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Heading to Greener Pastures When the Valley Turns Brown

Times Staff Writer

The first months of 2001 marked the end of the digital gold rush. In March, The Times caught up with five prospectors who had made the July 1999 cover of Wired magazine. Few images had personified tech's hype and hope as much as that cover shot of those intense, unlined faces ("How Green Was the Valley," March 25). Four were workers who had followed the cultural buzz to Silicon Valley. The fifth was a buzz-maker--the young writer Po Bronson, whose books on the valley had made him a local celebrity.

The dot-commers--entrepreneurs Thierry Levy and Ben Chiu, ex-ad saleswoman Julie Blaustein and star-crossed senior product manager Scott Krause--had high hopes in March for the tech sector. The French-born Levy, who had starved himself to build his San Mateo software company, was hoping to sell it, reap a windfall and fall in love. Chiu had already sold his company and become a millionaire and had moved to Hong Kong, where he was launching a new company.

Blaustein, like more and more of her peers, was out of work and planning to go "B to B"--back to business school until the economy rebounded. Krause--who with near-comic timing had plowed his entire nest egg into Webvan stock and then taken a job with Napster--claimed to have no regrets about the trust he had put into two of tech's biggest money-losers.

Of the group, only Bronson had lost interest in Silicon Valley business, having mined it for its human interest. With three books under his belt, a TV and movie deal and People magazine having dubbed him 1999's "sexiest author," Bronson by March was hip-deep in the valley's new pastime: the 30-something quest for identity. The 37-year-old Bronson, a onetime bond trader, had embarked on a survey of people who were in the throes of a career/life change. His working title: "What Should I Do With My Life?"

As it turned out, his interest in changed lives had a personal angle: His first child was about to be born, to a biotech consultant he'd married five months before.

"I look back," Bronson said this month, "and--what was I thinking? That I would have begun this project within six weeks of my baby's birth was either creating the ultimate test or inviting a train wreck. I had this fear that [parenthood] would be the end of my writing, that I'd have to go back and get a real job."

Instead, as 2001 ends, the author finds fatherhood wonderful. His son is 9 months old, his book is about three months from publication, and he is still focused on how people "find their right place in life." The title, he says, has acquired "more and more emphasis on the should" and on moral issues, which Bronson seems to find in all sorts of venues. After one valley-ite too many joked that they'd never have been sucked into the boom had Silicon Valley not been made to look cool by writers like him, he installed an "apology engine" on pobronson.com, his vanity Web site. The author will send a free certificate of apology to all dot-commers who are still mad about the tech bust--on condition that they promise to accept.

Of the others, Levy sold his company, stayed on to run it and finally found love. In September, he married a Russian translator he had met on a business trip to Moscow. Chiu experimented with three projects, turned 30, left Hong Kong, traveled, wrote a lot of code, drank a lot of coffee and is now deciding which of several projects to turn into a business. He's moving to Taiwan soon to be near his investors and is betting on 2002 for a recovery, he says.

Blaustein got into the MBA program at San Francisco State; after she gets her degree, she says, she hopes to become an Internet entrepreneur. And Krause is still a senior product manager at Napster, having survived a round of layoffs, and no, he didn't get around to selling his Webvan stock before the online grocer tanked.

"I still have the piece of paper the stock came on," he said wryly. "It's just even more worthless." This autumn brought his milestone 30th birthday, on (no kidding) Sept. 11. "Yeah, I know," says the tech-sector poster child ... for rotten luck.

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