Facebook, while considerably smaller than Google, with over 2,000 employees, is growing fast. But it cultivates an image of start-uppiness and agility. Zuckerberg has an ethos: “Move fast and break things.” Several times a year, the company holds 24-hour hackathons. Facebook also brags to prospective hires about its enviable engineer-to-user ratio, which as of two years ago was about one to 1.26 million—the kind of leverage most successful start-ups can’t match.
Anti-bureaucracy also means giving people at the bottom access to people at the top. Every week, Google hosts “TGIFs,” giant companywide meetings where employees can ask execs questions about what’s going on in the company. “That’s very much part of the Google culture, not to take everything for granted, to question authority,” says Michael Brandt, a recent Stanford graduate who has a job lined up at the company. Facebook prides itself on its flatness and Zuckerberg on his accessibility. “I’d be there at 8 or 9 p.m., and we’d talk for a half-hour about whatever was on his mind,” says Feross. “It was really personal.”
Then there were the perks. It’s a cliché by now that every big tech company’s campus is a mini-resort. Apple’s proposed new site looks like the set of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Facebook boasts Ping-Pong tables and Xbox 360s. Employees at the “Googleplex” in Mountain View can take after-work dance classes and then get massages before hopping a free shuttle home. Zynga, the gaming company in San Francisco, lets employees bring their pets to work. And, of course, free food everywhere—food for your dog can’t be far off. Even AOL, that nineties relic, has a fancy new Palo Alto building, complete with a pinball machine, a Razor-scooter dock, and a room with a drum set.
“The shoe thing is overrated,” says Joseph Huang, bouncing on a roller chair. Huang has been homeless the last few days, crashing on couches while he figures out his living situation. Skinny and barefoot, with spiky hair and an oversize T-shirt from the Montreal Jazzfest, he comes across as a tall Asian rabbit.
"Ideas are a dime a dozen."
Huang is sitting amid a cluster of tables in AOL’s Palo Alto offices, a space dedicated to StartX, an accelerator for start-ups involving Stanford students. Huang’s start-up is one of ten fledgling companies selected in the spring session by the accelerator, which helps them with everything from legal issues to accounting to office space to connecting with financiers. His company, WiFiSlam, analyzes local wireless signals to create a kind of indoor GPS. Fire up their Android app, and a little dot on a map tells you where you are. Commercial uses could include museum walking tours, private-security coordination, or navigations systems for malls.
“I worked at Google, but it’s not hungry enough,” he says. The advantage of working at an accelerator is you’re surrounded by entrepreneurs with similar brains (large, hyperactive, mildly Asperger-y). After an internship at Microsoft, then-Stanford undergrad Ivan Lee decided to try something different. He and a few friends created Geomon, a sort of augmented-reality Pokémon game for your iPhone that integrates elements from the world around you. If you’re at the beach on a sunny day, for example, you’ll fight different creatures than if you’re in a rainy city. Even if Geomon doesn’t work out, he won’t go back to Microsoft. “I think I’d rather stay and do more start-ups,” he says.
“Taking a job is in some ways like a second option,” says Akshay Kothari, who with his friend Ankit Gupta converted a Palo Alto garage into office space for their iPad-news-app company, Pulse. “If you say you’ve taken a job, it’s like, ‘Oh, you haven’t figured it out?’” Last year, the two Stanford classmates started building the news app as part of a class at the Institute of Design. Five weeks later, it launched on the iTunes App Store, where it sold for $4. It now has 5.5 million users.
Feross buys into the Silicon Valley meme of entrepreneurs as pirates: They know the risks, but they do it out of love. “If you’re an entrepreneur, you have a kind of delusion,” he says. “You’re willing to do something that’s kind of ridiculous, which is probably gonna fail 99 percent of the time, because the adventure of doing the thing itself—the journey—is so enjoyable that you don’t give a crap about the end.”
The start-up life has its downsides. For every Pulse, there are a hundred non-Pulses. Entrepreneurship is all-consuming. Starting a start-up isn’t work—it’s parenthood. “If your company could be worth half a billion dollars by the end of the year or zero dollars, the decision of whether to work this weekend is no longer a decision,” says Brandt, the Stanford graduate. “To me, that’s terrifying,” says another Googler. “No salary, tallying living expenses. I could not do that.”