One day in the making of a 'dot-com' dream

Internet start-ups.

They're the hottest place to work right now.

And if you haven't tried to land a job at one, chances are you've thought about it.

It's not just techies. MBAs are passing up six-figure salaries to pull a stint in cyberspace. In fact, the frenzy is running all the way up the corporate ladder. George Shaheen, who held the top spot at Andersen Consulting, recently stepped down to head up Webvan, an online grocery-delivery company.

The allure is simple: stock options (big options), working in jeans and bare feet, and being a part of a revolution - or the latest gold rush.

No doubt the risks are high. Industry watchers estimate only 5 to 10 percent of Internet start-ups survive past 18 months.

But that hasn't stemmed the tide of "dot-com" ventures debuting daily on the Web - everything from online banking and pet supplies to job openings for truck drivers.

So what's it like inside a dot-com? Is it really all that laid back? Does anything get done? And is anyone older than 25?

The Monitor spent a day at Handshake.com, a company in Fullerton, Calif., founded six months ago by four 20-something guys. They're pushing hard. Short on sleep and fueled by pizza, they skimp on structure to keep the venture hurtling forward.

David Chevalier, an adviser to Handshake.com who has started seven companies of his own, calls it "the doggy-years paradigm." "You have to accomplish in one day what it takes corporate America seven days to accomplish," he says. Welcome to Handshake.com, an Internet service that connects consumers to local merchants.

Need a caterer, anywhere in the United States? Log on to Handshake.com, fill out a request form, and watch the bids for the job roll in. Then select the company you want to do business with.

Handshake's goal: to revolutionize the way consumers buy services.

The idea got going about a year ago, when four guys started meeting after work in their Brentwood apartment. That's the southern California version of the "garage" start-up .

In May, they quit their day jobs - good jobs - and pooled $150,000 from family, friends, and their 401(k)s. The company's twenty-something chief executive, Ajay Shah, took out a second mortgage on his house to raise nearly $40,000.

They rented an office suite in a 76-year-old brick building, bought some computers and used office furniture on credit cards, hired a few more employees, and worked like mad.

In August came a big confidence boost: Handshake landed $4 million in venture capital. The company was two days from payroll without a dime in the bank.

Handshake hit the Web Oct. 4. The company has 25 employees and hopes to have more than 100 people on the payroll in a year. Some walked away from careers at big outfits like Sprint. Others put college diplomas on hold to take part in what many describe as "an opportunity of a lifetime." Two employees came directly from Internet start-ups that failed. The tie that binds most of them: time spent at Cornell University.

An inside look at a fast day's work:

Tuesday, Nov. 2, 1999/9:40 a.m.

For the rest of the working world in southern California, the day is well under way. At Handshake.com, it has yet to start - partly because yesterday ended only a few hours ago.

Most of the office worked until 5 a.m. And it has been like that for the past month - 100-hour weeks - no exaggeration. (Two of the founders inadvertently slept through the Oct. 4 launch.)

"They'll be in," says Russ Chaney, chief creative officer, who seems unfazed by the fact that a major deadline is only hours away and the office is practically vacant. "Don't worry. They know what they have to do."

Indeed, today is a very big day at Handshake.com. The company is about to launch more than a dozen new service categories on its Web site - everything from house cleaning to pest control.

Whether they will actually launch is unclear. Some of the graphics and pages have yet to be designed, and thousands of lines of code must be tested.

10 a.m. The day officially begins in the Mr. Shah's office. The management team - which includes the four founders, plus the chief creative officer, and the executive vice president of business development - files in to run through the day's schedule.

It's standing room only - and Shah doesn't waste any time getting started.

"If meetings are quick - curt almost - that is how you leave the room," Shah says. And that, he says, is how people will approach the rest of their day.

He grabs a black pen and scribbles the agenda for the meeting on a wall-mounted whiteboard. Whiteboards abound at Handshake. It's hard to turn a corner without finding someone writing something on one. In a way, they're a symbol of Handshake's open communication.

