Loving P&G, Leaving a Dot-com What's Happening With Our Grads! Almost everybody is switching jobs. Three of the four Kellogg School MBAs FORTUNE began following a year ago just bolted for Idealab. The fourth is ensconced at P&G.
By Eryn Brown

(FORTUNE Magazine) – It's been nearly a year since FORTUNE met MBAs Paul Anfinsen, Erin Gershon, Nicole Small, and Stacy Sukov. In June 1999 the four graduated from Northwestern's Kellogg School. Paul, 31, took the summer off, moved to Cincinnati, and joined Procter & Gamble as an assistant brand manager for Bounty paper towels. Erin, Nicole, and Stacy, 28, 26, and 28, respectively, started a kids' online gift registry called WebWisher. They sold the business to San Francisco startup Della.com, reported for duty in June, and began calling the project Della Kidz. FORTUNE tagged along with the four to see how different the new-economy career path would prove from the old.

In our initial visits, we saw cosmetic contrasts: San Francisco vs. Cincinnati, loft space vs. office tower. But basically, the grads' first working months seemed similar. Paul scrambled to learn the details of his job--arcane retail acronyms, market research techniques, Internet marketing strategies--while Erin, Ni-cole, and Stacy tried to balance the demands of building their own business with their responsibilities to Della.com's larger goals.

Our most recent visits tell another story.

"We have big news," Erin Gershon says. "We'll tell you all about it tomorrow." It's Sunday, and she's on her cell phone at the San Francisco apartment of her business partner Nicole Small. FORTUNE has just arrived in town to talk to the women and their other partner, Stacy Sukov, about how things are going at their fledgling Website, Della Kidz. "Let's meet here, at Nicole's apartment, instead of the office," Erin continues. "We'll all go on a hike. I found this great trail in the Marin Headlands. Ten o'clock sound okay?" Two hours later she rings again. "Could we change the time to noon?" she asks. "We've got to, uh, go to a meeting in the morning."

At 12 P.M. the next day I'm stomping up Russian Hill, heading toward Nicole's apartment. It's 70 degrees, the sun is shining, and a breeze rustles the trees and flowers that line Leavenworth Street. In the apartment, Erin, Stacy, and Nicole are in shorts, their hair in ponytails. They're sitting near a window with expansive views of the bay. Someone has set up a laptop on Nicole's kitchen table, next to a load of groceries from Webvan. The women offer water, munchies, a seat next to them on a comfy couch. "You guys aren't working at Della anymore, are you?" I finally ask.

Stacy shakes her head. All three break into huge grins. "We just accepted our new jobs this morning," Nicole says.

Everyone leaves for the hike--a rambling walk along a ridge on the other side of the Golden Gate. Erin, Stacy, and Nicole start explaining, talking all at once, finishing one another's thoughts. They've accepted jobs as resident entrepreneurs at the Silicon Valley offices of Idealab, the high-profile Internet incubator in Pasadena. Evaluating new business ideas will now be their full-time job. Eventually they'll adopt one of the ideas they develop and build a company around it, taking on operational roles. "They're hiring us to do the stuff we did in my apartment before we graduated," says Stacy. "We'll be sitting around developing ideas. We'll be founders."

"We love working together and starting things," Nicole chimes in.

"Really, it's about ownership," Stacy says.

Nicole: "We wanted to do something fun again."

Things at Della had been going well enough. Della Kidz launched just before Christmas and had modest but respectable sales. After the holidays, when the buying season slowed, Della.com refocused on its core wedding business, and each of the women found herself working on a different, non-kid-related project. Erin became head of retailer marketing, traveling to companies like Crate & Barrel and REI to forge partnerships. Stacy led a team that tried to figure how retailers would present their wares online. Nicole took on a strategic role, advising CEO Rebecca Patton on new projects. "We were doing cool stuff," she says.

The problem was, it wasn't their cool stuff.

Nicole, rounding a bend in the trail: "We wanted to build a culture. We didn't get to set the vision at Della."

Erin, out ahead: "When we picked Della Kidz as a name, obviously we didn't have that much leeway."

Stacy: "We weren't key to their strategy anymore." (Indeed, Della recently announced a merger with WeddingChannel.com, a clear indication that it now plans to focus on wedding registries, not kids.) "Also, we missed each other. There were whole days when I didn't see Erin."

