In the face of an ever-changing Internet, some entrepreneurs are willing to risk fortune--and failure--on high-tech ventures

May 29, 2001|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN STAFF

PLUG IN Rich Wiklund's name on an Internet search engine and a rough outline of his seven-year ride on the dot-com roller coaster flashes onto the screen.

There he is back in 1994, going it alone in his basement, doubled over with stomachaches as cash dwindled and workdays stretched past midnight.

Scroll down a bit and find him on a brief high in early 1995, just after his company was bought by Lancaster Information Group, a Pennsyvlania-based printing firm.

Finally there are traces of the present-day Wiklund and his latest venture, PortCD, as it morphed into Avideon Corp. earlier this year. At this point, Wiklund can be found, fingers on the keyboard, working in a borrowed office in Hunt Valley, still waiting on the next deal to come through and still battling the occasional stomachache.

"Stress," he explains. "And the fear of possible failure. But you also get the highest highs, and you can get them the same day, minutes apart." Which, at age 34, makes him wonder: "At what point do you say, all right, this is a success? When do your friends say, `Hey, this guy's really done it'?"

Wiklund is hardly alone with such concerns in the sprawling amusement park called the dot-com industry. It's a crowded, boisterous place where the rides seem to crash as often as they thrill, some from the weight of debt, others from their breakneck speed, leaving customers behind even as they outpace competitors.

Dave Kelley, currently between jobs, likens a dot-com career move to "trying to jump on a train at 100 mph, and you're hoping you're jumping into the right car. ... I hate to paint it as some kind of adrenalin junkie, but [a dot-commer] is a person who can see an opportunity and take a few risks."

The popular perception of this workforce is that of a wired - literally and figuratively - pack of 20-somethings in black clothes and sneakers. They're the cliches you see on dot-com ads, with their scooters and trendy haircuts, expected to either make their first million or their first three job moves within a year of starting their careers.

Plenty of those types exist. But on the entrepreneurial side of the business, propelling the industry from its earliest days, a lot of the 20-somethings have become 30-somethings. Business plans once scribbled on the backs of napkins or hashed out over a few cups of latte have evolved into detailed tomes designed to please increasingly wary venture capitalists, whose purse strings aren't nearly so loose as in the boom years that led to the tech investment binge of 2000.

Ask venture capitalist Frank A. Adams for his take on the dot-com crowd and he'll start by describing entrepreneurs in general.

"Entrepreneurs are unique people," says Adams, president of Grotech Capital Group in Timonium. "They are about passion, risk taking, and they generally have a good head for business. Now what we have seen over the last four or five years [with dot-coms] is the age of the entrepreneur dropping dramatically, and while they all have the passion and energy and the willingness to take risks, they don't all have a good head for business. ... They typically don't have financial skills and don't understand the power of cash, or the crisis that comes with lack of cash."

Look at Wiklund, for example.

Back in '94, about all he'd done with his journalism degree from the University of Richmond was to help start a desktop publishing business in suburban Virginia for a Richmond-based printing company, Cadmus Journal Services.

He took a look around at the state of the art and decided he could do some of the same things better, and faster, via the Internet. So, he quit his job and formed in his then Baltimore City home, marketing to the hundreds of various journals and associations in the fields of science and medicine.

Helping him get started were his father-in-law and his wife's uncle, investing nearly $30,000 apiece. His own family wouldn't throw in a dime. They thought he was nuts.

Learning fast

A few months later he was wondering if they were right. His wife had just quit her job to have their first child, and he, as sole breadwinner, was working out of their basement almost nonstop, fast discovering what his father-in-law meant when he'd cautioned, "You don't know what you don't know."

What Wiklund didn't know was practically everything about running a business and making deals, so he learned by trial and error, maxing out his credit cards to keep the venture infused with cash. He went back to his father-in-law and his wife's uncle for an extra $30,000 apiece.

As the business began to grow, he developed the first online catalog for Waverly Press in Baltimore. He produced an online version of the American Cancer Society's magazine, the Journal of Cancer. In early '95 he moved to a "business incubator" dormitory on Key Highway, across from the Museum of Industry. Huge cranes and equipment from Baltimore's past business booms loomed right outside his window by the waterfront.

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