Are there no more virgins to sacrifice to the volcano of Silicon Valley legend?
Pedigreed venture capitalist firm
recently hosted 20 business school finalists for an all-the-press-they-could-eat cocktail party at a swanky bar in downtown San Francisco. Hummer Winblad was wrapping up its "February Madness" business plan competition. (Thank you, vigilant
"March Madness" trademark protectors.)
No doubt the plucky youngsters were hoping to brush elbows with co-founding partner Ann Winblad, whose name is a given on every list of most influential technology players. Heck, they must be thinking, if the Internet-only venture firm has backed stock-market performers from DSL provider
to wedding shopping site
, maybe it could work the magic on their newly minted entrepreneurial careers.
Way south of downtown, there was quite a change of scenery. A small group of indefatigable programmers buzzed around a no-frills swap-meet style computer show inside that creepy testament to concrete, Daly City's Cow Palace.
Past folding tables showcasing already opened packages of software and misspelled pitches for "barebone" PCs, members of the Bay Area FreeBSD Users Group, or BAFUG, toiled away to install
on all comers' computers. It's been 20 years since the FreeBSD folks rebelled against that era's operating system overlord,
, in the dogged pursuit of a better operating system. Twenty years without soft lighting,
with powerful VCs and several million-dollar prize checks.
Back uptown, the kids from
University of California at Irvine
were sucking down sushi and smiling wide for the cameras. And there were plenty of cameras. No less than three TV crews and 10 reporters were vibrating like tuning forks over the concept: "Underdog unknowns get a shot in Silicon Valley without having to knock on
windshields in Sand Hill Road parking lots!" "Rags to riches, baby!" Or at the very least, "
But these weren't babes in the woods. The proud Northeastern team was reluctant to give any but the haziest details on its start-up. A Cal team member quickly deflected small talk to her team's spokesperson. Wharton's foursome quietly outlined their online customer service tool that allows Web sites to better target consumers as they shop. At the nearest pause, their chief casually turned to the event's PR leader and began questioning him on his work. What types of start-ups was he looking to work with? How does he structure his PR deals?
Over in the concrete eternity of the Cow Palace, there was no well-choreographed schedule to follow. Wearing T-shirts with rebellious slogans, a group of friendly programmers milled around, helping visitors install an alternative operating system on their computers, whether FreeBSD or the well-hyped Linux option. A passerby sidled up to the group and asked innocently, "Could you use this to build a Web site?" The programmers turned from their computer installations and took the next 15 minutes to explain their software's attributes and the intimate details of their project. "People use this to build the biggest Web sites on the Net. It's very small compared to Windows; we're not taking up space trying to hide things," said a gentleman, his adhesive name tag stuck in his scraggly beard.
Back uptown, a playful drumroll from the cocktail-hour jazz band silenced the business school competitors for the night's big announcement:
nabbed the championship with tools that help medical professionals stay on top of drug news and uses. The Mydrugrep.com team won a first-round funding offer of somewhere between $5 million and $10 million in Hummer Winblad cash and clout.
UC-Irive CEO Quang Pham took the microphone with poise and flawlessly thanked all three of his competitors and commended their hard work. He then gave a polished thank you to the Hummer Winblad hosts. Next step: Hire a chief technical officer, chief medical officer and all the VPs the money would buy.
Far from the glare of camera lights, the alternative operating-system types forged ahead on their installations, doing what they've been doing since the Hummer Winblad contestants were knee-high. The high-tech world didn't slam on the brakes to ogle their efforts. Was that because FreeBSD is not good enough? Nah, it's actually regarded as pretty good stuff. Not hot enough? Kissing cousin Linux captured the media's imagination last year and has held onto its column inches ever since. A little too outside the Silicon Valley screenplay formula? Of course.
By that time, UC-Irvine's team was well on its way down the high-tech road of riches. And it wasn't hard to imagine the victorious entrepreneurs walking out into the cool night air with the other three teams -- and immediately stepping into a
convertible that would whisk them off to their next VC meeting, in search of the perfect VC term sheet.
Ah, the Silicon Valley fairy tale.
Tish Williams' column takes at look at the people who make Silicon Valley tick. In keeping with TSC's editorial policy, she doesn't own or short individual stocks, although she does own stock options in TheStreet.com. She also doesn't invest in hedge funds or other private investment partnerships. She breathlessly awaits your feedback at