So in February, after the refocus, the women began devoting much of their off time--four or five hours a night, three nights a week--to assembling a new business plan and rehearsing a pitch for potential investors. "We spent nights hanging out at Nicole's or meeting with people," explains Erin. "It was all on our own time, never during work hours. Honestly, we haven't had a great social life lately." They found they were much more efficient than they had been as student entrepreneurs. Tasks that had been daunting at Kellogg now proved a breeze: writing business plans, doing financial analysis, building Website mockups, and--maybe most key--getting VCs on the phone. "We've gained respect," says Stacy.

Erin: "We used to e-mail [Garage.com founder and angel investor] Guy Kawasaki asking for appointments, and he would just write back, 'No.' Now he talks to us."

Nicole: "Now we can just call people who we know will give us good advice."

One person Nicole called from time to time was a former McKinsey colleague who had wound up at Idealab. He asked what she and her partners were doing. ("There's a lot of fishing going on," Nicole says.) The women began exchanging e-mails with Idealab and eventually visited the company's Sunnyvale offices for what became a series of four Wednesday evening brainstorming meetings. They traded business ideas, talked online strategies. "By the third meeting they were spewing out all these ideas to us," Erin says. "They were pitching us."

"We really hit it off with them," adds Stacy. "We thought, Wow, if we could get an opportunity here, it would be great."

Idealab wanted the women to come aboard as a launch team to flesh out an idea already in the hopper. ("It's just an idea. Nothing's on paper. There's no financial analysis. Just an idea," Erin says.) The three were intrigued but were also seriously entertaining another offer--an opportunity to build an Internet consulting company for a Bay Area venture capital firm. They debated 2 1/2 weeks before accepting with Idealab. "They wanted to know what took us so long," Nicole says.

The women have two days before reporting to work--and only three months to determine whether the new idea is worth turning into a business. But Erin, Stacy, and Nicole say it seems like a luxury. "This will be the first time we'll have all day to work on our business," Stacy says.

The trail hits the top of the ridge and opens to a breathtaking view of San Francisco. "We'll really need to have outdoor meetings at the new company," Nicole says.

After a few minutes they run down the hill and climb into the car. Stacy drives across the Golden Gate and the others pull out their cell phones. Very few people know about their decision to join Idealab. They call Nicole's old McKinsey contact. They consider ringing up their parents and decide they'd rather put that off for a couple of hours. There's a congratulatory message on Nicole's voice mail from the venture capital firm they decided not to work with. "Keep in touch!" the VC says. Some Della people have called to offer good wishes as well (the women say their former colleagues "understand this is a great opportunity for us"). Another message from a friend with a startup: "Have you guys taken a job yet? Call me!"

That night they go out for Thai in the Haight to celebrate. Naturally, talk turns to jobs. "Did you hear about DLJ?" someone asks. "I heard they're offering new MBAs $1 million if they promise to stay two years." No one knows if the rumor's true. But everyone finds it amusing. Of the women's ten or so closest friends in the Bay Area, seven--three consultants, three other dot-commers, one banker--have already left their jobs for startups. Other friends are looking to move.

Procter & Gamble will hardly need to fork over a million bucks to keep Paul Anfinsen in Cincinnati. He's rooted in his hometown. His parents are there. His brother and sister-in-law are there. Now his house--his first house--is there too.

It's a sunny Friday in April, and Paul, who has just moved into his house the week before, is testing out his new washer and dryer. The machines hum away in a big laundry room that's fully stocked with P&G products like Tide and Downy. The laundry room is next to the kitchen, which is filled with its own set of spanking-new appliances. "I loved picking out appliances," Paul says.

"Why is that?" I ask.

"Oh, I don't know," Paul laughs. "I guess because it was a new experience for me." He opens the dryer and pulls out a towel, which appears to be dry. "Pretty good," he says. "And nothing flooded." (He hooked up the washer and dryer himself.) "I'm just learning what it's like to be a homeowner. It takes a tremendous amount of energy."

Paul lives in Loveland, Ohio, 15 miles from downtown Cincinnati and one town away from where he grew up (sometimes he drives past his old high school on the way to work). His house has a red-brick exterior, four bedrooms, a master bath with whirlpool tub and skylights, huge closets, a modern kitchen, a fireplace, a two-car garage, a patio, and a backyard that faces a lake. Paul, who hasn't bought much furniture, is thinking of going to North Carolina to browse the outlets. He's also planning to pick out a grill over the next couple of days; his family has offered to buy it for him as a housewarming gift.

