JANUARY 29, 2003

By Christopher Kenton

The Long Road to Opportunity

Get rich quick -- or invest time, money, and sweat in a partnership promising a host of less tangible rewards? For me, it was an easy call

I met my business partners on an Internet bulletin board in 1998. They owned a design agency in San Francisco and were looking for a new partner to launch an online division. I had just finished a two-year project producing a portal called Development Exchange -- aka DevX -- for computer programmers. It had left me hollowed out and hungry for something to be thrilled about.

DevX had once been my redemption. After spending three years building a software publishing company that flamed out when the Internet took off, DevX had given me the chance to prove that I could overcome failure. I immersed myself in every aspect of managing Web initiatives, from databases and interfaces to content and commerce models.

When DevX.com finally launched, the pulse of racing headlong against deadlines and minor disasters subsided into the drone of daily bureaucracy. I found myself in a cubicle plastered with Dilbert cartoons. The irony was too much. I had no idea where I was going when I walked away from the job, but it felt like a pilgrimage -- as if the thing that mattered most was not the destination, or even the journey, but the act of leaving on faith.

DESIGNS ON THE FUTURE. Within a few weeks, I had interviewed with a dozen startups that were all the same: flush with venture capital and visionary leaders. Each made the same offer -- and a few actually phrased it this bluntly: "We'll make you rich." With fast-track vesting on pre-IPO stock options, what else could there be to talk about?

I was on my third round of interviews with an online financial-services outfit when I came across the notice on a Yahoo! jobs board. Instead of the fanfare about visionary leaders and breakthrough products, there was a description of a design agency looking for a new direction. It was the simple honesty of the notice that was most enticing.

In the first interview, we spoke for hours before discussing compensation. Profile Design was already well known and respected for it's branding and creative work. They worked for Pepsi, for Kraft, for Unilever. You can't walk through a supermarket without seeing evidence of their work. A host of fast-moving technology companies had engaged them to apply retail branding to the bland world of beige boxes. Apple. Xerox. Oracle. But the Internet explosion found them lacking the technical skills required to hold on to those clients. Everyone wanted Web sites and CDs and multimedia demos.

When the agency started losing clients to programming firms that knew nothing about design or marketing, they went looking for a partner. I remember their pitch verbatim: "We can't promise to make you rich. The truth is, we don't have any idea what we're doing in this new space. But if you can make it work, we'll give you all the resources we have to get it off the ground."

DELAYING GRATIFICATION. It was one of the few times in my life when the view from the crossroads was so clear it might have been a moral lesson from a fable. One path held the promise of immediate wealth. The other offered only the promise of opportunity. I wanted the money. I knew people who were cashing out already. One bought a sailboat and was getting ready to retire at 40. Another was using the Internet to customize every detail of a new Porsche. The money was real.

As if to make the contrast even sharper, the deal that emerged with Profile required me to give up half my salary for a year to buy into the partnership.

The more I thought about the decision, the more thoughts of money receded, giving way to something surprising: It wasn't about wealth. It wasn't about the work, or even opportunities. It came down to a belief about time. One path was guaranteed to be a short trip. I knew that any company I pursued for the money would either go public or bankrupt in about two years. The other path was open ended, and it made me start to imagine what it would be like to stay with a company for 10 years.

Ten years vs. two years. It sounds strange, but that's the way I came to frame the decision. Time. What happens in the course of two years or ten years? I realized I knew the two-year cycle. The rush of hitting the ground running, the pace of learning everything new. It's the fabric of our culture. What I had yet to experience was the commitment of taking root, the lessons that come from 5 years or 7 years pushing the same stone up the same hill.

THE SECRET OF LIFE. In the end, the choice was easy and I count it as one of the five best decisions I've ever made. Not for the supposed enlightenment of turning my back on the money (business is all about chasing money, and I do it every day), but for everything I continue to learn from knowing I won't walk away. For every impossible challenge -- a collapsed market, a betrayal by a strategic partner, a psychotic temp worker -- I have to find the resources and the will to keep building my business. Learning from those experiences is what keeps life exciting.

It doesn't help when I see friends flying off to Rio or Bangkok. But it did help when I saw the last surviving company of the twelve I interviewed delisted from Nasdaq.

Yeah. I kept track.