Topping the agenda: Get the new service up and running by 6 p.m. Not launching isn't an option, Shah says, it would derail the company's momentum and staff morale. After a short discussion, Shah checks the item off and asks for a status update by midafternoon. (It will be one of many.)

Next topic: the "all-hands meeting," a companywide meeting held every Tuesday at 6 p.m. The meeting used to be held Monday, but management moved it after complaints that it interfered with "Monday Night Football."

Tonight's meeting, though, is bigger than usual. Shah is planning a speech to reenergize and refocus the troops and lay out where the company is headed. "This is a really important meeting," Shah says, pacing.

Co-founder and chief operating officer Dan Sommer usually moderates the all-hands meeting, but he's currently on a whirlwind recruiting tour on the East Coast. So Shah handles the job.

Next on the agenda is Shah's speech. On cue, David Chevalier comes forward and places his laptop on Shah's desk. He's been helping Shah craft his speech for tonight and he's prepared 10-plus slides for the group to critique. Mr. Chevalier, a former IBMer and Dell computer executive, came on board last week as adviser. He's this group's senior by some 15 years, and they're counting on him to help them grow the company while maintaining an "open" and team-oriented work culture.

A brief debate ensues over an in-house motto in one of the slides: "Just Do It Now." After a brief back-and-forth, they decide to keep it and move on to the last item: dinner.

Another debate: Should they order in or take everyone out. The consensus ... with a little nudging by Shah: Dinner in and drinks out - assuming they launch.

10:15 a.m. Everyone scatters.

Handshake headquarters looks like a combination college computer lab and freshman dormitory. The walls are bare. Boxes are stacked in corners. Wires dangle from the ceiling and crawl out of the floor. Desks - some of which are made out of old kitchen countertops stacked on cinder blocks - are littered with crumpled paper, candy wrappers, and half-eaten sandwiches. And you don't have to look far to find a soccer ball or hockey stick stashed in a corner or under someone's desk.

The company rents two office suites on the third and fourth floors in the historic brick building. The third floor, which the technical staff and some of the founders occupy, also serves as the main reception area.

You're first greeted by an administrative assistant, who answers phones and runs interference. In the center of the suite is the "living room," complete with an overstuffed couch, chair, and ottoman, compliments of the lead designer, the first hire, who moved out from Boston and needed a place to dump his furniture.

Small glass-walled offices line two sides of the suite. The four program developers sit in the largest enclosed room - dubbed "the cage." Three of these four guys have yet to graduate from college. Many came here to work over the summer and decided it was too much fun to leave. So they're taking a semester - or more - off.

"My Mom asks me why I am working 16-hour days. She thinks the people here are exploiting me," says Naveen Joshi, a senior at Cornell who is spending his fall semester at Handshake. "I tell her the people here are exploiting each other."

"This was exciting enough that I couldn't pass it up," says Harold Fox, who graduated from Cornell in May and turned down a full ride to MIT to earn a PhD in math.

12 noon. Things slowly start to hum. Computers click on. The cage begins to fill up. The business development team on the fourth floor comes down to see if anyone is heading out for a quick lunch.

Meanwhile, Rob Nazzal, the chief technology officer gives Shah another update. They still plan to launch by 6 p.m. but decide to tell everyone they need to be done by 4 p.m. "It will be tight," Mr. Nazzal says quietly. "If it isn't ready by 6 p.m., we'll have to push the launch later."

2 p.m. Handshake is going full tilt. The air is thick in the cage. Several doors down, the two graphic artists work fast and furiously in their tiny office. Next door, Shah and Chevalier finalize Shah's speech for the launch.

Meanwhile, Andy Moore, who joined Handshake after two years at Sprint, flops down on the giant chair in the "living room." He's in charge of taking down the old site and putting up the new one. "I'm gearing up for an all-nighter," he says while taking a deep breath.

