Sacrificial Rites

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.

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This article was originally published in the February 2001 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Sacrificial Rites.

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