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Google partying, but not quite like it's '99

Led by Internet darling Google Inc., Silicon Valley is reemerging five years after the giddy boom and four years after the gut-wrenching crash. It's back — but is lacking some of its old swagger
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

The first company to rent out this entire ski resort, arguably Lake Tahoe's most expensive and exclusive, didn't even exist a decade ago. But such is the fame of its name and the magic of its reported wealth that workers here immediately began dreaming of getting their own tiny shares.

Cashiers at the Mountain Nectar smoothie and coffee bar shined the tip jars. The real estate agents doubled their normal staffs and photocopied dozens of extra brochures of luxury homes and condos for sale. The bar owners stocked up on fancy wines.

But those expecting a bonanza this time went away disappointed.

The employees of Google Inc. came aboard standard commercial buses. (It was cheaper than flying but meant that employees left company headquarters at 5:30 a.m. for the five-hour drive.) The rooms were crammed to maximum occupancy. (It wasn't unusual for strangers to be assigned to share double beds.) And while most of employees were at the resort or in transit for 36 hours, the company provided only two cafeteria-style, buffet meals. (The restaurants at the resort were too pricey.)

Those were the days
That's Silicon Valley five years after the giddy boom and four years after the gut-wrenching crash. It's back — but is lacking some swagger. It is making money again for its investors and employees, but there is a chastened sense. No one wants to invoke the specter of excess.

Everyone here remembers the days when MicroStrategy Inc. chief executive Michael J. Saylor whisked his company off on a post-holiday Caribbean cruise, when venture capital firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson threw a party so large it was held in a NASA hangar, and when companies whose names have long been forgotten were so flush with cash that they were able to hire Cirque du Soleil, Elvis Costello and the B-52's for their bashes.

But even though Google shares are now worth $49.4 billion in the stock market — more than the combined value of Ford Motor Co., Safeway Inc. and Kmart Holding Corp. — its employees didn't throw money around.

"The Google guys were the opposite of what you might expect," said one sales clerk at a shop at the mountain. "They were grumbling that the $2.65 price of a ChapStick was too much. Go figure."

Getting back to business
Google employees, all of whom said they are prohibited from speaking with the media without prior approval from the company, jokingly grumbled that the mandatory event was somewhat like camping. But they said hanging out with co-workers in an informal setting, watching their bosses fall in the snow and dancing to '80s music helped build camaraderie.

"It was quite a production, but it was great and I got to see people in a way I had never before," said Stacy Sullivan, Google's human resources director.

In the new dot-coms, just because you have money doesn't mean you have to flaunt it. Tech executives say a humbler and healthier attitude toward riches permeates the industry nowadays.

"It went from hype to hate, and now it's about getting back to the basics of business," said Mark J. Pincus, chief executive of Tribe Networks Inc., which provides technology for local searching and networking and is based in San Francisco.

That is important because there is abundant evidence that money is pouring back into dot-coms. The three most successful initial public offerings last year were for Internet-based companies few had ever heard of: Shares of Shanda Interactive Entertainment Ltd. and employment search site company 51Job Inc. nearly tripled in value. Online marketer Marchex Inc.'s shares more than doubled. For the first time in four years, venture capitalists boosted their investments in Internet companies, handing more than $20.4 billion in 2004 to entrepreneurs with the next new idea.

Companies like Audible Inc., Varsity Group Inc. and the Knot Inc. that were worth millions in 1999, became jokes in 2001 and were all but given up for dead in 2002 suddenly seem viable again. Yahoo Inc. and other companies that were ridiculed because they boasted about their "eyeballs," or number of people looking at their sites, are making money on just that, reporting record profit based on online advertising revenue. Internet icons such as venture capitalist L. John Doerr, who dropped from the media scene, are back in the spotlight, again touting the virtues of the Internet Age.

More of the same?
Some say the resurgence of some companies makes them nervous. There is more of 1999 in the current atmosphere than they would like.

"There is a little creep back, and I'm concerned about this enthusiasm without evidence," said Prem Uppaluru, a self-described serial entrepreneur who is chief executive of Transera Communications Inc., which provides technology to companies that outsource operations.

Others argue that things may be looking up for Silicon Valley but that it still has a long way to go to regain its former strength.

"In the past, every time we went into a recession, Silicon Valley came out roaring. . . . This is the first one where we have come out like a lamb," said Shayam Nagrani, principal analyst at iSuppli Corp., a market research firm in Santa Clara, Calif. He has lived in the region for 25 years.

