Want to work for a dot-com? Think before you leap

I know a host of IT professionals who have left big companies to join dot-com startups. A few have made big bucks, but most are hopping from firm to firm, hoping to find the one that will make them millionaires. Even the financial problems encountered by the business-to-consumer dot-coms haven’t dampened their enthusiasm much, as many have followed the trend toward business-to-business Web firms.

The quest for financial freedom isn’t always a bed of roses, though. One friend ended up working for a Web infrastructure firm where the founder flipped out when the investors wanted to install a more experienced CEO.

“He ranted and raved, smashed pictures off the wall and called employees in the middle of the night to see ‘Which side are you on?'” She’s now working at another dot-com, with a CEO who is less intense.

Another friend joined an Internet firm that paid him top dollar and sent him on great business trips, but the firm had a burn rate that consumed its working capital in two months. Yet another friend went to work at a company whose management thought making deals and issuing press releases were substitutes for actually putting out a product. Both experiences ended with employees jumping ship before the businesses bit the dust.

I suspect that many IT professionals are experiencing similar difficulties in the wild and woolly world of the dot-coms. To help them out, I contacted Joseph Ferlazzo, director of corporate strategy at Andover, Mass.-based CMGI Inc., where he assesses the potential of Internet firms. I asked him what potential employees should look for in an Internet firm. Here’s his timely advice:

Get ready to work longer hours. If you don’t want to be expected to attend a 7 a.m. breakfast meeting after you’ve been up all night reloading the Web site, then the dot-coms aren’t for you.

Be risk-tolerant. There is no such thing as job security inside dot-com firms, because the world of the Internet is constantly changing.

Be comfortable with the culture. If you don’t like the people or the work environment, don’t join up. You’ll be working long hours and it can be hell if you’re not compatible.

Make sure that the company isn’t just a bunch of concepts. If you can’t get to a level of detail about the product that’s actually being sold, you’re wasting your time.

Insist on seeing the company’s business plan. Walk away if they won’t show it to you. The company should have a revenue stream and a date for when it expects to be profitable. And there should be enough funding in place so that the firm won’t run out of cash before it reaches that point.

Don’t count your millions before they’re hatched. The time is over when you could count on making a bundle on the initial public offering, because the market is forcing Internet companies to adhere to the same business principles as traditional firms.

For those who are ready and willing to do the legwork before joining, a stint at a dot-com can still be an exhilarating and potentially profitable experience. But nobody wants to put all that time and effort into a company that never had a chance in the first place.

James is the author of numerous books and articles on high-tech business. Contact him at www.geoffreyjames.com.