Scaling a Vertical Learning Curve Six months ago we met this group of Kellogg School MBAs. Three risked it all on a Net startup. One opted for P&G. Now they're finding that their jobs aren't all that different. New economy or old, it's hard work.
By Eryn Brown

(FORTUNE Magazine) – We last checked in with Paul Anfinsen, Erin Gershon, Stacy Sukov, and Nicole Ginsburg (now Nicole Ginsburg Small) in June--right after their graduation from Northwestern University's Kellogg Graduate School of Management in Evanston, Ill. Paul, a straight-A student, was going to take it easy over the summer and then move back to Cincinnati, his hometown, where he had taken a job at Procter & Gamble as an assistant brand manager for Bounty paper towels. Erin, Stacy, and Nicole were packing up their stuff and moving to San Francisco to launch WebWisher, an Internet company they had dreamed up while at Kellogg. WebWisher was conceived as an online gift registry for kids. For competitive reasons, the women couldn't say much in June about the company and its plans; they wouldn't even discuss details when WebWisher joined forces with another startup. Erin, Stacy, and Nicole reported for their first day of work just a week after graduation.

With Net startups beckoning so many young people, FORTUNE decided to track these four graduates for a year to see how the lives of New Economy MBAs differ from the lives of those who follow a traditional path. We recently visited them for a second look.

It used to be that entrepreneurs Erin Gershon, Stacy Sukov, and Nicole Ginsburg worked together closely, huddled in the living room of Stacy's Evanston, Ill., apartment. They shared a phone line and made big decisions about their startup, WebWisher, as they sat on the floor and nibbled on tossed salads from the Whole Foods Market down the street. When they needed a break, someone would run out and pick up Milano cookies.

The women still work together, still socialize as a group, and live within a few blocks of each other on San Francisco's Russian Hill. But now when they go for munchies, they walk to a large communal kitchen, where they grab fistfuls of Tootsie Rolls out of a huge basket. Free sodas are in the Coke machine on the left. These days WebWisher is called Della Kidz; when it was barely more than a business plan, it was absorbed into a larger gift-registry company called is a startup, just like WebWisher was. But--and this is a key difference--it is a startup that recently got more than $45 million in venture backing and also has a product out the gate. Almost a hundred people work at, most of them women in their 20s with stylish clothes and lots of energy, just like Erin, Stacy, and Nicole. Della Kidz is still the grads' baby--and they are still jazzed about it--but now they are part of a larger enterprise. The women sit in far-flung corners of the cavernous, open office. They often pick up the phone when they want to talk with each other.

Not that there's a lot of time for that. One Wednesday morning in October, Erin sits at her desk near the others in's retail-relations group. It seems like she's having a tough day. She fires up her computer and sees four e-mails from Nicole, who had been on her honeymoon in the South Pacific. "She got back at midnight last night," Erin says, "and she's already called every phone number I have." Erin also has a couple of messages from clients--account management has become a big part of her job.

Erin is in charge of developing partnerships with retailers who list their products on Della Kidz. Some of the work is glamorous--like powwows with Internet executives at national retailers--but she spends a good portion of her day fielding calls. She also surfs the Web to research prospects. She's read about a mall-based store for teens that doesn't yet have an e-commerce outlet. She types their URL into her Web browser and surfs around until she finds a phone number for the company's corporate offices in Texas. She picks up her phone and punches in the numbers.

"Hello," she says. "I was wondering when you were going to have e-commerce on your site.... My name is Erin Gershon, and I'm calling from Who's the correct contact?... Okay, I'll try again tomorrow."

She hangs up. "You make a random call, you wait a few days, you call back and dig a little deeper," she explains. "I'll do phone calls like this for three weeks. If I'm lucky, the retailer will be interested, and I'll get a meeting." She says that a lot of retailers already know about, which makes her job a little easier.

