From the February 2001 issue of Entrepreneur

You hear countless "happy" stories about single moms who've turned family recipes into multimillion-dollar businesses, or Disney and Microsoft dropouts who used their corporate training to turn themselves into Internet icons. It's no wonder there's been an entrepreneurial craze lately-creating and running successful companies looks so darned easy. Forget self-help books-entrepreneurial success stories are some of the most inspirational things in print today.

Glaringly absent from most of those cheery stories, however, are the mental stress of not knowing whether you'll have to steal that next roll of toilet paper from a public restroom because future income is so uncertain, the ill will of loved ones who didn't make your to-do list, and the recurring migraines from two hours of sleep per night and a diet of fast food and coffee. Instead, they're glossed over with a thick coat of "But now our sales are (insert commendable figure), and our client list is 100 strong." It's not just the media's fault. Getting a business off the ground is somewhat analogous to natural childbirth: The pain is so excruciating, you begin to doubt you'll make it through-you might even cry out "No more!" But when you're presented with that beautiful bundle, those tortured thoughts become sweet memories . . . most of the time.

One Entrepreneur's Experience

To acquaint new B school entrants with more than marketing and the bottom line, Babson College in Wellesley, Massachusetts, assigns Tom Ashbrook's book, The Leap: A Memoir of Love and Madness in the Internet Gold Rush (Houghton Mif-flin), in which Tom details the emotional toll of going from award-winning Boston Globe editor and family man to midlife Internet entrepreneur and absentee husband and father. This worldly man of the word, whose only association with technology was via word processing and research, had a dream of securing a stake in the new economy and intentions of improving life for wife Danielle and their three children. But sightless ambition nearly cost him his family.

In 1996, Tom and college buddy Rolly Rouse started an online home design company, HomePortfolio.com Inc., in Newton, Massachusetts. When venture capital for the company was finally secured, Tom resigned from the Boston Globe, making Danielle, with her job as dean of international students at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, the family's sole breadwinner.

Danielle, who describes herself as "risk-averse-the reluctant person who needs to see a month out," was the antithesis of Tom, a self-proclaimed "risk-taker and dreamer." But she tried her best to understand the immediacy of starting HomePortfolio: If Tom and Rouse didn't, someone else would. Practicality kept her worries close. "[Tom] was counting on me being supportive and going on blind faith, but this idea was just so unbelievable to me-that you would not only risk yourself but take your whole family along on the ride," she says. "While I admire dreamers, it's hard to relate to them because I'm so stuck on the ground paying for guitar lessons and getting kids signed up for camp. I also pay the bills, so I have a real sense of where the money goes, and the idea of it not coming in for a while was horrifying to me at the time." Tom and Danielle had known each other since high school, and Danielle was deeply committed, constantly recounting the "for better or for worse" part of the vows. Still, a savings account that dwindled to zero after the first year and a half of their start-up and Tom's unwillingness to budge on his dream built a wall of resentment. "To me, this was a do-or-die mission, and that was nauseating to [Danielle]," says Tom, 45. "When she wasn't immediately ready to share my awe and wonderment with the vision and celebrate our small victories with the same fervor, I took offense."

Alan Carsrud, senior lecturer in entrepreneurship at The Anderson School at the University of California, Los Angeles, and an expert on family and small business, isn't surprised. "You have to look at the entrepreneur's company as the other woman or other man," he says. "And don't assume this is only a male issue, although I think women are much more sensitive about balancing than men are."

It got to the point where sensitivity was a trait Danielle felt Tom no longer possessed. Four years ago, on Valentine's Day, Tom was relieved when Danielle went ahead with her yearly ritual of taping construction-paper Valentines to the bathroom mirror. Sentiments like "Roses are red, Violets are blue, I don't care about health plans, do you?" and "Even with no job, you'll still be a 'Steve Jobs' to me" pacified the tumult-for a few minutes. When Danielle questioned Tom's strategy for Home-Portfolio and life, he exploded into a defensive frenzy, explaining his need to be "ahead of the curve." By argument's end, after Danielle deemed Tom cruel and Tom admitted to having become "profane, heartless and brutal," sticky squares where the Valentines once resided summed up the state of the relationship.

Running A One-Man Show

After starting two companies before age 25, Jonah Steinhart, now 26, has finally figured out exactly how much he can sacrifice for his own business: nothing. In 1998, Steinhart and fellow twenty-something Stanford graduates Charles Katz, Mike Slemmer and Kelly Peterson incorporated 1stUp.com, a free Internet access provider for portals like Lycos and AltaVista. They sold a majority share of it to global Internet operating and development company CMGI in 1999, and the founders took executive positions at 1stUp. But while making payroll is no longer an issue for the founders, Steinhart says running his own business for nearly two years straight made even his parents worry.

