Bootcamp for start-ups

While Nasdaq Burns

Networking with the true believers at the recent 'Boot Camp for Start-Ups' seminar.

The New York Times Magazine | The Way We Live Now: Phenomenon

By Jessica Seigel

THIS is big -- really big," said Bill Sarpalius, a former Texas congressman, taking in the scene at Boot Camp for Start-Ups, a seminar recently held in Manhattan and currently making its way around the country. While the Nasdaq was imitating sine waves on computer screens around the world, Sarpalius, like everyone else in sight, was networking wildly and conferencing on his cell phone. He was on the line with his board working out a merger with a rival while his employees were back at, a Web site that, come May, will allow citizens to pool their resources and hire former congressmen as lobbyists. Getting voted out of office, he decided, was "the best thing that ever happened. Now I'm part of a new frontier. There was the gold rush, the land rush and the oil boom. Now it's the Internet. I'm staking my claim."

Such was the spirit of endless possibility -- tinged with frantic urgency -- among the 1,000 prospectors, most of them white guys under 35. They had paid $995 each to learn how to hone and sell their ideas with the artful savvy of a Hollywood pitch meeting. ("Less is more," advised Bill Joos during the Perfecting Your Pitch seminar. "Bait hooks, don't force feed fish.")

Indeed, the convention seemed to take a page from Writers Boot Camp, a how-to sensation founded in a bygone decade, though these young hopefuls were after much more than a two-movie deal. "You have a three-year window to make $100million," Robert Lessin, the chairman and co-C.E.O. of Wit Capital, told a standing-room audience. "After that it's business as usual."

The Boot Camp was organized by, a start-up that helps start start-ups and will, of course, be going public later this year. Guy Kawasaki, the company's C.E.O., used to be "chief evangelist" of Apple Computer; at the seminar he seemed to proselytize for the whole New Economy. "The general message," he said, "is, things are still O.K." Translation: V.C. billions are still there for the picking. "Take the money when it's offered."

He didn't have to say it twice to Jeremy McGee, the 17-year-old president of, a children's e-mail service whose business plan McGee hatched with a partner he met in church and that has subsequently attracted $100,000. Or to the 29-year-old Morgan Stanley broker who is quitting his job to focus on a Web site that "empowers personal trainers."

Another general message to the believers was: B2B (business-to-business marketing) and B2C (business to consumer) are so five minutes ago; from now on it's all about B2B2C. Michael Parekh, managing director of Goldman, Sachs's Internet group, passed the good word to Michael Janay, a 31-year-old who is quitting his job to launch a Web site offering college-admissions services. Janay ran off -- literally -- to revise his business plan. "It just clicked," he said.

By cocktail hour, everyone was fully converted. Even the service staff. Like a Los Angeles parking valet who is working on a screenplay, Antionette Davis, who was working the conference's coat check, confessed she is leaving her job to study graduate computer programming. "Everyone and their mother is doing high tech," she said. Plucky coat-check girl and mother launch Internet start-up -- sort of an "Anywhere but Here" meets Esther Dyson.

The Way We Live Now: 4-23-00: Phenomenon