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“THE LEAP: A MEMOIR OF LOVE AND MADNESS IN THE INTERNET GOLD RUSH,” by Tom Ashbrook (Houghton Mifflin, 2000, 295 pages) In the old days, when men had midlife crises, they’d buy sports cars, drink too much, or take younger wives. Now they start dot-coms. At least that’s what Tom Ashbrook, cofounder and publisher of homeportfolio.com, did. A former Boston Globe foreign correspondent and deputy managing editor, Ashbrook left a secure job to be a part of the Internet revolution — and lived to write about the experience. The result is “The Leap,” another riff on The Great American Start-up Myth. It’s a great read for anyone over 30 who wants to imagine, “Could I be an entrepreneur in the digital age?” It’s got all the basic ingredients: two guys in a garage (actually, a spare room), a vision, and alternating periods of exhilaration and disappointment. Unlike the celebrated tales of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and the other boy wonders, Ashbrook’s story doesn’t contain much in the way of dumb luck. But it does show the “24/7″ intensity and determination that’s behind much of the new economy, not to mention the goofy, slogan-chanting bonding that goes on between middle-aged guys. In the beginning, Ashbrook had a safe job. Of course, his notion of safe may not comport with anyone else’s. As a foreign correspondent in such places as Zaire, the Balkans, and Rwanda, he dodged bullets from hostile militias, ate bad food, and combated loneliness. From this hot job he went to another: The Globe brought him back to Boston in the mid-1990s to be one of its top editors. Ashbrook commuted every day from his home in Newton, Massachusetts, to The Globe’s new digs in South Boston. In addition to the usual perks of life at a major newspaper — a pension plan, health insurance, and a generous, albeit not lavish salary — he now had the personal security that comes with a desk job. But this new deal was not as comfortable as it might seem. Ennui set in. Added to that was insecurity. In 1993 the mighty New York Times had bought The Globe, leaving Ashbrook and his colleagues a bit unsure of their place, especially as print attracted fewer and fewer readers and advertisers. So Ashbrook was primed for change when he ran into an old college pal at Harvard University, Rollie Rouse, who spoke of the dawning of a new economy. It wasn’t as though Ashbrook had spent much time with computers; he knew only enough to file or edit an article for his paper. But he had some time not only to think but also to do something about Rouse’s predictions during a one-year Neiman fellowship for journalists at Harvard in 1995. That year he was supposed to take courses, spend more time with his family, and cook dinners at home. Instead, Ashbrook writes, he wound up spending even less time with the kids, not to mention his long-suffering wife. He and his future business partner holed themselves up and wrote business plans. Some of the classes he did take at Harvard were graduate school business courses, like one on entrepreneurial management taught by Amar Bhid�, whose recent book “The Origin and Evolution of New Business” has made waves in new business circles. And so began a self-transformation, in which old-media Ashbrook became new-media Ashbrook, selling ritzy home furnishings on the web. Ashbrook and his partner decided their dream was to help aging boomers find the right stuff for their ever-plusher nests. Homeportfolio.com’s experience is pretty common to a lot of start-ups caught in the transition from the personal computer to the Net. Its plan was to design software that would help homeowners find that special kitchen faucet, or the perfect Shaker-style bed. The shopping experience would come via CD-ROM, just like America Online’s early, eventually aborted, shopping attempts. (Don’t remember? AOL is probably happier that way.) The Web swept such plans away, forcing the partners to alter their strategy midstream and jump on the Net. Once the Nieman fellowship ended and Ashbrook had to cut loose from The Globe, his fortunes plunged as he and his partners tried to interest people with money in their venture. In the process, they maxed out their credit cards. Friends and colleagues, while jealous of their adventure, occasionally questioned their sanity. The start-up process also took its toll personally, as Ashbrook struggled to keep his marriage and family together. Ashbrook’s tale — written, he says, as a way of keeping his hand in his old profession — is a good one, compellingly told. Is there a happy ending? Without giving away too much, suffice it to say that the Web site gets lots of hits, there are tons of products on it, and Ashbrook and company continue to get rounds of venture capital funding. So if, despite the recent, wild swings in technology stocks, you’re still tempted to go dot-com, especially on the ground floor, “The Leap” provides a good view of what may lie ahead. Just make sure there’s plenty of room on those credit cards.

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