Inc. 500 company founder Doug Mellinger had it all. At age 33, he took his business public and got rich. Just 19 months later, his company's stock price was under water, and he was out of a job

The facts, as they say, are not in dispute. In January 1998, Doug Mellinger's face graced the cover of this magazine. Over his picture ran the headline "The Next Bill Gates." Mellinger's custom-software-programming business, PRT Group Inc., had staged a successful initial public offering a month earlier, and in the first two months of 1998 the company's stock was on the rise.

In a nice touch, it rose not in the way the share prices of those unfathomable Internet juggernauts can, but in a way that seemed healthier. It climbed sensibly, sanely, reaffirming the belief of PRT's managers that Yes, this is no fad here. This is a true reflection of our worth. From a low of $10 on January 13, PRT went to a high of $21.63 on February 26. Mellinger's stock alone was worth $44 million. The stock held by members of his family amounted to $112 million more. The dream was coming true. Doug Mellinger -- who eight years before, with $12,000 in capital, had launched PRT as a little rent-a-programmer business -- was now 33 and rich and a star. It appeared he could do no wrong.

Then things got different.

Over the next year and a half, PRT topped its 1997 sales levels (going from $60 million in 1997 to $85 million in 1998) but made no money -- though it had promised Wall Street that it would. Its signature operation, the enchantingly unprecedented "near-shore" software-development center on the island of Barbados, shrank from 360 employees to 80 and bled cash. PRT's stock crashed to $2, less than a tenth of its peak value. And on June 30, 1999, the company announced that Mellinger's handpicked second-in-command, who'd been on the job only a month and a half, was now the new CEO. Mellinger -- the wunderkind founder -- was out.

Those are the facts; from here the story gets stickier. What went wrong at PRT? How did so promising an enterprise -- with a world-class board of directors, blue-blooded partners-cum-customers, and a record of unbroken growth -- reverse direction so completely? What lessons can we find in the fall of a once triumphant entrepreneur?

The answers won't come from PRT's current or former leaders. Mellinger cooperated only minimally with the reporting for this article. At press time PRT's new CEO, Dan Woodward, had declined to comment. (Both cited an ongoing shareholder lawsuit as reason enough not to talk.) Mellinger and other PRT representatives lobbied to have Inc.'s coverage of the company delayed until after the turnaround tactics now being implemented there had a chance to take effect. "They [Woodward and Mellinger] want to put the past behind them and concentrate on the future -- they just want to move on so badly," PRT's media liaison reported. Said a chastened Mellinger, explaining why he couldn't offer a postmortem just yet: "I can't wait to talk about all the lessons learned, because I think they're phenomenal. I just want to get it [the article] timed out correctly, so we don't have any negative consequences."

But at least two things about Mellinger's tailspin make his story worth telling right now, even if he and Woodward -- the men in the cockpit -- aren't yet ready to surrender the black box. One is how fast it all happened, how seemingly without warning. The other is how bracingly it reminds us that the IPO, that lusted-after rite of passage, has an underbelly -- a vastly more common flip side. And it's dark.

Imagine it: for Mellinger, the tumble from IPO to exile took barely 19 months -- less time than it takes to, say, complete an M.B.A. There he was, with wealth and acclaim and a future promising only more of both, and then, just 19 months later, everything had changed. And as for the sweetness of post-IPO managerial life, consider that of the 248 companies that launched IPOs in the first half of 1998, 145 of them ended the year below their offering price -- this in a year when the Nasdaq composite index rose 39.63%. There are no statistics on how many CEOs are dethroned after an IPO, how many whole management teams are erased, but no one considers either scenario unusual -- especially today, when companies that miss earnings estimates by even a penny are punished by Wall Street more brutally and swiftly than ever.

True, there are the crazy-IPO examples of Netscape and eBay and and more. But those are the exceptions. When you dream of your own young company's future -- your own rocket ride of an IPO -- and think that you, too, will be an exception, remember the numbers, the percentages, the odds. Remember Doug Mellinger.