Today is a catch-up day for Paul. Even though his life seems all about home these days, he's been spending a busy few weeks on the road. Last week he was in Los Angeles on a P&G training trip to tour grocery stores with other assistant brand managers. Tomorrow he's flying to New York to spend the weekend with friends. He'll stay in Manhattan for a Monday morning meeting to discuss Bounty's Internet marketing plan for the new fiscal year, which begins in July.

Paul is at a very different place from where he was six months ago, when just getting through day-to-day work was a full-time effort. "I'm up the learning curve now," he says. "These days it's, How do I want to chart my own path? How can I seize the best opportunities?" He's figured out how to apply his B-school skills to the job. He's also about to get a new boss. Lisa, the brand manager he has worked with so far, is having a baby this summer. The biggest change is that he has fewer projects to worry about. "I've carved out what I want to work on," he explains. In December, Paul was juggling nine different initiatives; now he's concentrating on three or four. He's organizing one of Bounty's TV campaigns. He's getting ready to test a new idea he's been discussing with Lisa since winter. (For competitive reasons, he can't tell FORTUNE what it is.)

Paul is also still guiding Bounty's Internet efforts: supervising banner advertising, looking for e-commerce opportunities, and working to find new ways for P&G to leverage the medium. It's a job he really likes: "It might be where I decide to specialize," he says. His current challenge is to determine whether sponsoring content pages will be cost-effective for Bounty. Sponsorships can be expensive. They are linked to specific, targeted online content--unlike most banners, which are more like TV commercials. Still, the New York interactive agency Paul works with, Jordan McGrath Case & Partners, wants him to give them a try. Paul's not sure what makes sponsorships worth the money. "I'm really struggling to understand how to value interactive media," he says. "Do we want to spend a dollar on a sponsorship, or do we want to spend that dollar on something cool that will emotionally grab the consumer and reach a lot of people?"

At 10 A.M. Monday, Paul arrives at Jordan McGrath to hear the pitch. He's in khakis and a plaid shirt; the Jordan McGrath guys are dressed down as well. But the four executives from Studio One, the sponsorship company, are in jackets. They've prepared detailed production schedules and Website specs. "Quite frankly, with someone like you, the first person we deal with at P&G, we want to get it right," says Studio One's CEO, as he fidgets with his hands.

It takes a while for Paul to warm to the sponsorship idea. He and the Net guys aren't really speaking the same language at first--they're talking about "all-appointment TV"; his mind is on "payback"--and he never hears those numbers he wants. But Paul listens carefully, and you can almost see him conclude, about halfway through the meeting, that maybe the numbers don't have to be a deal killer. A sponsorship might give him new ways to connect with Procter's retail customers. It might let him build good will with paper-towel consumers. It might even generate new marketing material. "I'm beginning to see the opportunities," he says.

Studio One's CEO perks up. "This is an opportunity for you personally to put P&G out ahead of the industry!" he tells Paul, who is already brainstorming ways to sell management on the deal, numbers or no numbers.

"I feel like an entrepreneur," Paul says later. "I have to convince management that my idea can work, because they've got the funding. It's like going to a VC. P&G really functions as an internal capital market. That's why it turns out great entrepreneurs, like Steve Case at AOL. Working here, you learn to evaluate an idea and make it stand on its own two feet."

The day before Erin, Stacy, and Nicole start their new job, they do normal day-off stuff. They go to Ben & Jerry's. They get their nails done. They window shop. They take more cell calls--calls offering jobs and calls wanting to discuss the merits and drawbacks of various business plans, various URLs, various restaurants where they might throw a party for a friend. "I could get used to this," Stacy sighs over lunch.

"I don't know," Erin says. "I'm kinda bored."

The next morning she and Nicole drive south on Highway 101 to Idealab. (Stacy had to go to L.A.) They leave late to avoid traffic, but it still takes over an hour. "This is going to cramp our style," Erin frets.

"We'll move our company to San Francisco," Nicole reminds her.

Their first day is a lot like their first day at Della--except that Idealab's temporary offices are in a plain-vanilla office park, not in a downtown warehouse. The women are each given a "desk" (a door on its side, propped on supports), a phone, pens, and paper. They get a tour and introductions. Like Della, Idealab has a fully stocked kitchen (with Clif Bars instead of Tootsie Rolls) and overbooked meeting rooms. Erin and Nicole sit in a meeting room with a new co-worker--a khaki-clad guy with wire rims. "You need to start thinking about names and branding," he says. "We'll use the Idealab family of companies to get your message out." He suggests they start building a computer model of the economics of the business.

"I haven't built a model in a few weeks," Nicole says. "It feels like it's time."

FEEDBACK: ebrown@fortunemail.com