Golfers in Silicon Valley and other places are storing their clubs in favor of new lives as adventure capitalists. Although golf and business have been synonymous for decades, it is being challenged by adventure sports like bicycling and wind surfing.
Although golf first appeared in the United States in the late 18th century, it took another hundred years to become truly popular. Since then, hundreds of billions of dollars in petroleum, medical, automotive and other deals have been sealed within the cloisters of the United States’ 4,415 private country clubs.
Yet one of the strongest sectors in the U.S. economy – high technology – does not fit naturally into golf’s placid, exclusive image. The non-traditional workplaces of Silicon Valley and Boulder are more flat than vertical, and this plays naturally to intense adventure sports like snowboarding or open-sea distance swimming.
Long the epitome of genteel leisure and social stratification, golf also now represents an old guard, at least in the tech world. English poet William Wordsworth described golf as “a day spent in a round of strenuous idleness.”
On the other hand, cycling and other adventure sports are hard physical work, often easily accessible, and embody vibrant health. So their popularity in high tech meccas are no wonder, where risk-addicted entrepreneurs and their youthful workforces spend disposable incomes on toys to help work off long hours on the job.
Zachary A. Nelson, chief executive of California software company NetSuite, spends his precious leisure time diving for abalone. He noted that companies in Silicon Valley are driven by the personality of the person at top, so employees naturally emulate that person. Indeed, Mr. Nelson’s vice-president of sales has become an abalone diving addict.
The tech world is deluged with high-achievers, and bicycling fits the personality type. Membership in Silicon Valley’s Webcor/Alto Velo Bicycle Racing Club has recently swelled to almost 400. A penetrating chill recently challenged members on a 50-mile ride along Northern California’s coast, from Los Altos to Pescadero.
“If you’re sitting around the boardroom, around the table, it’s all stiff,” said Scott Milener, 38, a founder of Internet company Browster. He reports having had a number of business discussions with venture capitalists (VCs) and board members along rugged mountain biking trails in the Santa Cruz Mountains. “As soon as you’re out mountain biking together, you’re bonding in a way that you just can’t do otherwise. You’re sharing a skill. You’re sharing pain,” he said.
Everyone is a potential cyclist, but learning golf is a long-term commitment. “It’s easier to take up cycling than it is golf,” said Trevor Rebello, Marketing Manager for South Africa’s The Pro Shop.
Stephen Reardon, CEO of MoreCycle agrees. “Everyone is a potential cyclist,” he said. “With golf, you can play for years with little guarantee that your game will improve. Put someone on a bike and they will lose weight and improve their cycling rapidly.”
Reardon points out that the more one cycles, the better a cyclist they are likely to become. “This is not necessarily true of golf, which has a steep learning curve that people find threatening, especially if they are taking it up later in life,” he said.
Bicycling may be a great equalizer for adventure capitalists in Silicon Valley, but some social stratification does exist, at least amongst skiers. It is known, for instance, that the majority confine their exertions to Lake Tahoe. But Mark Pincus, a founder of the social networking company Tribe.net in San Francisco, said Sun Valley is where “normal” VC’s go but Aspen is for the “uber” guys.
Rigorous sports are a social outlet and an opportunity to make and strengthen business contacts, spend time with the boss and even get deals finalized, but it’s not entirely about testosterone. Women are also in on the fun. Heidi Roizen, a managing director of Mobius Venture Capital, says that hiking is a great time to connect without all the interruptions and that she has been pitched while out on the Dish, a trail near Stanford.
Zachary Nelson of NetSuite says that people in his business expect “extreme success” in their career and that that drive spills into personal lives. Going home for him is not about sitting on the couch but continuing to “push it.”
Golf may no longer be the de rigueur away-from-the-office activity, but it is not dead. In 2008, 29 million golfers supported the United States’ $76 billion dollar golf industry. On the other hand, sales of new bicycles to Silicon Valley adventure capitalists (and others) were calculated at $6.1 billion in 2012. Unit sales have been stable at 15 to 20 million for many years. Cycling may be a lubricant to the wheels of American industry, but as a recreational activity it is only seventh in popularity in the U.S. behind bowling.
By Gregory Baskin