In Silicon Valley, return to humbler tech dreams

FOR five years, the future surged against the windowpanes of Jamis MacNiven's Silicon Valley restaurant in wave after wave of fresh-faced MBAs.

They came as panhandlers of the New Economy - business-school graduates clutching tech magazines, pressing their noses to the glass to match the faces inside with photos of venture capitalists.

This was where Netscape and Hotmail began. This was where the young and precocious got the money to turn their billion-dollar ideas into offices of Ethernet ports and beanbag chairs. For many, the kitsch and pancakes of Buck's of Woodside was the starting line for the dotcom dream.

But today "the predators," as Mr. MacNiven calls them, have vanished. There is no wait. And the 104 strike marks over the door - the number of TV crews that came here - are a cheeky testament to a bygone time.

Amid the rubble of a toppled tech economy, America's ultimate boomtown is learning how to live in lean times.

For most who came here to make their fortunes during one of the greatest gold rushes of the 20th century, the collapse has been a disaster. Many have left. Many are jobless. Some with jobs have left dreams of instant riches behind along with 18-hour days.

The buzz, they say, is gone.

Yet even as the Silicon Valley of the late 1990s slips into lore, others say a different one is emerging.

Caldron of capitalism

It is a place of Chinese takeout and teleconferences, not braised rabbit and all-expense-paid trips to Maui's south shore. It is breakfast at Buck's, without the gawkers. Engineers and scientists are once again king.

Indeed, many say these past two years have not merely been a downturn, but a purge, and the new Silicon Valley is getting back to its roots.

"Silicon Valley is gradually returning to something more normal," says James Forcier of Bay Analytics, a consulting firm in San Francisco.

Not that Silicon Valley's normal is all that ordinary. Even amid the tech depression, Buck's of Woodside is a caldron of pure capitalism.

Someone from a local bank flits between two tables during the breakfast hour; MacNiven says he often comes here two to three times a day for business meetings. On tables, reports and charts stack as high as flapjacks. Napkins double as syrup-stained sketch pads. Each group of tieless men greets with handshakes.

With its Wild West murals and cosmonaut suit hanging from the ceiling, Buck's d├ęcor is only slightly less surreal than the revelation that some company called PayPal was sold for $1.6 billion at a nearby seat.

But that sale was back in the old days. Sure, the venture capitalists still come - as on this morning. But there are fewer of them, and they are more careful. One bankroller to the startups, who recently raised $1 billion, didn't collect it because he couldn't find a good investment.

"We have never seen a downturn like this," says MacNiven, who has become part celebrity, part commentator as owner of Buck's.

It's a note of caution that sounds in every chord coming from Silicon Valley. Never before has a downturn cut this deep - touching everything from telecom to dotcom. And never before has this cluster of Bay Area cities had to come down from such success - and excess.

Christy Lamagna, a planning and marketing consultant, still speaks as if she's not sure the boom really happened. Laughing, she recalls when she told one client that his company trip to Maui would cost $2.1 million - $1 million less than budgeted.

The CEO screamed at her.

"The mentality was: Spend all you want, we'll make more," says Ms. Lamagna. "The perception was that he was being cheated out of something."

She was hardly cutting corners. Some 500 employees and guests would have all expenses paid on a trip that included helicopter tours, massages, and hand-painted local pottery with chocolates. One evening, the dinner offered high-powered telescopes, maps of the night sky drawn specifically for that date and location, and a panel of astronomers and astrologers.

Then, "excess was a sign of prestige," she says. "Now, every penny is valuable."

She sees the change in her business, where no one is going to Hawaii. Menlo Park's once-popular Wild Hare, with its crispy citrus-glazed calamari, is out of business. And a new reality is dawning on some colleagues.

"Now people are experiencing what the rest of the world knows, which is the doldrums of a 9-to-5 life," she says. They're realizing: "Maybe I do have to work 25 years before I can retire."

The dimming of Lightsocket

These are the cast-offs of the Silicon Valley collapse. The MBAs who thought they had the cure for the common company - or the next big thing. Those who would "eat ice cream, bring their dogs to work, and talk about working," as Lamagna puts it.

"The 20 and hip with a fundable idea," adds sociologist Jan Lueck.

"The boy wonder thing is over," MacNiven quips.

Jennifer Jeffrey doesn't quite fit that mold. She isn't a boy, and she didn't spend workdays pawing at Ben & Jerry's. But she did have an idea that needed money. Lightsocket would connect engineers across the world by computer so they could work simultaneously on complex projects.

The days were long, often stretching into weekends, but she had one rallying cry: "If we can hold on for another year, we'll be floating around the coast of Spain."

She remembers looking at her "beautiful certificate" of 3 million stock options and imagining the payback. Then, as the economy faltered, her funding was frozen, and she had to sell everything.

"It reordered my priorities," says Ms. Jeffrey, now an author.

She, like many of her friends, vowed never to work those hours again. Some moved to marketing. Many Silicon Valley migrants returned to school.

As a result, the exodus has essentially left Silicon Valley's technology industry to those who created it. "There's a return to more of the old-school engineer types," says Jeffrey.

Like Bob Young. The software writer came here in 1997, not to prospect for tech millions, but because it was his mecca. "During my first year here I frequently found myself walking out of the building after a 14- to 16-hour day, looking up into the night sky, and being almost giddy that I was really a software engineer in Silicon Valley," he says.

He gets lost in a piece of code, so that "nothing else in the world exists." His power lunch is a pizza and a soda while refining a new algorithm. And when pressed, he says he would probably work for free.

His is the Silicon Valley that gave the world Steve Jobs and Apple, and the Internet. The latest boom might have passed, but Mr. Young has no plans to go anywhere.

"There is still an optimism that tech will not go away, and that Silicon Valley's place in the firmament will not go away," says Dr. Lueck. "It's just a question of waiting."

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