Della Kidz is supposed to be up and running sometime in mid- December so that children will be able to set up their "wish lists" just in time for Christmas. (In fact, Della Kidz went online Dec. 17.) In her four months as a startup entrepreneur, Erin has contacted between 30 and 40 companies, both for Della Kidz and for the general registry at She's closed three deals and is bearing down on four more. "Everyone I talk to has 15 deals on their plate," she sighs. "One more deal is a lot for them to look at. I'm asking people to change their marketing model, change their resource allocation, change their Website, and then give us money. It can seem like a lot to ask."

She glances at the pile of magazines on her desk--on top is a Newsweek with "Tweens" on the cover--and shifts in her chair. "I've got to get a sales grid done by 4:30. I've also got a meeting at 11. I've got to crank," she says.

I take the hint and walk to Stacy's desk across the room. As product manager for Della Kidz, she approves all design and engineering decisions for the site, making sure everybody involved--from programmers to attorneys to designers to's top marketing people--stays on track.

Stacy does market research too. She has a collection of kids across the country whom she e-mails and visits regularly (the "kid crew"). She has even parked herself outside F.A.O. Schwarz from time to time to fire questions at kids walking by.

Today, partly for my benefit, she grills Yana, a shy 10-year-old whose mom works in the office. "Where do you think you should click?" Stacy asks her. "Do you know what a wish list is? Does this look like it was made for you? Do you like American Girl dolls? Do you like books?"

Yana squirms in her chair. Stacy tries again. She moves the cursor to an animated bee on the site. "What do you think of the bee?" she asks.

"It's funny looking," Yana replies.

"Um...okay." Stacy says. She writes something in a notebook and seems amused.

These interviews are sometimes less than revealing. The kids often contradict all the "expert" advice Della Kidz gets from consultants. But, happily, Stacy doesn't have to agonize over the conflicts. "We work on gut here," says her boss, CEO Rebecca Patton. "This business is not about rigorous analysis. You can't do huge research projects. You go by what seems reasonable."

Later in the day Stacy and Erin have their weekly meeting with Rebecca. (Nicole, whose job is to forge alliances with Web portals like Disney's GO Network, joins in on speakerphone from Dallas.) Since everything is on track for the Christmastime launch, Rebecca wants the women to think about the "game over"--what they need to do to be sure Della Kidz emerges as the leading kids' registry online. She pushes the women to come up with concrete goals and reminds Erin that her strategy presentation needs to be ready by the end of the week. Erin, who's been too busy to even start her sales grid, nods stoically.

"Let's get back to the WebWisher days!" Nicole says as Rebecca ducks out of the meeting. "What's the perfect company? Once we have an idea, we can back off from that...."

So Della Kidz isn't perfect yet. The work environment can be chaotic, job roles can shift, deadlines are unforgiving. Still, Erin, Stacy, and Nicole are happy with the decisions they've made, happy to be in San Francisco in the midst of the Internet startup scene, even happy with having sacrificed some of their autonomy. "By coming here we made it ten times easier on ourselves," says Stacy. Erin agrees. "I don't think Stacy, Nicole, and I could have sold GapKids a registry on our own," she says.

Paul Anfinsen inhabits a different world. As an assistant brand manager at Procter & Gamble, he doesn't work in a funky loft space. His domain is a standard-issue cubicle, hidden away in P&G's downtown Cincinnati headquarters. Paul hears the whir of the heating vents when he sits at his desk--not the chatterings of 100 turbocharged colleagues.

Erin, Stacy, and Nicole's big challenge is to create something new out of nothing; Paul's big challenge is to create something new out of something old and established. Bounty-brand products have been test-marketed, studied, and tweaked over 35 years. The 163-year-old P&G has 110,000 employees, some 9,000 in the Cincinnati headquarters office alone. It markets around 300 brands worldwide. "My learning curve is like this," Paul says, making a vertical line with the side of his hand. "It takes time to learn about what the organization does, because it's complex. It takes time to learn about the resources available."

