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Clueless

A business journalist describes how he thought he was an expert on start-up companies--until he went to work for one. He learned of the unforeseen roles each person must fill to keep it all running.
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Confessions

Our reporter, a longtime business journalist, literally wrote the book on start-ups--and then he went to work for one. Oops

It's not as if i didn't know my way around start-ups. I wrote a book about the subject ( Sweat Equity), created the Start-up column for Inc. a decade ago, and from time to time got paid serious money to speak about the subject. When it came to start-ups, I was an expert; it said so right on the jacket flaps of my books. So, when I suddenly had the chance to actually work for a start-up, I thought I knew what I was walking into.

I didn't.

Take my first real meeting. After being hired by Mentum Corp., a Hartford company that invented a software program to customize personal financial planning, I went home and created an investment guide that customers will receive as part of the package's $75 purchase price. The day I delivered it, everyone at the company--seven people at the time--gathered around the battered, secondhand table in the conference room to take a look. That was great, but I had only two copies.

"Let me go run off a few," I said.

"Do you know where you're going?" someone asked. Though founder Brian Hollander had rented a full floor of office space for the company, there still wasn't all that much equipment about.

"I'll find it," I said.

People were polite enough not to giggle. It turned out that the copier was three blocks away--at Kinko's. No one had had enough time to go buy one.

Should I have expected that? Maybe. But resources inside a start-up were not something I'd ever paid any attention to. I just assumed they'd always be there, like colleagues. I was wrong about that, too.

Yes, I know people are the most important part of any company. And I knew that we were shorthanded. But I didn't think I'd be sitting in on a series of interviews every time a candidate survived an initial screening. Devoting two hours a day to interviewing came as a major surprise.

As did my job description.

I thought I'd been hired to make sure the advice we offered was correct and easy to understand. But that, it turns out, is the task that's taken the least of my time.

In a small company, everyone gets a say about everything, and Lord knows, I never have a shortage of opinions. I'd volunteer my thoughts on everything from how our Web site should look to how we might raise money. Hollander would listen attentively and say, "That's great. Go do it."

"Huh?" I'd respond brightly.

"It's a really interesting idea. Go make it happen."

"But I don't know anything about that."

"Neither does anyone else, and you think it's a good idea. Go."

And so I started talking to potential investors, putting together a marketing plan, creating Web pages--just three of the many areas in which I had zero experience.

That approach has led to some interesting days. Yesterday, for instance, I edited copy for a while. Then I took part in a two-hour discussion with two of the many venture capitalists who have trooped through the door. (These VCs thought we should abandon all plans to private-label our product for banks and brokerage services. I told the men in the very nice suits they were nuts; we need all the paying customers we can get.) I got called out of that meeting to become part of a prolonged discussion about what our second product should look like. (It will deal with retirement planning.) And following that was an impromptu meeting to decide which paper stock we should use for the plans we send to customers.

Then it was time for lunch--which was 18 minutes long and spent huddled over the various bugs I had unwittingly introduced into our computer system.

Not surprisingly, all this frenetic activity has led to some long days. No one comes in much after 8, and quitting time is somewhere around 9 p.m.--if things have gone smoothly during the day, which they rarely do. Getting--or leaving--voice mail that is time-stamped between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. is common.

Am I complaining? Well, no. I wish I didn't know where every fast-food restaurant within a mile of the office was located, and chain-guzzling Diet Cokes all day can't be good for me, but with those exceptions, I have no gripes.

For one thing, I'm learning a lot. (While I'm no Webmaster, I can now talk hot links with the best of them.) And excuse the commercial, but I honestly can say that our product, which is finally done, is great. (Call us at 860-570-0257 and I'll get you a demo copy. Cell calls from potential investors get first priority.)

But none of that is what my friends and former colleagues really want to know. Their question is always, "So what's it like actually being part of a start-up after writing about them forever?"

My standard answer deals with all the things I didn't expect. I talk about how everything takes three times longer than planned, the stupidity of investors who don't understand what a great idea we have, and how I wish I had a couple of hours in the week to do something in addition to the job.

But I also have another answer, one that explains why so many people are willing to create a business or work at one that's just started. The explanation arrived via Hollander, who like every other person at Mentum had been making a lot more money before coming to work in a building where the heat and air-conditioning don't always function and that's located in a section of town where it's best to escort women to their cars after 6 p.m.

The explanation surfaced late on a Friday night. We had just finished a major revision to the computer system, one that had had people putting in 14- to 16-hour days for more than two weeks straight--weekends included--so that we could meet a customer's arbitrary deadline.

Everyone had gone home but Hollander and me. "It's really amazing," he said, putting his feet up on the conference table. "Every single person here can look at what Mentum accomplished over the last two weeks and say, 'They couldn't have done it without me.' And you know what? They'd be absolutely right. Every person made an amazing contribution."

I've worked at a lot of companies. I dare any CEO of a large company to say what Hollander did.

Feeling that kind of accomplishment from working at a company is something I didn't expect, either.

Paul B. Brown was formerly a senior writer and columnist at Inc.

Last updated: May 15, 1998

PAUL B. BROWN | Columnist

Best-selling author (and Inc. magazine columnist) Paul B. Brown's latest book, Own Your Future, has just been published. Brown's blog appears every Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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