4 p.m. The four founders plus Nazzal and Chevalier meet upstairs. After a long-awaited delivery from Starbucks helps kick off the meeting, they nail down the business plan for the next three months.

Among the topics discussed: What strategic partners to target; how to measure customer satisfaction and improve customer feedback; which venture-capital firms to target for another round of funding.

5 p.m While the business-planning meeting continues upstairs, no one's talking on the third floor. Program developer Aaron Stokes moves his PC from his desk in the cage onto the floor in the living room. The system is slow and this allows him to connect directly to the servers. "I'm feeling the pressure coming on," he says.

Nearby in his office, director of recruiting Graham Beatty continues to phone students and set up interviews. Controller Hiren Mody works on tracking down a program error in his new accounting system. Nazzal walks between offices getting 15-minute updates.

5:45 p.m. Shah's back in his office and calls in Nazzal and Mr. Chaney for an update. This is the go or no-go moment. "Where are we?" Shah asks. Nazzal explains that a few graphics have yet to be completed and one of the major pages - a special holiday page - hasn't even been built yet.

"How long will it take to build?" Shah asks.

"Tai [Nguyen] says it will take one hour," Nazzal says.

"I don't want anyone missing the all-hands meeting," Shah says.

A vote: Chaney votes to delay the launch until later that night. Nazzal votes to launch without the holiday page.

The final word: Finish the few graphics and code issues and check for bugs between 7:30 and 9:30. Launch - without the holiday page - at 10 p.m.

6 p.m. Everyone gathers in the living room for the all-hands. The controller stands ready with a video camera - tonight they're once again making company history.

Chaney and then Nazzal thank everyone for their work and turn the floor over to Chevalier, who hammers home the importance of a strong work culture. "Culture - how should we run this business - is the No. 1 success criteria as to whether any [Internet] company is going to

make it."

Next Shah takes the floor. "This second launch is just as significant and as big a day as [the first launch,]" he tells everyone. "Now the question is: 'What do we do once we've launched this product?' "

He gives a rousing speech outlining the company's cultural values as well as the plan for the next few months. "To the best of my knowledge, everyone likes each other here." The group chuckles, but also agrees. The goal, he says, is to sustain that. It fosters open communication.

7:30 p.m. The meeting adjourns and everyone races for the pizza. After 10 minutes of fun - even a little soccer - it's back to work. Everyone checks their e-mail for their assignment on which section of the new site to check for bugs.

Upstairs in the computer lab, a custodian vacuums and a classic-rock radio station plays in the background while a handful of employees test the new site.

9:30 p.m. By now, the momentum is slowing. The program developers iron out a few last bugs. Meanwhile, a half-dozen employees hang out in the living room debating the future of such Web giants as Webvan and eToys.

10:15 p.m. Moore begins to upload the new site to the Internet - a process that is supposed to take an hour (they would finish at 2:30 a.m.). After that a core team of workers stays on to test the site once it's on the Web.

At the previous launch, the entire staff had celebrated. Tonight everyone is just too tired. So it will be a quiet celebration - more like a reflection on what this tiny company has accomplished in just a few months.

Tomorrow they'll party. And work. Right now the flurry has subsided. But pockets of activity remain.

"If you're waiting for the office to completely empty out, it doesn't happen," says David Makharadze, vice president of business development. "Someone is always here."

Handshake.com

What: Internet service that connects consumers to local merchants anywhere in the US.

Headquarters: Fullerton, Calif.

Web debut: Oct. 4, 1999.

Start-up money: $150,000; in August, landed $4 million in venture capital from Pasadena-based Idealab!.

Revenues: $0, but plan to charge merchants in the future.

Founders: Ajay Shah (CEO), Micah Rosenbloom (president); Dan Sommer (chief operating officer); David Elkins (chief information officer).

Number of employees: 25.

Average work day: 16 hours.

Dress code: none.

Percentage of workers who sleep on air mattresses: 25.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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