Stephen Levy, director of the Center for the Continuing Study of the California Economy, said that while company profits and stock prices are soaring, that hasn't translated to job growth. The state is still down some 200,000 jobs since 1999 — more than were lost in Detroit when the auto industry declined or in Pittsburgh when steelmakers filed for bankruptcy protection. The good news is that there is less bad news: In 2004, for the first time since the bust, employment remained relatively steady instead of falling.

A report released yesterday by Joint Venture: Silicon Valley Network, a coalition of local government and corporate officials, concluded, "[T]here is something profoundly different this time around: how we grow has changed. The technology revolution and intense global competition have led Silicon Valley companies to achieve high productivity gains without adding to their payroll."

Innovation on the cheap
Silicon Valley, concentrated along a 45-mile stretch of Highway 101 from San Jose to San Francisco, is a master of reinvention and for the past 50 years has been at the center of a series of booms and busts.

Whether Google, based in Mountain View, Calif., will lead Silicon Valley to a new era of prosperity is a subject of much interest and debate. The company has picked up many of the top employees of other Internet upstarts of the dot-com era. Spencer Kimball, part of a group of programmers who built one of the first Gnutella file-sharing engines, is an engineer. Megan Smith, formerly of PlanetOut Inc., works in business development. And more than a few refugees from failed broadband provider and portal Excite@Home are scattered throughout the company.

While it might seem like it's still 1999 on Google's campus — the "Googleplex" is full of lava lamps and beach balls — everything is geared toward innovation and efficiency. Happy employees better innovate. Free lunches and dinners are efficient. The doctor and massage therapist on site make sure employees are feeling their best. The snack rooms are stocked with healthy treats such as yogurt, nuts and string cheese; there are some sweets, but employees have to hunt for those as they are often placed in more remote locations. The company also encourages bonding by requiring that workers — even managers — share hotel rooms when they travel. In at least one case, a team of Google employees had to stay at hostels during a business trip to Europe.

"We actually like the density. We like people to spend more time with each other and mingle," said Sullivan, the company's human resources director.

Many Google employees remain modest about their personal lives. Many of the longtime Google employees, who got the most stock options, still rent apartments with roommates. Google co-founder Larry Page famously drives a Toyota Prius hybrid.

Jamis MacNiven, owner of Buck's restaurant in Woodside, Calif., where some of Silicon Valley's bigger deals are said to have been sealed, said the company is setting a new example for other high-tech companies.

"It's hard to justify flying around in a jet anymore when a little Google guy, who is probably a millionaire or a billionaire, is driving around in a Prius," MacNiven said.

Not your average ski trip
The corporate get-together in Tahoe was supposed to be a hush-hush affair. Even the resort workers preparing for the event weren't told who was coming, and the signs on the hotels and luggage tags referred only to the event's code name, Snow Jam. But it was hard to miss the identity of the mystery corporation on Thursday and Friday.

The mountain looked like it had been branded as roughly 2,500 of the company's employees arrived, sporting Google logos on their red knit ski caps, T-shirts and bags. The resort remained open to the public, but with Google taking every available hotel room in the area, there were few non-Googlers in the crowd. In addition to room and board, the company paid for skiing, snowboarding, tubing and ice skating.

On a cable car descending from an elevation of 8,000 feet, a half-dozen Googlers met one another for the first time, setting off a conversation that would be repeated over and over throughout the day with only slight variation.

"So what office do you work for?"

"I'm Mountain View."

"I'm San Francisco."

"Do you work with . . . "

"I was his student!"

"Wow! Funny how the Google world works!"

Resort workers helping make the gathering possible gawked with a mix of confusion and awe.

Tim Brown, 28, a manager at Tait's, which specializes in snowboard equipment and clothing, and Andressa Almeida, 25, an architecture student from Brazil who works as an instructor, looked at the heated white tents that were being set up for a company party with envy. "What a great company to take everyone out like this," Almeida said.

By the time the Googlers were leaving Friday, all the locals' talk of its money turned into talk about its party. Held at the base of the mountain with the lights on the slopes for night skiing twinkling above, it featured four theme rooms: Caribbean, Tex-Mex, hip-hop and the biggest -- the '80s tent — with local cover band Tainted Love. There was dancing and drinking and a spread of hors d'oeuvres. The Googlers were friendlier than they expected, the resort workers said, and let them crash the various after-parties that lasted until dawn. Even without spending extravagantly, they said, Google still throws a mean party.