Three Days in the Valley
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because Silicon Valley is not for everyone.
By Sean Braswell
This OZY original is a short story of fiction.
Earl Kin Jr. was one of those people who, if born during another time or under different circumstances, would have been a remarkable human specimen, the caliber of a circumnavigator, or a shaman, or maybe a romantic poet. And possibly, if one believes in karma, reincarnation and such things, he had been all of these at one time or another.
But, as it was in this version of the universe, Earl sat in the departure lounge at Norman Y. Mineta International Airport in San Jose, California, nervously tapping the right toe of his cowboy boot against the soiled airport carpet. Earl looked a lot like a wax museum version of Matthew McConaughey. Plus about 25 pounds. And 10 years. He also had that same fidgety energy and hazy indifference. Not to mention the toothpick or gum he chewed almost constantly to keep from smoking.
Like McConaughey, Earl was a Texan. Born and bred. The Bay Area gave him the willies. It felt like a foreign country. Not that he had given it much of a chance. Ever since San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Dwight Clark had pulled down “the Catch,” ousting his beloved Dallas Cowboys from the 1981 NFC Championship, Earl had carried a grudge against that part of the country.
And now that might be changing. In his left hand, he held the invitation to join the board of Bandito Inc. that had arrived the previous week when he also received the bad news about his cousin Jason. Bandito was a wearable tech company based north of San Jose in Santa Clara. Jason Kin, known to the world as Silicon Valley’s bad boy Jay Saxby, was its CEO and founder … at least until he turned up dead at age 42 in Pacific Heights at one of the legendary sex parties held for the Valley’s elite technorati.
In fact, thanks to his cousin’s untimely demise and his rather poor estate planning, Earl was set not only to inherit a seat on the board of Bandito but also to become a majority shareholder … with his little sister Tammy, of course. Tammy was the reason Earl was sitting in the departure lounge in San Jose. They had both come from Dallas that morning, but she had insisted on booking her ticket separately and had wound up on a flight that arrived 45 minutes after his. To know Tammy was to tolerate such things. Tammy marched to the beat of her own drummer, and if it wasn’t a drummer, then it was a fiddle player, lead singer or album producer.
Tammy ran a hospitality services firm with close connections to the country music scene. Through the years, she had been through about 84 different hairstyles and colors, and almost as many boyfriends. No one in her family held out hope anymore that she would find the right color, or a husband. It was Earl who ran their family’s ranch and livestock business in Texas, but Tammy was the real mover and shaker. And soon enough — with her fake nails, big hair and even bigger personality — she came exploding out of the jet bridge at Gate 11 like a Realtor shot out of a cannon.
“You been waitin’ long, hun?”
Tammy called everyone from the mayor to the neighbor’s kid “hun.” Attila didn’t have as many Huns in his life as she did.
“No, not really,” replied Earl. “Good flight?”
“Did you know that Mineta Airport is named after former transportation secretary Norman Mineta? He was once in an internment camp.”
Tammy always did her homework, even if it was usually just a quick Wikipedia search on her phone. Part of a life spent entertaining musicians and entertainers was regaling them with little fun facts. That and babysitting them at rehab or the ER.
“I had no idea,” said Earl. “I’ll get us an Uber.”
“No, wait,” said Tammy, “I want to do it on my Bandit.” She held out her left arm where Bandito’s signature product, the bulky Bandit smartwatch, slid down her tan wrist like daddy’s Seiko on a toddler’s arm. She hadn’t bothered to try the free ones her cousin had sent every Christmas until today. Tammy tapped on it furiously, making a quizzical expression.
“The app keeps closing. You order it, hun.”
Earl pulled out his phone. Because Tammy had taken a later flight, there would not be enough time to check into the hotel. They’d have to go straight to Jay’s funeral.
* * *
Earl and Tammy convinced their Uber driver to stop at a gas station along Highway 101 so they could change into their black funeral attire. They needn’t have bothered as it turned out. No one else at the funeral was wearing black. And a surprising number were in T-shirts. If you could even call what took place that sunny May afternoon by the waters of San Francisco Bay a funeral.
