Brian Jersey had it all. A rising young executive, Jersey was the director of marketing for Prodigy Internet in White Plains, New York. There he had his own secretary and oversaw a $40 million budget, two ad agencies and a staff of seven. And he had the kind of salary and bonus package that came with the job-circa 1995, that is, before Internet option mania took hold of the country.
Call it the inexplicable entrepreneurial spirit, but Jersey, now 39, chucked it-job security and all-in 1996 to start 1-800 BIRTHDAY, a reminder service that would also sell gifts. Jersey felt that 1-800 BIRTHDAY had the same potential as 1-800-FLOWERS, except in a niche that had yet to be exploited.
Jersey says he was confident he could make a go of the venture. So confident, in fact, that he took a 50 percent pay cut (to $84,000)-funded by his initial investors-to get the business off the ground. "It was a dicey move," he says. "My son was just two months old when I started the business, I was still paying off graduate-school loans. Despite my enthusiasm, I just knew that the $300,000 I'd raised from the initial investors would never be enough to get the business to the finish line."
Jersey's first effort was substantial enough, however, to get investors to take 1-800 BIRTHDAY's business model seriously and throw in another $1.1 million in 1997.
But that wasn't quite enough, and without plenty of capital for marketing, the company ran low on funds, and things started looking grim. Nonetheless, Jersey personally guaranteed a $100,000 loan, ran up $50,000 of expenses on his personal credit card and began deferring his $84,000 salary. In short, Jersey put himself in a position where he had a lot to lose-and the only way out was to succeed.