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Here's why the same Internet forces that boosted Eric Silberman's start-up are now pressing him to fill his own job as CEO of Idiom Technologies.
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The same Internet-era forces that have boosted a young CEO's start-up are now pressing him to find a seasoned manager to fill his own job. The hunt could turn his hair gray

To staff the Internet company he started last year while a senior at Harvard, Eric Silberstein has been working every angle. Some of his recruits were top students from his classes. One hire responded to his Internet bulletin-board job posting. One was a high school chum, interviewed by E-mail. A board member recommended another. And Silberstein snagged yet another Harvard classmate as an employee while at a restaurant with his parents.

After almost two years his Internet start-up, Idiom Technologies Inc., now employs more than two dozen people. Silberstein must be choosing wisely: Idiom is basking in high-powered venture capital, landing big-ticket customers, and spawning serious talk of an initial public offering. Now it's looking to hire another dozen people.

Unfortunately, the recruitment process hasn't been going well of late. There's one position in particular that CEO Silberstein is having a really tough time filling: his own.

Much has been made of the fact that the Internet has opened unprecedented opportunities for an army of first-time, barely postadolescent entrepreneurs who instinctively understand how to take advantage of the topsy-turvy forces of the on-line economy. Less celebrated is that the very same forces are also keeping many of those young hotshots from getting to spend much time at the helms of the businesses they're creating -- and aiming to take public. Just ask Yahoo cofounder Jerry Yang, to cite one conspicuous example of a tenderfoot who hired a veteran executive to run his company.

"Ninety-five percent of Internet start-up founders aren't going to get to take their companies to the next level," says Christopher Shea, a managing partner at executive-search firm Cross Hill Partners LLC, in Eastchester, N.Y. Not unless, Shea says, they install an experienced CEO "who can command confidence in the market."

The result, at least in the world of explosive-growth Internet start-ups, is that of all the jobs of the first-time entrepreneur, quickly bringing in a seasoned CEO has become perhaps the most important -- as well as the most difficult. At Idiom, the quest for a CEO is putting Silberstein and his cohorts to the test more than it is the people who are interviewing for the job.

At Idiom's offices, just a mile or so down the road from Harvard in Cambridge, Mass., Silberstein's fresh-faced, mainly T-shirted employees hop in and out of identical cubicles. The youthful workers dash off E-mail, polish up chunks of code, coalesce in informal meetings, or peel off to the Ping-Pong table, trying to climb to a higher rung in the game's hotly contested intracompany standings. The intensity doesn't slacken much in the evening -- it's not unusual for employees to sleep at the office -- and seven-day workweeks are so routine that the company paid about $10,000 this past summer to keep the air-conditioning on during the weekends.

Considering all that youthful energy, the place looks oddly bland and impersonal. The reason, says Susan Cheng, Idiom's 23-year-old cofounder and marketing vice-president, is that the company is relatively new to these pricey high-tech office-park digs, having moved here in May from Silberstein's two-bedroom apartment. "We need to take down the corporate feeling of these offices," she says, sighing. True, some cubicles display the flags of different countries, a decorative touch in accord with the company's global theme. It's hard to blame the employees for not putting more effort into dressing the place up; they've already just about outgrown it and have begun looking around for a larger space. But they'll make do for a few more months. After all, the VC money isn't infinite, merely very plentiful -- about $5.3 million so far.

Not bad, given that two years ago Idiom was a vague concept in Silberstein's head. Back then Silberstein, who speaks Mandarin Chinese, was spending the summer in Beijing helping Microsoft develop Chinese versions of its products. His work exposed him to the painstaking process of software "localization," in which teams of programmers, documentation writers, and translators send work back and forth for months to make everything consistent between the two languages. Meanwhile, his Chinese coworkers kept asking him to translate some of the idiomatic text they came across on U.S. Web sites. Silberstein realized that foreign-language versions of those Web sites would be warmly embraced. He also recognized that the time-consuming localization process wouldn't fill the bill for producing them because of frequent Web-site-information changes and the cultural peculiarities of different markets. The solution, he decided, could be a sophisticated service that included special software that would keep track of text and data changes to a United States­oriented site, strip the changes of the arcane coding by which Web pages are formatted, zap the code-free text to translators, and then re-embed the translated text into the appropriate spots on the overseas versions of the site.

Last updated: Nov 1, 1999

DAVID H. FREEDMAN: A Boston-based contributing editor, Freedman is the co-author of A Perfect Mess, which examines the useful role of disorder in daily life, business, and science.
@dhfreedman




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