Just as he had failed to leave a will, Jay Saxby had also left no clear wishes as to his final resting place, aside from an Instagram post in which he had mused about how “badass it would be to have a Viking funeral” beneath the Golden Gate Bridge. So a Viking party boat had been hired, in which Jay’s casket had been placed atop a makeshift pyre in an effort to best approximate his final fantasy. But, because the National Park Service did not allow open barbecuing in a marine vessel, let alone burning a corpse, the boat carrying his unburned remains would only be symbolically shoved out from the shoreline next to the Presidio Yacht Club.
Standing on the shore with the bay breeze battering them, Earl and Tammy listened to readings from Jay’s favorite works like Atlas Shrugged and The Power of Positive Thinking, as well as mini-eulogies for the fallen Bandito founder from the mostly male employees of the company. They tried to reconcile the laudatory oratory with the Jason Kin they had known as a kid — the one who used to tie fireworks to a skateboard, light them and send them careening down a hill at the neighbors’ house.
Jay had been working as a ranch hand in the family business until one of his former fraternity brothers at UCLA had developed an early smartwatch prototype. He was an engineer and needed help pitching his idea to investors. Jay was a natural salesman, and soon enough had landed the startup $20 million in seed money — and himself a spot as co-founder and CEO of Bandito.
He moved to California and soon figured out how to trade on his Southern heritage and transcend it — both with investors and women. He changed his name to Jay Saxby (eerily similar to Jay Gatsby, but it didn’t matter because he had never read that book anyway), wore black, custom-made Western shirts and jeans, and replaced his Texan drawl with a slight British accent. He was a brash, freewheeling combination of Andrew Sullivan and Johnny Cash. It was like watching some kind of full-time performance artist on testosterone pills. Silicon Valley devoured it. Jay soon became not just the CEO, but also the head brand ambassador for Bandito, the only wearable technology developed especially for the red-blooded American male.
But right now, there was a wedding scheduled to take place at the yacht club, so the memorial service was quickly brought to a close, and the late, great performance artist was shoved off toward Valhalla. Or at least toward a large Ferretti yacht named Aquaholic, which the party boat struck like a battering ram, splintering the $500,000 yacht to the horror of the funeral and wedding guests assembled on shore.
“Jesus. They oughta just burned it,” Earl whispered to Tammy.
* * *
Earl couldn’t make heads or tails of what most of the other guests at the funeral reception at the Palo Alto Four Seasons were saying to him and Tammy. The sounds they were making sounded like English and were clearly meant to impress Bandito’s newest owners and board members, but Earl was not sure how to interpret the self-help spiritualism sprinkled with fairyland startup terms like “unicorns” and “clouds” and “angel investors.”
Earl understood business and hard work. Profit. Balance sheets. Tax write-offs. He had run the Kin Ranch, the third largest livestock business in the Texas Hill Country for 15 years — ever since his father, Earl Sr., had suffered his third heart attack at a Hooters in Round Rock. But Bandito and Silicon Valley — so far at least — felt more like a carnival than a real business. It didn’t really matter, though. He and Tammy planned on quietly selling their interest in the company as soon as the hoopla over Jay’s death calmed down, and then going back to Texas.
There were really just two other people that Earl cared to meet while he was in town — the two other Bandito board members. The first was Jay’s frat brother and co-founder, Alvin Naylor — the Steve Wozniak to Jay’s Steve Jobs. Alvin still headed R & D at the company but had contributed little to the company since the initial tech. He was seldom seen in person anymore, including at the reception it turned out. Earl would have to meet Alvin at tomorrow’s board meeting.
Fortunately, the other board member, a 35-year-old well-dressed woman with long dark hair and a Bandit wristwatch, was approaching Earl and Tammy right now.
“You must be Earl and Tammy Kin,” she said, holding out her hand. “Jay told me so much about you guys. I’m Justine Vargas. Bandit’s CFO.”
Jay had in fact never mentioned his family to anyone at the company. And he had hired Justine the way he hired all of his female employees — based on her picture. But she had risen from account manager to CFO with a seat on the board. And it took a special kind of woman to climb the testosterone-laced ladder at a place like Bandito. Justine was the logical choice to be the company’s next CEO … if the coterie of Bro investors would permit it.
“It’s a pleasure,” said Tammy. “I’m sorry we didn’t get a chance to meet you under better circumstances.”
