I've Got Mail
Readers comfort a once and future CEO with empathy and job offers
Don Quixote has always been my favorite book, and now I know why. The Man of La Mancha is the epitome of an entrepreneur: he's obsessed with adventure, and everyone he meets thinks he's crazy. My favorite bit of business occurs in part two of the novel, when the knight-errant wanna-be and his reluctant squire, Sancho Panza, encounter characters who already know their story because they happen to have read part one. I've been feeling especially Don-like of late, thanks to the cascade of E-mail I've received in response to my December 2000 column about leaving Qbiquity, the Internet start-up formerly known as Gazooba.
Like the townsfolk of La Mancha, many of my correspondents know me from part one of my entrepreneurial saga and are eager to join me for part two. Specifically, these readers are starting (or thinking about starting) companies of their own, and they want your humble scribe at their sides. Each time I check my E-mail, I find another deposit of impossible dreams: rough business plans, tantalizingly vague allusions to untapped $20-billion markets, descriptions of opportunities with attachments that are labeled things like NonDisclosureAgmt.doc.
Most of the opportunities fall -- not surprisingly -- into the Internet and high-tech categories. They include sites and services for such industries as health care, travel, advertising, real estate, banking, and entertainment. Several vendors of specialty foods also are seeking my expertise, presumably because I mention eating in so many of my columns. One gentleman solicited my interest in marketing a new kind of condom.
Two of my favorite offers were from companies that had nothing whatsoever to do with the Internet. The first came from Hallie Warshaw, founder of Orange Avenue Inc., a children's book producer in San Francisco. "Have you ever thought of writing for children on a freelance basis?" Hallie inquired. "The name Gazooba sounds so Dr. Seuss-ish, I thought you might have some other strange ideas. The pay is not great, but we have fun, and you get to play with lots of toys." It was a job description after my own heart, and I immediately imagined myself in a Cat in the Hat chapeau autographing books for the stroller brigade at Barnes & Noble.
But then I double-clicked on the note from Dennis Sullivan, president of Global Crisis Control International Inc. "When you're done 'wallowing in nostalgia,' go see the movie Proof of Life," advised Dennis. "If you're inspired, consider getting into a whole new endeavor -- pulling people out of crisis situations. True, flying into a war-torn country to evacuate 200 tourists may not quite measure up to Silicon Valley, but we get our share of excitement."
For one shining moment I believed I was destined to parlay my online marketing experience into a glorious career rescuing retired Long Island couples from safari mishaps. I was halfway through a letter to the editors of Soldier of Fortune magazine soliciting their interest in a column called "E-vacuation Diaries" when I was forced to admit that it wasn't really me.
More familiar were the many, many letters from entrepreneurs who saw in my experiences a kind of fun-house reflection of their own. Some responses reassured me. "I have found myself in your shoes many times," wrote Marc Didier of 1-0-X Corp. "It gets better every time on the next deal. You will look back at this experience as a stepping-stone for your next venture." Others sought reassurance from me. "Thanks for giving me a glimpse of what it might be like when it's my time to go," said one respondent. "I've been wondering about it for some time. I'm sure my experience will be different from yours, but at least I know there are others who have gone through the same thing."
A few letters related experiences far more painful than my own. A California woman said she left the company she had started with three friends after lingering too long out of concern for her employees (the business equivalent of staying in a bad marriage for the sake of the children). The tale she told was a dot-com version of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, punctuated by the harsh lessons she had learned. Among them: "Be in control of the money. Don't be a business partner with an alcoholic. Know when it is time to leave the company, and do it."
Her biggest regret, my correspondent confided, was that "one of my buddies is no longer my friend." That one really struck a chord. I thought gratefully of Zen and Shanti, my cofounders at Gazooba and, I hope, friends for all eternity. So far we stay in touch with an every-other-Wednesday "founders lunch." You can't negotiate personal relationships as part of a severance package. But when you leave a company, those connections may be the most valuable assets you take with you.
My California correspondent was one of several people who claimed a kind of kinship with me. Dave Ficks of Boise, Idaho, was not among them. Dave wrote in response to my list of things that I loved doing as a start-up CEO -- stuff like taking an idea from concept to reality and selling it to customers. Thanks to that list, entrepreneurs can scratch Dave off their list of potential competitors. He wrote:
"I am 30, and for 15 years I have been convinced that someday I will have an idea that takes the world by storm. I've had some great ones, but I have never really done anything about them. I've always told myself that if an idea is good enough, it will create sufficient momentum to carry itself through to completion. My failure to follow through on an idea meant that it wasn't so great after all.
"Then I read your list, and I realized the TRUE reason I have never started a company. All those things you love doing, all those things that make it possible to successfully launch a small business, are things I wouldn't want to do. In fact, I would hate doing everything you love! Now that I realize that, I feel as though someone has lifted 100 pounds off my shoulders!
"I teach at a local university part-time; I do computer instruction part-time; and I spend more time at home with my kids than most dads do. And I love it! I think I'm finally done with the stress of trying to come up with the next big thing. And I have you to thank for it."
I'm happy to have contributed to Dave's peace of mind; he sounds wonderfully well adjusted. As for me, I'm afraid I identify more with another correspondent: a woman who was sadly bidding farewell to her once-beloved technology company. "I too have entrepreneurial blood in my veins and will seek other ventures after this one," she wrote.
So, I expect, will I. Like Sancho Panza, I have studied the risk/reward ratio, and I know that "out of a hundred adventures, ninety-nine usually turned out cross and crooked. ... [But] when all's said and done, it's a fine thing to be gadding about spying for chances ... with devil a maravedi to pay."
Fortunately, I still have a few maravedis in my bank account, thanks to my severance agreement. I'll tell you about my chances as I spy them.
Andrew Raskin, the cofounder of Gazooba Corp. (now Qbiquity Corp.), will be tilting at windmills until the right one comes along.
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