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Not the retiring type

Times Staff Writer

What would you do if you became a multimillionaire? In Silicon Valley, the answer is often surprising: Get back to work.

Gautam Godhwani faced that decision at the age of 24. Only a few years out of UC Berkeley, he helped start an Internet company called AtWeb from his parents’ basement, and Netscape snapped it up in 1998 for $93 million.

He celebrated by buying a Porsche 911 and a San Francisco apartment with three bedrooms and a view of the Golden Gate Bridge. Then he quit work and traveled the world first-class. Not sure what to do next, he founded and ran a community center for Indian Americans.

But, as is typical in Silicon Valley, the urge to innovate brought him back to the office. Now 34, he’s plugging away in Mountain View at an online job-listing start-up called Simply Hired.

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It’s the Silicon Valley curse: Even with the means to retire young, Godhwani and other serial entrepreneurs can’t ignore the drive that made them rich in the first place. That persistence helped cement the region’s reputation as the tech capital of the world -- people keep coming back for second and even third acts.

“I love the challenge and reward that comes with having a hand in building a company,” Godhwani said.

The region, which has weathered decades of boom-and-bust cycles, appears to be on an another up- swing. Local technology companies created 33,000 new jobs in 2006, the first increase since the dot-com slump of 2001, according to Joint Venture: Silicon Valley Network, a business-community alliance.

“The fact that there are consistently people looking for the next new thing is very much part of what has made Silicon Valley survive,” said Garth Saloner, co-director of the Center for Entrepreneurial Studies at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business.

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Many people became millionaires only on paper in the dot-com explosion, then lost that status when the tech stock sector crashed and the value of their holdings dwindled to little or nothing. But some young executives who did cash in couldn’t stay out of the game for long.

Mark Pincus, who co-founded Freeloader Inc. in the early 1990s, tried to relax after the Internet company was bought for $38 million in 1996. For a year, he got up each morning with no responsibilities. He remembers sitting on his deck on weekday afternoons and drinking beer with random people he had just met.

“You think you’re in heaven, but you’re really in hell,” he said.

Pincus eventually decided that the lifestyle didn’t suit him, so he called his old partners and they started brainstorming.

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He compared the experience to being in a band that had broken up. His buddies, who had also just been killing time, were eager to start a new act.

One of their projects became tribe.net, a social-networking site. Pincus ran the company, then left it, and then started running it again.

“You can sit around and do nothing and go to the beach,” he said, “But after a while, you realize you’re not engaged with the world. That’s what is fun about life.”

Godhwani said selling his company, which helped small businesses improve their websites, gave him “more money than I ever dreamed of.”

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He decided to rejoin the workforce anyway. But several of his friends who cashed in on the dot-com boom of the late 1990s were paralyzed by the choices of how to spend their time.

“They had immense confusion about what they were supposed to do, and a number of them got terribly depressed,” he said. “But it’s not the kind of thing where you get a lot of sympathy.”

This melancholy is not uncommon in Silicon Valley, where many people define themselves by their jobs, said Stephen Goldbart, co-director of the Money, Meaning & Choices Institute in the Marin County town of Kentfield.

“Sudden wealth syndrome” -- that’s how Goldbart and his colleagues describe the depression and confusion many entrepreneurs face when they achieve financial success and realize it doesn’t guarantee happiness.

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“They ask, ‘Now that I’ve made it and money is no longer a driver, what is the meaning and purpose of my life?’ ” he said.

His institute has offered classes that teach these entrepreneurs how to relax and adapt to not working grueling hours toward a sole purpose.

The condition isn’t limited to Silicon Valley. Microsoft Corp. created many millionaires who keep founding tech companies in the Seattle area. Hollywood is filled with filmmakers such as Clint Eastwood who keep directing and producing, though they could have retired years earlier, and some rich athletes such as Michael Jordan have struggled to leave the game.

“What brings an actor back to the stage when he’s 70 years old?” said William F. Miller, a professor emeritus at Stanford who himself could have stopped working long ago but is still going strong. “It’s the sense of making an impact.”

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But second acts are so common in Silicon Valley because the venture capital that pours into the region creates seemingly infinite opportunities, said Miller, who co-edited “The Silicon Valley Edge: A Habitat for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.”

The temptation to build a new business lured Craig Donato back from the wilderness -- literally.

One of the first employees of the search engine Excite in 1995, Donato left the company in 2000, built a cabin in the mountains near Lake Tahoe and spent time with his children. He eventually got restless and joined a start-up. It fizzled, but he tried again. Now, at 40, he’s the chief executive and co-founder of Oodle Inc., a San Mateo-based firm that has developed a “shopping engine” for classified ads. “I need to channel my energy into some sort of obsession,” he said.

Some channel their energies into pursuits far from the tech business. Former EBay Inc. President Jeffrey Skoll’s company produces films that promote social change, including “Syriana” and “An Inconvenient Truth.”

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James Currier, who founded quiz website Emode.com in 1999 and ran the company after Monster.com bought it in 2004, now uses the Internet to inspire people to get involved in causes related to healthcare, education and philanthropy.

Currier says he’s motivated by the entrepreneurial exhilaration he draws from his new undertaking, and by a passion that drives him to always do more. “You want the next thing to be bigger than the last,” he said.

And then there are people like Dan Lockwood who simply have better things to do than work. He made it big during the dot-com boom but is now happy to spend time with family and friends away from boardrooms, fluorescent lights and the rat race. The 39-year-old former techie lives in San Francisco with his wife and three young children on the money he made from selling his stake in the company he worked for, Juniper Networks Inc.

While sitting in traffic on his way to Juniper’s Sunnyvale office one morning, he had an “existential moment.” He wondered why he was pushing himself so hard and missing his family when he didn’t really need the money. He decided to stop working, because he could.

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He feels pressure to keep achieving and doesn’t know what to say when people ask what he does. Usually he changes the subject.

He doesn’t regret his decision.

“Are you defined by your job title and what you do?” he asked. “Or are you willing to take your ability not to work and go explore other areas?”

He keeps busy by working on art projects and by golfing, skiing and kite-surfing. Some days he wakes up and thinks it’s time to return to the working world. But he can’t imagine making that move when he’s got the resources to say no.

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“The wind comes up at 3,” he said. “I don’t want to be in a place where the wind comes up and I’m looking at the water and saying, ‘Why am I not kite-surfing today?’ ”

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alana.semuels@latimes.com


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