[COMMUNITY] Gautam Godhwani - Successful Entrepreneurs Can't Stay Away
- Not the retiring type
Despite cashing in, many Silicon Valley entrepreneurs can't stay away
By Alana Semuels, Times Staff Writer
What would you do if you became a multimillionaire? In Silicon
Valley, the answer is often surprising: Get back to work.
Gautam Godhwani faced that decision at the age of 24. Only a few
years out of UC Berkeley, he helped start an Internet company called
AtWeb from his parents' basement, and Netscape snapped it up in 1998
for $93 million.
He celebrated by buying a Porsche 911 and a San Francisco apartment
with three bedrooms and a view of the Golden Gate Bridge. Then he
quit work and traveled the world first-class. Not sure what to do
next, he founded and ran a community center for Indian Americans.
But, as is typical in Silicon Valley, the urge to innovate brought
him back to the office. Now 34, he's plugging away in Mountain View
at an online job-listing start-up called Simply Hired.
It's the Silicon Valley curse: Even with the means to retire young,
Godhwani and other serial entrepreneurs can't ignore the drive that
made them rich in the first place. That persistence helped cement the
region's reputation as the tech capital of the world people keep
coming back for second and even third acts.
"I love the challenge and reward that comes with having a hand in
building a company," Godhwani said.
The region, which has weathered decades of boom-and-bust cycles,
appears to be on an another up- swing. Local technology companies
created 33,000 new jobs in 2006, the first increase since the dot-com
slump of 2001, according to Joint Venture: Silicon Valley Network, a
"The fact that there are consistently people looking for the next new
thing is very much part of what has made Silicon Valley survive,"
said Garth Saloner, co-director of the Center for Entrepreneurial
Studies at Stanford University's Graduate School of Business.
Many people became millionaires only on paper in the dot-com
explosion, then lost that status when the tech stock sector crashed
and the value of their holdings dwindled to little or nothing. But
some young executives who did cash in couldn't stay out of the game
Mark Pincus, who co-founded Freeloader Inc. in the early 1990s, tried
to relax after the Internet company was bought for $38 million in
1996. For a year, he got up each morning with no responsibilities. He
remembers sitting on his deck on weekday afternoons and drinking beer
with random people he had just met.
"You think you're in heaven, but you're really in hell," he said.
Pincus eventually decided that the lifestyle didn't suit him, so he
called his old partners and they started brainstorming.
He compared the experience to being in a band that had broken up. His
buddies, who had also just been killing time, were eager to start a
One of their projects became tribe.net, a social-networking site.
Pincus ran the company, then left it, and then started running it
"You can sit around and do nothing and go to the beach," he
said, "But after a while, you realize you're not engaged with the
world. That's what is fun about life."
Godhwani said selling his company, which helped small businesses
improve their websites, gave him "more money than I ever dreamed of."
He decided to rejoin the workforce anyway. But several of his friends
who cashed in on the dot-com boom of the late 1990s were paralyzed by
the choices of how to spend their time.
"They had immense confusion about what they were supposed to do, and
a number of them got terribly depressed," he said. "But it's not the
kind of thing where you get a lot of sympathy."
This melancholy is not uncommon in Silicon Valley, where many people
define themselves by their jobs, said Stephen Goldbart, co-director
of the Money, Meaning & Choices Institute in the Marin County town of
"Sudden wealth syndrome" that's how Goldbart and his colleagues
describe the depression and confusion many entrepreneurs face when
they achieve financial success and realize it doesn't guarantee
"They ask, 'Now that I've made it and money is no longer a driver,
what is the meaning and purpose of my life?' " he said.
His institute has offered classes that teach these entrepreneurs how
to relax and adapt to not working grueling hours toward a sole
The condition isn't limited to Silicon Valley. Microsoft Corp.
created many millionaires who keep founding tech companies in the
Seattle area. Hollywood is filled with filmmakers such as Clint
Eastwood who keep directing and producing, though they could have
retired years earlier, and some rich athletes such as Michael Jordan
have struggled to leave the game.
"What brings an actor back to the stage when he's 70 years old?" said
William F. Miller, a professor emeritus at Stanford who himself could
have stopped working long ago but is still going strong. "It's the
sense of making an impact."
But second acts are so common in Silicon Valley because the venture
capital that pours into the region creates seemingly infinite
opportunities, said Miller, who co-edited "The Silicon Valley Edge: A
Habitat for Innovation and Entrepreneurship."
The temptation to build a new business lured Craig Donato back from
the wilderness literally.
One of the first employees of the search engine Excite in 1995,
Donato left the company in 2000, built a cabin in the mountains near
Lake Tahoe and spent time with his children. He eventually got
restless and joined a start-up. It fizzled, but he tried again. Now,
at 40, he's the chief executive and co-founder of Oodle Inc., a San
Mateo-based firm that has developed a "shopping engine" for
classified ads. "I need to channel my energy into some sort of
obsession," he said.
Some channel their energies into pursuits far from the tech business.
Former EBay Inc. President Jeffrey Skoll's company produces films
that promote social change, including "Syriana" and "An Inconvenient
James Currier, who founded quiz website Emode.com in 1999 and ran the
company after Monster.com bought it in 2004, now uses the Internet to
inspire people to get involved in causes related to healthcare,
education and philanthropy.
Currier says he's motivated by the entrepreneurial exhilaration he
draws from his new undertaking, and by a passion that drives him to
always do more. "You want the next thing to be bigger than the last,"
And then there are people like Dan Lockwood who simply have better
things to do than work. He made it big during the dot-com boom but is
now happy to spend time with family and friends away from boardrooms,
fluorescent lights and the rat race. The 39-year-old former techie
lives in San Francisco with his wife and three young children on the
money he made from selling his stake in the company he worked for,
Juniper Networks Inc.
While sitting in traffic on his way to Juniper's Sunnyvale office one
morning, he had an "existential moment." He wondered why he was
pushing himself so hard and missing his family when he didn't really
need the money. He decided to stop working, because he could.
He feels pressure to keep achieving and doesn't know what to say when
people ask what he does. Usually he changes the subject.
He doesn't regret his decision.
"Are you defined by your job title and what you do?" he asked. "Or
are you willing to take your ability not to work and go explore other
He keeps busy by working on art projects and by golfing, skiing and
kite-surfing. Some days he wakes up and thinks it's time to return to
the working world. But he can't imagine making that move when he's
got the resources to say no.
"The wind comes up at 3," he said. "I don't want to be in a place
where the wind comes up and I'm looking at the water and saying, 'Why
am I not kite-surfing today?' "