Sarah Lacy Discusses Silicon Valley, Start-Up Celebrities & Her Next Book 4

By Ben Haber

Sarah Lacy, the author of Once You’re Lucky, Twice You’re Good, keeps very busy between her gigs with BusinessWeek, Tech Ticker and all of her Twittering, but she was in Boston earlier this week to give a keynote and decided to have a book signing the night before.

Afterwords she took some time to answer a few questions for us.

RaceTalk: While doing research for your book and speaking with many Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, was there a particular experience or story about someone’s road to success that surprised you most?

Sarah Lacy: It’s hard to out-do (PayPal co-founder) Max Levchin’s road to Silicon Valley. This is a guy who grew up in soviet Russia learning to code on a programmable calculator. He actually wrote code out long hand in notebooks sitting on a park bench near his home, never knowing if it would actually work until he finally got his hands on a computer. He’s actually eluded death about four times. And even on his drive from Chicago to Palo Alto, his truck broke down and he was stranded for days. All entrepreneurs are determined, but Max takes it to an extreme level. Most surprising: he hasn’t gotten less intense as he’s had success.

RaceTalk: In your book you reference how Silicon Valley entrepreneurs have turned into celebrities. Do you think this is good for the tech space or does it place some additional unneeded pressure on these (often young) entrepreneurs?

SL: I’m hard pressed to find a way that it’s good, except that it hopefully encourages more smart kids to go down this path. Living in that spotlight is incredibly hard when you never asked for it and you’re working non-stop trying to build a company at break-neck speed. I’ve seen the toll it takes on them, and there’s a lot of injustice in how they get built up, then brutally torn down, when really, they’re just trying to build something they believe in.

RaceTalk: Some Silicon Valley start-ups have been extremely successful, but still haven’t figured out a great model for making money (Facebook, YouTube). Do you think they’ll overcome this issue, or might it turn into a major problem down the road?

SL: Both. In every wave of Silicon Valley there are a ton of ideas and a subset of those turn into products, a subset of those turn into good products, and still another subset of those ever figure out how to make money. Only a handful ever become big multi-billion dollar powerhouses. So, there will be a ton of failure and a ton of sub-$100 million deals. But I have no doubt a select few will crack the code. If you look at all the usage data, it’s simply too big an opportunity. And remember: This is not 1999. Many of these companies are making hundreds of millions of dollars already and they haven’t even really rolled out their killer business model yet, linkedin, facebook, myspace among them.

You’re one of the more visible journalists in today’s world, as you’re using many different outlets to communicate with your readers (BusinessWeek, Tech Ticker, Twitter, your blog). Is there a particular means of communication that you enjoy most?

SL: Well you left out my book, which as a writer was my favorite! It’s rare in today’s media world that you really get the luxery to take so much time with one thing. But it’s not a great mass communication tool obviously because the process takes so long and book conversion is still way too hard.

So, right now I’m pretty high on Twitter. All social networks pull these levers that affect us in human ways—that’s what makes them so addictive. One of those levers is human connection and you can forge deeper, more intimate connections on Twitter than anything else. It’s also a way I can alert my audience to all of the things I’m doing, so it feeds all the other ones you mention. It was absolutely indispensable in planning my book tour.

RaceTalk: Clearly you’ve been focusing a lot on stories coming out of Silicon Valley, but is there another area that you’re interested in covering more in the future?

SL: I actually started covering venture capital and startups in the late 1990s as an outsider in the South. I was so captivated by it that I had to move to Silicon Valley to really study it. I’ve spent about 10 years doing that—close up and from every angle. I have no plans to abandon the Valley, and expect that San Francisco will always be my home, but I’m fascinated with taking that insight and going back into the rest of the world now, and studying other areas as deeply. I’m lucky that I work for myself (and just contract to Yahoo, BW etc) so I have some flexibility, really for the first time in my career. I think we’re at a crossroads when it comes to Web innovation and I want to see where else it’s happening, and how it’s taking on different forms.

RaceTalk: I hear you’re going to be taking some time off next year to work on your next book. Can you give us a teaser about what this one will be about?

SL: Why Ben, who’s the reporter now? :-) If it’s next year it’ll be very late next year. I have a two-year contract with TechTicker that runs through Nov. 2009, and I really love working there and definitely plan on honoring that. After that we’ll see! But I do absolutely know what my next book will be about and I’m subtly gathering string on it, thinking about it all the time. It’s definitely not a sequel, but it’s similarly something I’m uniquely qualified to write. Mostly because I’m insane! It’s a very ambitious project.

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