Justine reminded them of the board meeting the following morning and offered to personally take them on a tour of the company’s offices beforehand.
“I’ll send you a Bandit invite,” she said, eyeing Earl’s bare wrists.
“Perfect. We’ll see y’all tomorrow,” replied Tammy.
Justine left them as quickly as she had arrived.
“I told you that you should’ve put one of these things on,” Tammy scolded her brother. “At least wear one tomorrow. We’ll never have to hear about Bandits again after that.”
“Shit. OK. Do you know where I can get one?” said Earl.
* * *
Deep down, Earl had wanted to be impressed by Silicon Valley. He hoped it would live up to the hype. But any hopes he still had were quashed when the Uber Premium pulled up to the Bandito offices in Santa Clara the following morning. The glass building in a medium-sized office park was boxy and characterless aside from the enormous Bandito logo — a black cowboy hat with a lasso forming the letter B — on the side. It looked as if an XFL football franchise had decided to run a regional car rental business.
Things were even more dire inside. As Earl and Tammy waited in the lobby for Justine to collect them, they looked around at the open-floor office around them. They saw employees reclining on bean bags, sitting on ottomans, talking on their phones in little pods. Nobody with the least bit of privacy.
“How does anyone actually work here?” Tammy asked.
“I have no earthly idea,” an awestruck Earl responded. “Where are the offices?”
A 22-year-old Black man in glasses, a polo shirt and skinny jeans approached them.
“Good morning, I’m Moses, Justine’s executive assistant. Justine is finishing up her overnight dopamine fast, so I will give you a tour if that’s OK?”
“Her what?” asked Earl.
“Dopamine fast. It’s when you abstain from any activity that gives you pleasure — food, exercise, social media, sex…”
“On purpose?” said Tammy.
“Of course. You should try it sometime.”
“I have. They call it Alcoholics Anonymous where I’m from, hun.”
Moses showed them proudly around the office kitchen, where workers enjoyed single-serve snacks and home-crafted beers, and the rec room with its Ping-Pong table, video-game terminals, indoor bowling alley and bouncy castle. To Earl, it looked more like a 12-year-old’s birthday party than a functioning business.
Finally, it was time to adjourn to the conference room for the board meeting. Seated on opposite ends of a long glass table were Alvin Naylor, a wiry, anemic-looking man with tattoos, and Justine Vargas, looking fresh-faced after her fast. On the videoconference on the large television screens surrounding them were Bandito’s lead investors, every one of them a white man between the ages of 50-55 wearing a blue blazer and button-down shirt.
“Gentlemen,” Justine began. “And lady,” she quickly corrected herself, smiling at Tammy. “We come together today at a pivotal moment for Bandito.”
Earl had expected a short meeting dealing with formalities of handing over power in the company and preparing for the Kins to relinquish their briefly inherited positions. But what followed was an extensive PowerPoint presentation documenting how the company’s fortunes had been falling in recent years — how Google’s acquisition of Fitbit and the success of Apple’s smartwatch had turned the wearables business into a burgeoning duopoly that would squeeze out the minor players like Bandito. Luckily the company still had some cool new proprietary software in the works, and they had a loyal base of 25-29-year-old male customers. But it would not be enough to save the company.
It was a dose of straight talk that Jay himself had clearly never given investors based on their dumbfounded expressions. And it concluded with Justine informing everyone that the company had about three months to pivot or die. Which one would they choose?
* * *
The following day, as Earl sat again in the departure lounge at Norman Mineta Airport, he received a text message from his ranch manager, Debra. “Moona Lisa is ovul. Shall we insem?” Moona Lisa was one of the ranch’s prize heifers, and it was a delicate business to determine the best time to inseminate her.
“Great. Go for it.” Earl instructed. And then an idea struck him. It seemed far-fetched, but there might just be a way that Bandito could pivot, and in a direction the Kins knew a little more about: livestock.
“I’m gonna stay here a few more days,” he brusquely informed Tammy as he got up from his seat.
“Are you crazy? I thought you hated it here.”
“I don’t know. Maybe it’s growing on me,” he smiled at his sister. “I’ll call you later.”
“Suit yourself, hun.”