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Silicon Valley's nouveau riche don't flaunt it

MENLO PARK, Calif. — Wealth is here if you know where to find it.

Fabulous home theaters are tucked into the basements of plain suburban houses. Bespoke jeans that start at $1,200 can be detected only by a tiny red logo on the button. The hand-painted Italian bicycles that flash across Silicon Valley on Saturday mornings have become the new Ferrari — and only the cognoscenti could imagine that they cost more than $20,000.

Even at Facebook, ground zero for the nouveau tech riche, peer pressure dictates that consumption be kept low-key.

"The message here is, 'Keep shipping product,' " a Facebook executive, who requested anonymity while discussing internal matters, told the New York Times. "If someone buys a fancy car and posts a picture of it, they get ridiculed and berated."

The company disclosed Thursday, on the eve of Friday's stock market debut, that it was inviting employees to a hackathon, or marathon programming session, bringing new meaning to the term overnight millionaire. The event was more likely to be fueled by Red Bull than Dom Pérignon.

Make no mistake: In this, Silicon Valley's gilded age, money is chasing money. Lucrative salaries and stock options are dangled to recruit or hold on to engineers. Shares of established companies like Apple have soared. And Facebook itself has turned to Wall Street for a vast infusion of fresh funds.

But here in one of the richest corners of the country, the tech elite display an ambivalent, sometimes contradictory approach to wealth. Money, as one scholar of the valley described it, is treated as a measuring stick, gauging the power of the companies that entrepreneurs have built, rather than a thing to display.

"They use it as a way of keeping score — how disruptive can you be in reordering the market?" said Ted Zoller, a senior fellow at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation and a scholar of entrepreneurship.

The one money matter that most Internet millionaires talk about openly is what startups they are investing in next. Expect many more such investments from Facebook executives. Indeed, that might be where the biggest chunk of their new wealth will go.

To understand the contradictions of moneymaking in Silicon Valley, it is instructive to look at another landmark public offering: Google in the summer of 2004. Just before it went public, a senior manager holding a baseball bat lectured a roomful of Google employees: Anyone who dared show up to work in a flashy sports car would soon find its windows shattered. The story is part of valley lore. But it is also well known that the company's three top executives have a collection of eight private jets, parked in a NASA hangar.

Still, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's chief executive, sets the tone at the company with his trademark rumpled hoodies that display no obvious brand name. He spent $7 million on a large but nondescript home in Palo Alto.

Silicon Valley's nouveau riche don't flaunt it 05/18/12 [Last modified: Friday, May 18, 2012 10:39pm]
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