In his first month of work, back in August, Paul and the other new assistant brand managers at P&G attended a one-week "Brand College" designed to introduce them to life at the company. (Paul keeps a group photo from the event on his desk.) But his main source of guidance is the Bounty team, which meets once a week.

On Dec. 1, four members of the team assemble to report on their current projects. Lisa Slager, the brand manager who heads up the group, describes a meeting she had with a customer, a retailer with concerns about "pallet fit" for loading and unloading paper towels. The group discusses pulp prices and manufacturing schedules. They wonder aloud: Will people buy 12-roll packs of Bounty? Ten-roll packs? Six-roll packs? There's talk of PDQs, AMJs, other cryptic acronyms. There's talk about designs for a new product. "I tried to get rid of this one, and all the designers went nuts," one assistant brand manager says, rolling her eyes and pointing to a design on her laptop screen. "Apparently, you've just gotta have bears."

Paul, one of the newest members of the Bounty team, sits quietly through the meeting until there's an ad to review. It's a promotion insert, with photos of a real-life mother and son cleaning up a spill. He ventures a remark: "She looks stern," he says, pointing to the hovering mom. "She just looks concerned," the others say. They deem the piece a success.

Later, Paul reports on his projects. He's juggling nine in all--everything from analyzing hard-core consumer data to creating and test-marketing new products to attracting new types of Bounty customers to managing Web ad campaigns. (We can't offer many specifics because P&G keeps brand strategies firmly under wraps.) He tells the group about a Nascar promotion he's coordinated from start to finish. He mentions how well the Thanksgiving banner ad he had overseen was received. Lisa, his boss, nods, doesn't say much. It all sounds fine. The meeting adjourns.

Later in the day, Paul gets his weekly one-on-one with Lisa, who is also his mentor. Ten minutes before it starts, he sits at his desk, pulls up a Word document with his talking points from his one-on-one the week before, and adjusts it to suit his needs for today. "I kind of have to think ahead," he says.

He's just beginning to figure out how to work with Lisa. Paul has a lot to adjust to these days. His initial plans to build a house in town fell through, so now he is starting over, building a larger home 30 minutes outside the city. He hasn't yet found time to join a singing group, something he's been wanting to do for a while now.

And P&G is going through its own life change. People at the notoriously stuffy company say they're trying hard to take cues from dot-coms like Della Kidz. Suit and tie used to be standard; now every day is business casual. Procter is organizing its business units by product type instead of region so it can get to a launch more quickly. (One of Lisa's goals is to create an "open, bullpen-like feel" in the space the Bounty group shares with Charmin; she hopes that will encourage the marketers to talk to each other.) P&G is also realigning its executive compensation program to encourage risk-taking. Forget setting low goals and getting rewarded when you hit them with ease. Company men and women these days are expected to stretch.

I ask Paul what "stretch" goals he'd set for the coming year. "None, yet," he says. "My goal is to learn the business right now." That seems to be what's expected: Lisa is giving him a lot to chew on, but she's hardly expecting him to carry the unit. Paul's going to inherit responsibility for print advertising soon. But he won't have responsibility for TV ads for at least a year. "TV is more expensive," he explains.

Paul hits his stride in his last meeting of the day--a conference call with account reps and designers from the interactive group at Jordan McGrath Case & Partners, the New York advertising agency--in his cubicle, alone. It's time to come up with Bounty's Web banner ads for the holiday season.

Paul has an immediate, decisive response to the ads Jordan McGrath shows him on their Website--they're too cold, too wintry. They don't evoke a feeling of holiday warmth. He wants candles, Christmas trees, menorahs, holly. He sends the designers back out to fix it up. They've got two days to get back to him. "We'll get it done!" one of them chirps at the end of the call.

Paul seems happy with the meeting when it's over. "With Internet ads, I just make a decision," he says, cool as can be. "I make a decision, and I show it to Lisa the next week."