The Weekend Silicon Valley Stared Into the Abyss

5 days ago 39

On Friday, March 10, Mike Wheeler, president and chief legal officer of payroll startup Patriot Software, was on a five-day cruise off the coast of Florida celebrating his brother’s wedding. When he stepped ashore that morning for a brief stop in Key West, his cell service returned and he got a message from a representative of the company’s former bank: “You ready to move some $ out of Silicon Valley bank??? 😳”

Wheeler replied with a question mark. During the night, his company should have sent about $40 million in paychecks to fry cooks, librarians, and 46,000 other US workers via Silicon Valley Bank, or SVB. The banker sent back a screengrab of a stock chart showing that SVB’s shares had fallen nearly 90 percent while Wheeler was at sea. SVB was on the brink of collapse—and Wheeler, stuck on a ship—knew almost nothing of the crisis unfolding back on dry land.

Late Wednesday, SVB, famed for startup-friendly loans and great wine parties, had announced it would be raising extra cash after losing $1.8 billion on low-interest bonds. The news followed weeks of gossip about the bank’s health and triggered a full-pelt panic after its CEO botched a conference call aimed at assuaging customer fears. SVB clients had tried to pull out a combined $42 billion the day before Wheeler received his perplexing text message, regulators say, the biggest bank run in US history. The startup industry’s go-to bank had closed that day $958 million short on cash. Wheeler would soon learn that things had only gotten worse since then.

Friday, March 10

As Wheeler caught up with the news in Key West, he learned that SVB’s troubles affected not just Patriot, based in Canton, Ohio, but also the roughly 57,000 organizations for which it calculates and disburses wages and payroll taxes. SVB holds those funds in escrow in the days before they get sent to workers at 12:01 am on Fridays. The chaos unfolding at SVB had broken that system, Wheeler discovered as he started poring through delayed text messages. No one had been paid—not even Patriot’s own staff.

By that point, Allie Egan, founder and CEO of Veracity Selfcare in New York, had experienced a full 24 hours of panic. Venture capital firms including Andreessen Horowitz and Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund&nbsp...

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