What I Know Now

Of course, like every business owner, you make choices. There's the road taken. There's the road not taken. And sometimes, maybe too often, there's the road you had no intention of getting on but somehow ended up traveling anyway. That's the one Denver Hopkins went down. What's surprising is how he found his way back.

Hopkins, a lanky preacher's son, used to be a technology strategist at Compaq who explored caves in his spare time. His job at Compaq, in Houston, called for him to read journals, attend conferences, and form pictures of the future for various divisions of the hardware giant. Then he'd present the division in question with a five-year plan based on those pictures. Someone else had to come up with the money to fund the plans, and someone else had to implement them. "I thought it was the best job in the world," says Hopkins, who's now 35.

He also thought, "Why not do this on my own and have more time for spelunking?" So in 1996 he sacked his 401(k) and left Compaq to launch ThoughtFarm, a technology consulting company. And ThoughtFarm was a success. At first.

Almost immediately after starting the business, Hopkins found himself carrying out the plans he had thought up for his clients -- exactly what he did not want to do. But that was the way it seemed to work in the real world. And even in the not-always-ideal real world, he initially found the lifestyle freedom he'd sought from the start. When ThoughtFarm launched its first E-commerce site for a client, Hopkins took a laptop with him on a caving trip in the Lincoln National Forest, in New Mexico. To take the E-commerce site live, he flipped the switch using a cellular data connection on his laptop, "just to show I could do it." Just to show he could run a company built on ideas and simultaneously enjoy the way of life he loved.

ThoughtFarm made money right away. Each year its revenue more than doubled. And Hopkins got caught up in it, in the whole entrepreneurial thing; soon he was borrowing money to expand the business. He signed personal guarantees for all his bank loans. In 1998 payroll tripled in four months in Houston alone. "Suddenly, the stakes got very high," he says. "I was deeply, personally, in debt. And I went from being a willing risk taker to being risk averse. I lost all ability to be objective. At that point it became my sole aim not to make a mistake."

By the end of 1998 Hopkins felt as though he couldn't leave his office because there was so much to do. But he couldn't give up his dream life, either. He had made commitments to help map new caves, and this is how he kept them: He'd work, then drive for 12 hours, then pothole for 26 hours, then drive back for 12 more hours and start working again. At no time did he sleep.

By then ThoughtFarm wasn't making money anymore, and Hopkins could feel his own behavior changing. "When things were going great," he says, "I wanted to be out front. When things got complicated and risky, when they started sliding a bit, I retreated inside the office trying to 'fix it.'

"I identified myself so much with the business, the suffering and the failure, that I didn't know how I could stand up in front of anybody and feel I had any credibility. I was personally wrecked. I was despondent."

For the next three years Hopkins struggled to keep ThoughtFarm going. "I couldn't figure out what was wrong," he says. "Everything I tried didn't work." He'd always run an open-book company, and by the end of the summer of 2001, his employees could see for themselves that ThoughtFarm was dying.

Still, many of them wanted to stay, and did stay -- without pay -- out of devotion to their chief. But Hopkins knew that that wasn't a healthy way to run a company. And he knew that only he could make it right. All along during the troubles, he'd been flinching, bracing himself for some big explosion, some announcement from a disembodied voice telling him, "Your company is dead." But that's not how it happens, he finally realized. "That black line I'd been looking for? That 'You can breathe now, go get a good job' line? It never comes," Hopkins says. "I have to draw that line. It comes from me."

He had to cut staff. So he had what he calls a "come-to-Jesus meeting." The employees asked, "Are you telling us to leave?" And he said, "For your own sake, yes, please go get yourself a good job. You deserve it." Two of them simply refused.

After that, for a couple of months in the fall of 2001, Hopkins was confused. He thought about what his next move should be -- maybe starting another kind of business. Then he looked around and realized that what he wanted was right in front of him. ThoughtFarm, his original little company, was back. Two employees. No overhead. A few projects left on the books. Cheap outsourced coders in Bangalore. Now, after building a success only to watch it come apart and to lose touch with himself in the process, Hopkins had recovered what he'd been after in the first place.

He broke the lease on his building, which meant he could work from a laptop in the park. Now Hopkins goes to conferences. He absorbs trends and concocts ideas about the future of technology and how it will affect business. Just like old times.

Well, almost. It's like old times but with new wisdom. Hopkins can't even say for sure that he'll keep ThoughtFarm small in the long run, but he likes that it's stable right now; it's what he needs.

The stability gives him time to reflect. He thinks about what happened, about the choices he made. And about what he's learned. For one thing, he thinks he should have hired professional managers to run the company and stuck strictly to the visionary stuff himself. That might have forestalled his disaster.

But he also believes he couldn't have found what he wanted if he hadn't screwed up ThoughtFarm so royally. "When I don't want to see something, I will not see it until there is no other option, until it's painfully, completely obvious," he says. "Every other excuse had to be stripped away to have me sit down and evaluate what was really valuable to me." So this time around he's making different choices. Instead of spelunking on his own, he goes sailing with his wife and kids.

"When I think about what I've learned, it's what I keep trying to remind myself: that this is it," Hopkins says. "This is your life."

Jill Hecht Maxwell is a former staff writer at Inc.

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