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They Got Rich Off Uber and Lyft. Then They Moved to Low-Tax States.

AUSTIN, Tex. — Brian McMullen’s only plan on a Thursday afternoon in March was to watch as many college basketball games as possible. Parked inside his neighborhood bar and grill and eating brunch tacos, he followed one game on the restaurant’s TV screen while another streamed on his iPhone.

As the games played out, Mr. McMullen talked about his new life in Austin, Tex., where he had moved last October from San Francisco. Some of his biggest activities since then: reading the Harry Potter series for the first time and spending more than 100 hours completing “Dragon Quest,” a role-playing video game. He was also working out a lot, he said, and teaching himself a coding language to create his own games.

For his medium-term goals, Mr. McMullen said, he and his new wife had been planning to honeymoon in Japan for a month. But they decided to cut the trip short to fly to San Francisco to meet friends for the opening night of “Avengers: Endgame” in April, at one point discussing whether to rent out an entire showing. (They did not.)

“I’m currently taking time off for myself,” he said.

Mr. McMullen, 33, is part of an exclusive club: the semiretired tech millennial who left California after getting rich. Like many in this group, he is a newly minted multimillionaire who became wealthy by working for high-profile San Francisco start-ups like Uber and Lyft, which are now about to go or have just gone public. Once their wealth was assured, these tech workers quit the companies and fled California, which has the nation’s highest state income tax, at more than 13 percent, to reside in lower-tax states like Texas and Florida, where there is no personal state income tax.

“There are a number of places people could go where there’s tax benefits,” said Mr. McMullen, who joined Uber in 2011 and is tallied in the company’s system as employee No. 16. “The timing is good in terms of relocating prior to I.P.O.”

He ticked off Washington and Florida as places where people could have also saved on taxes. Uber employees who have decamped from San Francisco to Austin stay in touch through an email list called “Camp Austin”; they recently discussed visiting the rodeo, he said.

Brian McMullen, a former Uber employee, in 2011. “I’m currently taking time off for myself,” he said.CreditRobyn Twomey/Redux Pictures

In fleeing California, these millennial millionaires are following a well-worn tradition. Over the years, many who made a fortune off Silicon Valley skedaddled to lower-tax locations where they could better protect their wealth. After the late 1990s dot-com frenzy, Jim Clark, a founder of Netscape, relocated to Florida. Eduardo Saverin, a Facebook co-founder, departed the United States altogether: He moved to Singapore and gave up his American citizenship before the social network’s 2012 initial public offering.

J.T. Forbus, a tax manager at Bogdan & Frasco in San Francisco, said he has been fielding more questions from tech workers about how moving out of state could help sidestep high taxes, especially as their companies stampede toward the stock market. Many tech workers are compensated with stock, which is generally doled out over four years but can trigger a hefty tax bill when it “vests,” or is earned, and when it is sold.

“It seems to be a question that kind of pops up when an I.P.O. is happening and someone has substantial shares and could have millions of dollars coming their way,” Mr. Forbus said.

The sheltering move is well known by the California Franchise Tax Board, the state agency responsible for tax collection. In its guide for Californians who are compensated with equity and plan to move out of state, it walked people through various potential tax scenarios using low-tax states like Texas, Florida and Nevada as examples.

To avoid paying California taxes when they eventually sell their shares, residents truly have to move out of state. California imposes an income tax on shares vested in the state, but does not tax stock that is sold after someone moves away.

Some tech employees wrongly assume that simply setting up a P.O. box in another state will be enough to lower their tax bill, Mr. Forbus said. Others who choose to split their time between a low-tax state and Silicon Valley end up keeping detailed calendars and flight logs, in case they have to prove their whereabouts during an audit. Mr. Forbus said he has ended up advising some techies to leave California to decrease their tax bill, such as one couple who struggled to find a home in their preferred location within their $ 2.5 million price range.


Nathan Rodriguez, one of Lyft’s first 50 employees, last year traded San Francisco for Austin, Tex.CreditCayce Clifford for The New York Times

The New York Times recently interviewed seven former Uber and Lyft employees who moved to lower-tax locales. Some declined to speak on the record, citing concerns that talking frankly about their finances would hurt their chances with future tech employers, or make them audit targets. (Uber and Lyft declined to comment.)

Many argued that their primary motivation for leaving was a disillusionment with tech-obsessed San Francisco, and that taxes were not their main concern. Still, none had chosen to move to a high-tax jurisdiction like New York or Massachusetts. In a recent study of California tax data, Stanford University researchers found that high tax rates alone do not cause millionaires to leave the state, and that migration increases during stressful lifestyle changes.

