From the February 2000 issue of Startups

I'm alone in my tiny studio apartment, iMac glowing, fingers on autopilot on the keyboard, dark circles under my eyes, spreadsheets and diagrams strewn across my makeshift desk, open Advil bottle at my side. I'm doing it again. Wasn't once enough? Everyone I know thinks I'm either absolutely crazy or incredibly brave. I think I'm a little bit of both. I'm Aliza Sherman, and I'm an entrepreneurship-a-holic, about to start Business No. 2.

Well, I'm not entirely alone. Thousands of businesses are starting up in apartments, garages and basements as you read this. Can't you smell the angst; can't you feel the pain?

My addiction to sweat equity began in 1994 at the wrong end of a 9 mm gun. True story: My friend and I were held up at gunpoint and kidnapped in Manhattan. We managed to escape, and I fled the city to spend a few months regrouping in Santa Fe, New Mexico. While there, I answered an ad about the "World Wide Web" and took a one-hour, $10 class in HTML.

I returned to New York City with an idea: to start a business combining my marketing background and secret Internet hobby. (I had been online since 1989, after I bought a computer to type manuscripts because I wanted to be a published writer, but that's another story.) My other thought was, "I don't think I can work for someone else anymore. I need to follow my own vision." Maybe my near-death experience affected my perception of work and how I was spending every waking moment. Maybe it was just my time to become an entrepreneur.

The first thing I did was select a name for my emerging Internet marketing company: "Global Link." I quickly discovered a very large telecommunications firm had the same name. Oops. At least I hadn't spent too much money on business cards. Lesson learned: Do a trademark search for your company name.

My strategy was to build a personal Web site to use as my portfolio, then call everyone I'd ever met at my previous jobs in the music business and the nonprofit sector. I still needed a company name, and it came as I prepared my site for its 1995 debut. I decided not to put a photo of myself on it; instead, I drew a cartoon character of myself, added a hot pink cape and a gold "CG" emblazoned across her chest, and voila! Cybergrrl was born! ("Cyber" from William Gibson's sci-fi novel Neuromancer; "grrl" because "girl" sounded too young.)

But I didn't use Cybergrrl Inc. as my company name at first. I was afraid I wouldn't be taken seriously, especially by men, so I used CG Internet Media. Eventually, people started asking what CG stood for, and once they found out, they began calling me Cybergrrl. Lesson learned: the power of a good brand.

After cold-calling people who had never even heard of the Internet, I finally landed a few meetings. Armed with hot pink business cards I had made myself, plus an entire computer--CPU, monitor and all--I walked into offices ready to bring the world online.

I secured my first client through a connection at a nonprofit organization. That led to my next client, which led to my next. Lesson learned: the power of networking.

By this time, I had an intern working in my apartment and needed another, but there was no room for three. So I turned to a friend--the one who was held up at gunpoint with me. He came aboard and helped me move into a modest office space. We both maxed out our plastic to buy office gear (copy machine, fax machine) and a Web server. Lesson learned: Find friends with deep pockets.

Ironically, the office and most of the furnishings came from a small Internet company that was going out of business. Without that easy entry, I'm not sure I would have had the courage to take the office-space plunge. Then again, after staring down the barrel of a gun, it was a piece of cake!

Stay tuned for the continuing saga of "Been There." Next month: How to Be a Real Business (Or Just Look Like One).


Aliza Sherman is an entrepreneur and author of the book Cybergrrl: A Woman's Guide to the World Wide Web (Ballantine Books, $12, 800-726-0600). She is currently working on her next book and new company.