Life & Culture

Meet the stars of cyber space


Not so long ago it looked as if generations of young Jews in the Western democracies were destined for professional lives as lawyers, accountants and doctors.

The dreams of entrepreneurial success, which helped to create some of the great commercial empires of the 19th and 20th Century from Shell to Marks & Spencer, plus thousands of rag-trade and scrap-metal businesses, were swallowed by a desire from Jews to become part of the establishment.

People in trade wanted a different life for their children and grandchildren, which had largely been unavailable to them. This required better education and access to the best universities, 'magic circle' law firms and medical schools.

But in grasping for the establishment and respectability there has been a long standing concern that the descendents of immigrants have somehow had it too easy. The search was for recognition and status rather than success as measured in terms of the size of wealth and balance sheets.

Fears however that the entrepreneurial spirit had been snuffed out and that a better education meant repression of the commercial gene is being disproved by the rise of a new generation of tycoons.

Instead of bricks and mortar, their weapon tends to be the ability to write the smartest algorithms, come up with the brightest digital ideas and turn them into thriving enterprises. In the UK for instance, online grocery in the shape of Ocado turned out to be a much more stimulating option for its founders than trading bonds at Goldman Sachs.

But this doesn't even begin to compare with what has been going on of late in Silicon Valley. The early pioneers of the digital economy: Microsoft, Amazon, Google and even Apple, are now old hat and a new second/third generation of on-line technology is blazing the trail, creating in its wake a new generation of paper billionaires.

As a result of the hit movie The Social Network, Mark Zuckerberg and his Facebook site are known quantities. Shares have already been distributed among favoured Goldman Sachs investors, even though it is not planning to come to the public markets until early 2012. Most recent reports suggest that even though subscribers may be flat-lining, the valuation could be close to $100 billion.

Other stars of cyber space include Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn. The former Apple and PayPal executive launched the business networking site out of his living room in May 2003 with 350 personal contacts. Eight years on it has 90 million users.

When LinkedIn was floated on the stock market in May it was estimated that its value would be $3 billion. But in an astonishing first day of trading the market placed a value of $9 billion on the firm, raising memories of the tech-bubble of 2000. Nevertheless, the initial public offering - the first social networking site to test the public markets - changed perceptions of the potential worth of such enterprises.

The backers of LinkedIn include Cardiff-born Michael Moritz of Sequoia Capital, who sits on the group's board. Moritz, an Oxford University graduate, was among the founder investors in Google and Sequoia's initial investment of $12.5 million in Google is thought to be worth billions.

Fortune magazine estimates the net worth of the 55-year-old venture capitalist, based in Mountain View, California, to be $1.5 billion. Moritz has served on the boards of a series of cyber pioneers including Flextronics, Yahoo! and PayPal.

The latest on-line pioneer to test the investment waters is the social network game developer Zygna, founded by Mark Pincus in January 2007. It has been backed by $29 million in venture finance from several venture capital firms led by Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Byers. It joined the rush to market on July 1 with an initial public offering with three classes of shares. The complex structure is designed to keep founder Pincus in the driving seat. The firm, which invented the very fashionable Facebook games FarmVille and Mafia Wars is being valued at anything up to $20 billion. There was however some criticism when the prospectus was published as it was revealed that Pincus was paying $5,000 a month to his sister to run the company's 'non-profit' activities and was also renting space from another Pincus business interest.

The other major internet float to surface is Groupon, a website which features discounted deals and gifts, founded in late 2008 by Pittsburgh native Andrew Mason. He was backed by his former employer Eric Lefkofsky, who put in $1 million. By the time it filed for an initial public offering in June this year the company had signed up 83 million subscribers worldwide, was offering 1,000 deals a day and was valued by the market at $15 billion.

The surge in valuations of a new generation of business, social and gaming network sites has raised concerns that the on-line world is repeating the mistakes of the last decade when the fashion for companies with 'dot com' in their name exploded in the face of investors. Besides, not all social networking sites stand the test of time as Rupert Murdoch's MySpace (which he now cannot sell) has demonstrated.

Nevertheless, enthusiasm for the next big cyber-space idea looks to be creating new potential billionaires on an almost daily basis.

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