By now you’ve heard tell of David Choe, the Facebook “decorator” suddenly worth nearly a quarter of a billion dollars in stock amid the promise of the tech bubble’s second coming, leaving most of us 99 percenters to wonder “wtf” we’re doing with our lives. Besides posting about them.
So the story goes: in 2005, then-Facebook lieutenant Sean Parker needed someone to fill up the walls of their new corporate HQ.
He chose Choe, a grungy graffiti artist from LA, to whip up some sexually charged murals to liven up the new office (or more likely serve as a regular reminder of the driving force behind Facebook’s inception). Choe didn’t really get it at the time, thinking the site was “ridiculous and pointless.” No matter, he’d bet on Mark Zuckerberg’s nerdiness anyway, smartly picking stock instead of cash. His shares are now allegedly worth $200 million.
Choe certainly isn’t first guy to ride a tech IPO’s coattails up the socioeconomic ladder – for a seemingly marginal contribution (though to be fair, Choe looks like a pretty talented guy). In this fairy tale land of instant-paper wealth, Silicon Valley (and now Alley) has a bad habit of churning out unassuming, and to a point, undeserving millionaires.
Take Bonnie Brown, who made it big by giving the odd back rub and neck massage.
At the time, Google was famous for promoting its trendy “startup culture”. High on Larry Page’s list was to hire an office masseuse. Brown came on part-time, earning $450, plus a tiny piece of what would become one of the most relevant companies on earth. Five years later, she’d never have to “work” again.
Google, especially, was indiscriminately generous when it came to doling out stock, rewarding employees at all nodes of the corporate workflow. Another lucky recipient was Charles Ayers, one of the firm’s prized cafeteria chefs.
Ayers would make out with a chunky $26 million slice for his toils inside Google’s kitchens, becoming the poster boy for the get-rich-super-quick potential of tech IPOs, reinvigorating the kind of fanatical hope (hype?) we thought died with the 90s dot-com bubble along with Pogs, and further cementing the notion that the road to the American Dream is to first pursue your passion (or develop strong hands) and then hope you get picked up by the right startup.
Of course, every rags-to-riches proposition is a double-edged sword, for the same reason you can never not contribute to your office Powerball pool. Such is the life of Ronald Wayne, the Apple founder most people have never heard of.
Wayne, who had met the two Steves when they all worked at Atari, at one point owned 10% of the then fledgling startup in compensation for his various key contributions: sketching the original baroque Apple logo, providing “adult supervision,” and essentially filling out some paperwork – modest work for such a huge stake in what is now the world’s largest company based on market cap. With Apple stock hovering around a new all-time high, Ronald Gerald Wayne’s stock would be worth well over 35 billion dollars, more than Zuckerberg today. Instead, Wayne suffers the daily humility of just getting by, selling stamps, rare coins and gold out of his home to supplement his monthly government check.
For the former Apple stakeholder, an inherent liability in the partnership agreement and a failing side business meant the would-be gazillionaire decided to sell his share just two weeks in, saying "he felt the Apple enterprise “would be successful, but at the same time there would be bumps along the way and I couldn’t risk it. I had already had a rather unfortunate business experience before. I was getting too old and those two were whirlwinds. It was like having a tiger by the tail and I couldn’t keep up with these guys.” The proceeds of his sale totaled $2,300.
Perhaps out of spite, he has never owned an Apple product.
There are others though, who didn’t let “what could have been” stifle their eventual road to success, in spite of turning away the proverbial silver plate, like Facebook roommate Joe Green.
Green was there from beginning, having worked on the original Facemash with Zuck. Incidentally, the project that would help spawn Facebook became the architect of Green’s demise, fulfilling his destiny to become “that guy.” When the two got in trouble for their creepy and unauthorized compiling of classmate photos, Green was forced to choose between Facebook and school. He went with Harvard, paying not only tuition, but the opportunity cost of $400 million worth of Facebook stock.
“We’d gotten into a little bit trouble with the previous project … and my father, who’s a professor, was not too happy with the prospect of me getting kicked out of school,” Green said. “Zuckerberg likes to make fun of my dad for this, but we’re still very close.”
Having missed out on the most talked about IPO of a generation, Green is surprisingly unfussed, busying himself with his own promising new ventures. Unlike Wayne, who now serves only as a cautionary tale and shunned the spawn of the one who got away, Green has embraced his roots, developing a Facebook application for connecting people with charities, social projects, and even political candidates. His company, Causes, has already raised $50 million for 50,000 charities and raised $17 million investor capital.
This is Silicon (V)alley, after all. And even as the rest of the world continues to crumble (Europe, I’m looking at you), this remains the place where dreams are still made.
For the time being, at least.