A Parisian in America Braves Silicon Valley's Ultracapitalist Ethos
Excerpts from The Nudist on the Late Shift
On a Friday afternoon in January, Thierry Levy is standing in the aisle at Internet Showcase in San Diego. He is one of only two foreigners to have been invited, but that morning, he totally botched his presentation. He had no idea what he was doing up there. He knows now that an edgy attitude is an insufficient substitute for professional expertise. His plane home to Paris is scheduled for a 6:20 p.m. departure.
He can't stop thinking that this very moment his fate will be decided forever. Terry had grown up poor. His father used to tell him, "In America, if you grew up poor, it's something to be proud of. It is a badge of honor. You say, 'Hey! I started from scratch!' " His father had been rescued by American soldiers. His father had always said of America, "It's the place where heroes are from."
Thierry borrows someone's cell phone to call the airline, trading his return ticket for one to SFO, where he arrives at 11:10 in the evening. Now what? His first instinct: to see Silicon Valley. From Thrifty, he rents a Geo Metro subcompact and motors south on the 101. It's raining. He is expecting something like the Great Wall of China, some demarcation line. He gets off the freeway, finding only suburbs and low-slung office parks, an occasional fluorescent light still illuminating some worker's window, so he gets back onto the freeway, but at the next exit, same thing. It's dark and wet and too flat to offer a sense of place or direction. Hey, I'm here! I, Thierry Levy, am Here! but the Valley takes no notice. He checks into a Days Inn. He has two glasses of water before he climbs under the bedspread and attempts to sleep.
He has 70 more days before the tourist stamp on his passport expires.
"Are you lost?" asks the postman.
"I'm looking for Quiz Studio," I say.
"Haven't heard of that one," he says, going up in the elevator.
I find the suite number. "Hello?" I try tentatively, opening the door. The walls smell of new paint. The six empty beige cubicles purchased from the previous tenant have been stripped of any decorations that made them personal. A jungle of unspliced white phone lines drapes cubicle to cubicle.
The only office occupied yet belongs to the founder, Thierry Levy. He moved in this morning. It's been four months since he arrived from San Diego that rainy night. On his desk here rests a laptop and a cellular phone. Stored on the cubicle shelf are a tub of protein powder and half a case of bottled water. Silicon Valley, today. Get lean, stripped down. Live on nothing. Forget about love that nourishes. Forget about food that satiates. Get ready for ultracapitalism.
Thierry's applied for an LIA visa, under which he can stay for 10 months as a "visiting executive" as long as he's officially employed back home in France. His official employer back in France is also himself.
Without an American credit record, he had to pay three months' rent in advance for this meager office space. His software, Quiz Studio, turns plain Web pages into interactive quizzes. If he can get certified 100 percent Java by Sun Microsystems, he figures Sun will plug him into venture capitalists. Six months to prove himself, and either change will happen or it won't.
Here's what particularly scares Thierry: he went to a crash course on starting a business. They gave him three principles to live by: marketing, marketing, and marketing. Thierry can't afford a VP of marketing until he gets venture money, but he also hears that VCs will never give him money without a VP of marketing.
Thierry's paying a thousand dollars a month to rent a room in a woman's house in Menlo Park. He found the all-night gym. Thierry stays buff. His blue jeans can't disguise the muscles in his legs. He has less fat than an unflavored rice cake. He is armed with an undergraduate degree in engineering and an MBA from the most prestigious business school in France. His only possessions are his roller blades and his road bike. He doesn't mention friends. "I fit right in," he says, and I think he's right, but I don't know whether that's swell or sad.
The other thing that's great for his long-houred "lifestyle" is the all-night Safeway. They sell Barilla spaghetti. He says that when he gets venture capital financing, he's going to move up to the real stuff, De Cecco brand pasta, twice as expensive at a bank-account-draining $2.95 per box.
"Three months, come see me maybe," he says. "I'll be making spaghetti."
I decided it's about time to go share a plate of pasta with Thierry Levy. He's off food entirely. He's switched over to the Apex nutritional system. He still has no friends, no social life. He's so bored that he cannot even work hard anymore.
When he came here, he thought everyone was successful. Now he quotes statistics: Of every 1,000 business plans sent to venture capitalists, six are accepted. Among the 9,994 rejected business plans is his. He made a strategic mistake: He sent it out asking for $2.5 million. Venture capitalists told him they want to fund projects only at the $5 million level. He's rewritten his plan, but he used up his "eyeball time."
Thierry knows that there are angel investors who are willing to fund startups his size, but he has no idea how to find them. He went to the Software Development Center in San Jose and met two business brokers, who advised him to sell his Quiz Studio technology to a company that has the market muscle to introduce a new product.
I had to ask: If he sold his company, would he stay? It was a philosophical question, but he answered it literally: "If I sell the company, it is customary for me to be asked to stay on for two years."
Thierry told me he had 30 days before he would be selling his clothes, but 30 days later he was still answering his phone to tell me had three days left. He could not make that Friday's payroll, and office rent was due Saturday. The following Monday he would have to file as insolvent under the French bankruptcy code.
In the meantime, he had released a new version of Quiz Studio, solving the incompatibility problems between Sun's Java and Microsoft's Java. The new product was featured in several trade magazines, which helped one of the brokers arrange a meeting with Macromedia, Isometrix, Oracle, and Knowledge Universe. Prospects for a sale were bright enough that one of his original French funders invested another $150,000 in expectation he'd make it back in the sale. He had another six months to pull it off.
Po Bronson is a feature writer for Wired and has written about high-tech culture for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Forbes ASAP. He's the author of two novels: the best-selling Bombardier and The First $20 Million Is Always the Hardest. Bronson, a 1986 Stanford University graduate, lives in San Francisco. His Web site is www.pobronson.com.
From the book
Nudist on the Late Shift by Po Bronson
Copyright (c) 1999 by Po Bronson
Reprinted with permission of Random House, Inc.
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions.
Available at the McGraw-Hill Bookstore, local and online bookstores or see Random House's website at www.atrandom.com