by Brad Stone (Bantam Press £20)
VALLEY OF THE GODS
by Alexandra Wolfe Simon & Schuster £12.99)
On the day of Barack Obama’s inauguration in January 2009, two unknown entrepreneurs were in Washington DC to watch history being made: the swearing-in of America’s first black president.
What they didn’t know was that they too would become history-makers.
Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia had just founded an obscure website called Airbedandbreakfast.com, which enabled users to stay — often on airbeds, hence the name — in the homes of strangers.
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The company would evolve from that simple notion, which they dreamt up as a way of making ‘a few bucks’ from their own San Francisco apartment, into Airbnb, an online hospitality service currently valued at more than $30 billion.
But that week it was still little more than an idea and, with every hotel room in the U.S. capital snapped up, the two men, both in their 20s, used their own website to find cheap accommodation on someone’s floor.
Also at the inauguration were another two entrepreneurs, Garrett Camp and Travis Kalanick, who were both in their early 30s and already high-achievers, although no one suspected they were about to change the face of global transportation.
Camp, a Canadian with a restlessly busy mind, was trying to entice his friend Kalanick with his latest vision for a business: he wanted to enable anyone with a smartphone to summon a car at the touch of a button.
Their experience that bitterly cold day, as they looked in vain for a taxi to get to an inauguration party, helped to convince Kalanick of the need for what would become Uber.
Now, Uber is valued at $68 bn. It continues to overcome legal challenges, not to mention irate taxi drivers, and has become one of the world’s largest car services. Yet it owns hardly any cars. Similarly, Airbnb can be described as the biggest hotel company on the planet, without owning any actual hotel rooms.
THE UPSTARTS by Brad Stone (Bantam Press £20)
Eight years ago, the four men who wrought this peculiarly 21st century phenomenon were anonymous faces in the Washington DC crowd. Now they are multi-billionaires, and feted by presidents.
In 2014, when Uber needed someone to run media strategy, the company had the clout to hire the very person who had managed Obama’s triumphant 2008 campaign, David Plouffe The Uber story is particularly fascinating, and in a way it began with James Bond.
In 2008, while watching a DVD of his favourite Bond film, Casino Royale, Camp sat up a little straighter during a scene where Daniel Craig, as Bond, was driving through the Bahamas, on the trail of the villain, Le Chiffre.
During the pursuit, Bond glanced down at his mobile phone, checking on a moving icon of his own car on a map.
That image stuck in Camp’s mind; what if he could adapt it for people trying to get round cities?
He was already determined to challenge the way metropolitan taxi firms operated, and had made himself notorious among San Francisco’s yellow-cab companies by habitually calling all of them and taking the first car that arrived.
Uber grew out of his own frustration with waiting times, but to those prosaic origins he added a dash of James Bond. So now, when people summon Ubers, what they see on their phones as the vehicle approaches was inspired by one of Q’s gadgets for 007.
Of course, brilliant ideas are not enough in Silicon Valley, the 1,500 square miles of California that is home to so many hi-tech industries and internet start-ups. They also need funding.
VALLEY OF THE GODS by Alexandra Wolfe Simon & Schuster £12.99)
Stone chronicles some jaw-dropping tales of investors who gambled on Uber and Airbnb and made fortunes, and those who haven’t stopped kicking themselves for declining the opportunity.
Ron Conway, the so-called godfather of Silicon Valley, who acquired fabulous wealth by backing the ‘holy trinity’ of Google, Facebook and Twitter, reckoned that Uber would conk out in the face of too much opposition. He said no, and advised his friends to do likewise.
Conversely, when the venture capitalists at a company called Sequoia recognised the potential of Airbnb, they backed their hunch to the tune of $585,000. The value of their stake, in December 2016, was $4.5bn.
But there is another side to Silicon Valley, and that is explored by Alexandra Wolfe, a Wall Street Journal reporter (and the daughter of celebrated novelist Tom Wolfe), in VALLEY OF THE GODS .
She follows the stories of three young entrepreneurs desperate to become the next Brian Chesky or Travis Kalanick, in the case of one young man by ‘asteroid mining’ — travelling into space to extract valuable minerals from asteroids.
As yet, it doesn’t look like too bright an idea, but maybe its day will come.
Wolfe also documents the curious lifestyle of Silicon Valley, where extreme wealth isn’t outwardly detectable and the richest person in the room ‘is often wearing flip-flops and a hoodie’.
The number of billionaires in Silicon Valley
The funniest manifestation of this is ‘Cougar Night’. Every Thursday evening, women in their 40s, sometimes older, gather at the Rosewood Sand Hill hotel, just a stone’s throw from Stanford University, in the hope of finding themselves a fresh-faced billionaire.
Or maybe not fresh-faced; maybe spotty. Because on Cougar Nights, all the usual predatory practices are overturned.
As Wolfe writes, back home, wherever they come from, these scrawny, bespectacled nerds ‘would be unlikely to score a mate. Here at Cougar Night, women were crawling on just this type of specimen’.
That’s Silicon Valley, where nothing is as it seems, and everyone is trying to guess who is who, and what will happen next . . . but nobody quite knows.