A year went by where Steinhart barely saw his folks. And on the rare occasions he did pay a visit, it was hard for anyone to deny he wasn't there in spirit. "It's sort of the classic case of code-pendents who get in relationships where they commit themselves so fully that certain parts of the rest of their lives start to suffer," he says. "I was so intense in my mind in terms of my work that, in terms of my ability to interact with the real world, I was a little bit nuts." He'd take breaks and go out for drinks, but he couldn't stop troubleshooting even then.

"When I [started 1stUp], I had no idea what I was getting myself into," says Steinhart. Being fitted for a mouth guard because stress was causing him to grind his teeth at night was an indication something wasn't right. "I see investment bankers who commit themselves to their jobs with the same level of fervor for 15 years and walk away with $500 million," he says. "But at what cost?"

Steinhart learned running his own business just wasn't worth it if it meant losing pieces of himself along the way. But the experience did show him he can do anything he sets his mind to-and he has. Steinhart left 1stUp in November to earn his teaching credential. (Unrelated to Steinhart's departure, 1stUp ceased operations December 10.)

Drawing The Line

After starting two companies before age 25, Jonah Steinhart, now 26, has finally figured out exactly how much he can sacrifice for his own business: nothing. In 1998, Steinhart and fellow twenty-something Stanford graduates Charles Katz, Mike Slemmer and Kelly Peterson incorporated 1stUp.com, a free Internet access provider for portals like Lycos and AltaVista. They sold a majority share of it to global Internet operating and development company CMGI in 1999, and the founders took executive positions at 1stUp. But while making payroll is no longer an issue for the founders, Steinhart says running his own business for nearly two years straight made even his parents worry.

A year went by where Steinhart barely saw his folks. And on the rare occasions he did pay a visit, it was hard for anyone to deny he wasn't there in spirit. "It's sort of the classic case of code-pendents who get in relationships where they commit themselves so fully that certain parts of the rest of their lives start to suffer," he says. "I was so intense in my mind in terms of my work that, in terms of my ability to interact with the real world, I was a little bit nuts." He'd take breaks and go out for drinks, but he couldn't stop troubleshooting even then.

"When I [started 1stUp], I had no idea what I was getting myself into," says Steinhart. Being fitted for a mouth guard because stress was causing him to grind his teeth at night was an indication something wasn't right. "I see investment bankers who commit themselves to their jobs with the same level of fervor for 15 years and walk away with $500 million," he says. "But at what cost?"

Steinhart learned running his own business just wasn't worth it if it meant losing pieces of himself along the way. But the experience did show him he can do anything he sets his mind to-and he has. Steinhart left 1stUp in November to earn his teaching credential. (Unrelated to Steinhart's departure, 1stUp ceased operations December 10.)

Can You Really Do It All?

Can you start a company and keep your life intact? "Maybe you'll get lucky, and [when you don't give] 100 percent, your company will make it. But it's hard to make these things work, because there are people out there trying to prevent you from succeeding," says Steinhart.

Chere Estrin, founder of Estrin Organization, a 4-year-old Los Angeles staffing firm for the legal and financial sectors, has sacrificed plenty: a $300,000 corporate salary, time with her son, a love life, friendships outside the legal industry, vacations and even her thunder-to get her company off the ground, she gave up some control in a 3� year partnership with a clerical business to share resources. But Estrin knows the entrepreneur's life is for her, and she knows how to make suitable trade-offs.

"The reason you're an entrepreneur is that you don't fit in the corporate world, so in truth, you're not making a sacrifice by saying 'I'm not going to be getting that regular paycheck,' " says Estrin, 50. "You're making sure you do everything you can to have a lifestyle you like. And you manipulate the sacrifice so it doesn't become a deprivation."

In her first year, when her accountant told her not to get that Mercedes just yet, Estrin knew she'd see the day when she could. With 2000 sales estimated at $3 million, she's more than happy to have waited for the perks.

According to Danielle, she and Tom aren't able to look 10 years out yet, but with VC backing for Home-Portfolio and with Tom taking a salary, she says seeing one year ahead is doable. Danielle never gave the ultimatum of "me or the company," but she thinks that at the height of the frenzy, Tom would've chosen HomePortfolio-and regretted it later.

"When you start a business, it becomes an all-consuming passion, an addiction," says Carsrud. "Sometimes you have to back off and say it just isn't any good. And really good entrepreneurs are the ones who know they've got to have that balance."

Make time for family. Acknowledge you're taking them on the wildest ride of their lives. Find a mentor to help you through the tough times. Know your limits. Know that unhealthy relationships will worsen, and solid ones could waver. "[Owning] a business is not to be taken lightly," says Tom. "You'd better have that spark and wildness in it because that brings you a lot of fuel. But this is serious pool, and when you get in the game, the consequences are real."


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