Most of the people The Times spoke to were putting their new wealth to use, buying houses and planning vacations. Several had made vanity purchases, such as Teslas. One had acquired an artsy dance hall in Texas as a residence, which included a bathtub in the middle of a bedroom. Most were taking long sabbaticals from work and experimenting with new diets, exercise and meditation. A few had launched their own start-ups.

“It’s almost a new generation of millennial retirement,” said Tyler Mann, 31, who worked at file-hosting service Dropbox and made several hundred thousand dollars from the company, which went public last year. He moved to Austin 18 months ago and has since founded his own start-up.

Many tech millennial millionaires said they were relieved to be out of San Francisco, which has gotten increasingly expensive, crowded and filled with carbon-copy tech bros who drone on about their start-ups. They talked about how they were resetting their lives, how stressed they had been in tech and how they were getting over burnout. They talked about the tech parties they had attended and complained that the celebrations revolved around work.

“It got monotonous,” said Nathan Rodriguez, 30, one of Lyft’s first 50 employees, who last year traded San Francisco for Austin. “I got tired of the keeping-up-with-the-Joneses feeling you have in that kind of environment.”


Some millennial tech workers have moved to low-tax Austin after getting rich in California.CreditTamir Kalifa for The New York Times

Mr. Rodriguez left Lyft in 2017 after working there for four years, during which the company’s valuation shot up more than 38,200 percent. He then took 10 months off work and went on cross-country road trips. He said he made less than $ 1 million from Lyft and briefly became a cryptocurrency millionaire before the crypto market crashed in early 2018. He recently joined a start-up in Austin because, he said, he liked the feeling of having a big impact at a small company, and because he has hefty medical bills to pay after a bike accident.

Mr. McMullen, a Northern California native, moved to San Francisco eight years ago from the coastal town of San Luis Obispo, Calif., when a then tiny start-up called Uber offered him a job in marketing. He had been working at an Apple Store. His co-workers warned him that start-ups often tank and urged him to stick with his stable job and benefits.

Mr. McMullen said he didn’t listen because he wanted to move to San Francisco. “There was a romantic notion of what San Francisco was,” he said.

At the time, Uber was only in a few markets and about to launch its ride-hailing service in New York. The company was valued at $ 60 million by private investors. Its employees were given relatively low salaries and incentivized with generous stock options.

Mr. McMullen became an Uber community manager, a role that involved promoting Uber to riders and drivers in San Francisco with promo codes and other tactics. He later became a brand strategist, planning marketing campaigns and establishing a voice for the company.

Uber quickly ballooned into a behemoth. Its imminent public offering could bring a valuation of around $ 86 billion, meaning that the company and the stock options it issued to early employees like Mr. McMullen would likely have increased in value by more than 140,000 percent.


Uber’s I.P.O. could bring a valuation of around $ 86 billion. That means the company — and the stock options it issued to early employees — have likely increased in value by more than 140,000 percent since 2011.CreditRyan Young for The New York Times

Along the way, Mr. McMullen cashed out some of his Uber shares when the company let employees sell their stock to private investors. After working at Uber for so long, he said, he was motivated to leave and go somewhere he could have a bigger impact.

“I wasn’t really feeling like I had the same role in contributing as in earlier, smaller Uber,” he said, adding that the growth of the company paralleled San Francisco’s transformation into “a homogeneous tech city.”

Although Mr. McMullen has now not worked for seven months and jokes with friends about being semiretired, he said he plans to work again.

“The idea of retirement as sitting on a sandy beach somewhere, I don’t think is on any millennial’s mind,” he said. Instead, he added, his generation is focused on seeking fulfillment, searching for the kind of career that doesn’t feel like work. His goal was to “realign life,” he said.

Before leaving San Francisco, Mr. McMullen had drinks with another former Uber employee — Alex Priest, 30, who had also become a millionaire from working at the company. As the two caught up, they discovered that they had both decided to move to Texas.

“Ninety-five percent of our conversations up to that point would be talk about the weather for five minutes and then talk about Uber for three hours,” Mr. Priest said. “This was the first conversation we’d had where we talked about Uber for five seconds and then our lives for three hours.”

Last May, Mr. McMullen purchased a San Francisco home for $ 1.9 million; he said the property was an investment. In Austin, where his wife has family, he also bought a home, which Zillow lists as sold for $ 620,000. It is in a rapidly growing neighborhood where small ranch-style homes are being replaced with multistory condos, packed two per lot.

Last month, Mr. McMullen was back in San Francisco to watch “Avengers: Endgame.” He said he saw it three times in three days with different groups of friends. Each showing fulfilled his expectations, he said.

But being back in San Francisco reminded him of why he had left and made him excited to return to Texas. “Maybe we don’t want to be there our entire lives,” he said of Austin. Still, he said, it felt like a good start.

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