The Dot-Com Dream Is Gone, But Life Goes On Eighteen months ago we met four MBAs, three at a Web startup and one at P&G. Several jobs and a market crash later, we say goodbye.
By Eryn Brown

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Back in the summer of 1999 we set out to track the fortunes of four young MBAs--three women who were joining the new economy and one man who was sticking with the old. We met them at their graduation from Northwestern's Kellogg Graduate School of Management. Within days they went their separate ways. Erin Gershon, Stacy Sukov, and Nicole Small headed to San Francisco to create WebWisher--an online gift registry for kids that had already been acquired by wedding registry company Paul Anfinsen went to his hometown, Cincinnati, to be an assistant brand manager for Bounty paper towels at Procter & Gamble.

We caught up with the four a second time when they were all struggling to master their jobs. By the time we made our third visit, in April of last year, our stable company man was learning the art of P&G marketing, growing ever more confident in his work. He had moved into a suburban house, even bought a gas grill. In the meantime, Erin, Stacy, and Nicole, like so many of their dot-com peers, had left their jobs. Their kids' registry had been shut down, so they moved to startup incubator Idealab--and appeared on the cover of FORTUNE. Their goal: to launch another company by the end of the summer. FORTUNE recently visited them all one last time.

Stacy Sukov, 30, waits for the microwave to buzz in the kitchen of Idealab's new Silicon Valley offices. (For more on Idealab, see "Bill Gross Blew Through $800 Million in Eight Months.") It's Nov. 14, her first full day in the new building. The workspace, laid out in an old warehouse, is open and airy, designed to be reorganized at the shortest notice. People glide from desk to desk on Razor scooters. It's pure fin-de-siecle dot-com. In a kitchen stocked with Snapple and bottled water, Sukov is heating up leftovers. She's been bringing her lunch to work more often since she lost her regular lunch partners.

Barely seven months since she and her friends Nicole Small, 28, and Erin Gershon, 29, signed on to build new businesses for Idealab, Stacy is the only one still there--and she's not leading any funky new venture of her own. She is director of marketing for Airwave, an Idealab wireless venture. Across the bay in Fremont, Erin is director of marketing and business development at another wireless startup, called OnMobile. And Nicole--well, Nicole's not working, at least not in the hard-charging, recruited-out-of-B-school sense. She went home to Dallas this summer to spend time with her mother, who had cancer. After her mother died, in September, Nicole decided to stay. Her husband, Justin, who is in the real estate business, had been living alone in Texas while Nicole tried to start her Net business in San Francisco. Now they have bought a house in Dallas. "This is the end of an era," Stacy says, looking back. "We put blood, sweat, and tears into this. We rode the wave. It's kind of sad."

Perhaps. But bagging their joint startup dreams turned out to be a surprisingly obvious decision. When FORTUNE last dropped in, the three had just become entrepreneurs-in-residence at Idealab. They planned to use three months to sort and test ideas, pick the best one, and build a company around it.They plowed through some 50 business plans, taking two or three all the way through demo and market-testing phases. They had loads of time to be together, to let ideas percolate and capture their fancy.

In the meantime the market had crashed and dot-coms were falling out of favor. Investors were seeking out hard-boiled technology plays--projects the women didn't think they had the expertise to tackle on their own. If they wanted to stay relevant, the WebWishers were going to have to chuck their startup search completely and join someone else's company. Nicole went back to Dallas in July. Soon after, Erin and Stacy moved their desks to Idealab's Airwave corner and began chipping in to help get the outfit off the ground.

The three remained close friends, but their business partnership had unraveled. Stacy got excited about Airwave's business--it's a wireless service--and she loved the company's staff. She wanted to try her hand at "managing a big brand" and thought accepting a position at Airwave might give her that opportunity. And there was something new to consider: She was now engaged--to another entrepreneur she had met during her first week in San Francisco. "Getting engaged made me think," Stacy says. "I'm starting on this new phase of my life. Do I really want to be a CEO? I'm looking forward to having balance. I just want to grow in this job." Within a month she signed on as Airwave's director of marketing.

Erin didn't settle in as easily. "Stacy signed on the dotted line, but I couldn't. I thought, 'I've never been on the job market. Ever.' And I didn't see how I could evaluate working at Airwave if I didn't look at a bunch of places."

So she quit in September and started her search. "For me it was a little bit of a vacation," Erin says of the six weeks she spent sprucing up her resume, networking, frequenting the gym, and spending time with friends. Prolonged unemployment was never a worry. "My parents couldn't believe I quit my job without a new one lined up. But I'm so not the anomaly. When I was unemployed, I always had three or four other unemployed friends to go to lunch with, to share leads with. Everyone's on their third job since business school."

By mid-October Erin had three offers. She was on the verge of accepting one of them when she ran into a friend who knew OnMobile's CEO, Arvind Rao, and urged that Erin talk to him. When she did, everything clicked. "I knew within 15 minutes that this was the job I wanted. It was ten levels above what the others were doing." Five days later she was commuting to OnMobile's offices in a nondescript Fremont office park.

