto apartment he shares with a roommate and drives the 1990 Integra he has had for years. When his options vest in four months, he'll likely stay on. ''I don't see myself windsurfing for the rest of my life,'' he says. Web surfing, maybe.

By Amy Cortese in San Mateo


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Updated Aug. 7, 1997 by bwwebmaster
Copyright 1997, Bloomberg L.P.
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