Cut off from Silicon Valley by San Francisco Bay, Fremont is the epicenter of Indian culture in the area. Erin sits in a cubicle near three co-workers; they're all guys, all recently arrived from India. She spends more than two hours commuting every day, and her mornings start early, with 7 A.M. conference calls to Bangalore and the like. She needs to hire a staff of ten. She hasn't been to the gym in weeks. She's exhausted. But she is working toward the big payoff, and she believes OnMobile will be a hit.

"Chicago is really where my heart is." This is Paul Anfinsen talking. He's sitting in the living room of the house he designed and built a year ago in Cincinnati. Now the house is on the market. Paul is leaving P&G and going back to Chicago, where he once lived, to take a job with a consulting firm. "I lived there eight years, and a lot of my friends from business school are there. It's diverse. It's exciting."

This is quite a turnaround for Paul, 32, who had moved to his hometown expecting a lifelong career at P&G. Now he's tossing aside that idea. No more weekly marketing meetings, no more reports about paper towels. No more suburban living with the sprinkler and the lawn mower. He is keeping the gas grill. Its new home will be a balcony outside Paul's two-bedroom condominium, which is near Wrigley Field and has a view of the Chicago skyline.

It's mid-January, and Paul hasn't moved yet; he's working a few more days at P&G, handing off his projects to the new assistant brand managers. He has started packing his house, but there aren't that many boxes lying around. He didn't live there long enough to accumulate much stuff. As nice as it's been to be near his family and have a big house, Paul never truly settled in. He didn't realize how small Cincinnati would feel, how quiet.

The last year has been chaotic for everyone at P&G. The stock collapsed; the CEO got the boot; new management has changed direction. It has sometimes been hard to get things done. Still, Paul feels he accomplished something for Bounty. He shepherded a marketing campaign, and he worked a bit on company-wide online strategy. He devised a method for evaluating pricing that other business units within the company are beginning to adopt. His proudest achievement: building a marketing Website,

Life at P&G was not all bad, Paul says. It's just that he wanted to do more: take different approaches to marketing, work with more products. He hopes his new consulting job at the Cambridge Group, an 80-person marketing strategy outfit with offices in New York City and Chicago, will offer just that. He'll work with companies in the airline, financial services, and packaged-goods industries. "I think I've matured a lot in my perspective around my career," he says. "I came to the conclusion that I like variety, and I like changing venues. It keeps me challenged." He begins asking me what it's like living in New York. Maybe, he says, he might like spending a year there, someday.

Odd as it is to see Paul selling his house, it's stranger still to see Nicole, the youngest and in some ways the most ambitious of the WebWishers, turning her attention away from business. After all, she was the one with the McKinsey pedigree and the summer job at Goldman Sachs, the one who stayed in San Francisco even after she married a man who lived in Dallas. Nicole was a sort of de facto CEO in the early WebWisher days. She had the contacts and the negotiation experience. She was the one who got everyone in the door at Idealab.

Now she's reacquainting herself with Dallas, her hometown. "I do miss being in a walking city," she sighs, driving home from a meeting (she works as a part-time freelance consultant to three tech startups) in her Jeep Cherokee, golf clubs rattling around in the back. Nicole still has her San Francisco apartment, and she thinks she might go back to run another company, eventually. But for now she's helping her dad with everyday chores and working with her brother to administer a foundation in her mother's memory. She's putting together a book: a collection of letters her mother received during her illness. She's enjoying her new house--it has a creek in the backyard and is just ten minutes from downtown. Nicole originally planned to get a new full-time job by the first of December, but she has decided there's no need to rush. She's in talks with several companies, but she's not setting any deadlines. "It was just a difficult year for me," she says.

Back in the summer of 1999, when FORTUNE started following our grads, the world seemed to be splitting sharply in two directions: the new economy and the old. We wondered which road was better, who would "win" by following one or the other. The notion sounds quaint today. The roads diverged; then they re-united. Dot-com effervescence is gone, but the boss at Morgan Stanley wears khakis. Companies--all of them--have to earn profits, but the Internet is alive.

Our grads, too, are on equal ground. No one made millions, no one's destitute. No one's a star, no one got fired. Real life slapped down their dreams: The women have shelved entrepreneurship for now, and Paul realized he didn't want to be a company man after all. The women seem to have had more fun; Paul leaves behind more tangible results. But none really "came out ahead" as we thought they might. All of our MBAs made some money, got some worthwhile experience. They changed jobs. Had a life.

And it was life--not the work, not the stock options they did or didn't have--that mattered most. Nicole tries to keep the whole thing in perspective. "Last summer people were saying, 'How can you quit? Are you crazy? What could possibly be that important?' " she remembers. It's early evening, she has just checked her e-mail, and she's watching the local newscast as she waits for her husband to come home. "But I have no regrets--being on the cover of your magazine one day and turning away the next. There are more important things in life."