Five years ago, the dot-com explosion attracted two kinds of entrepreneurs: the opportunists who wanted to get rich, and the optimists who...
Five years ago, the dot-com explosion attracted two kinds of entrepreneurs: the opportunists who wanted to get rich, and the optimists who wanted to change the world.
Good thing that Devin Hermanson and Christine Hanna fit the latter.
The business partners might have been the unluckiest entrepreneurs in Seattle. They incorporated their startup, goNextDoor.com, the day the stock market plunged on April 14, 2000. They lost a chance to sell it when 9/11 spooked a potential buyer. They lost their savings, their investors’ money and ultimately their company.
But they didn’t lose what made them want to start a business in the first place. They still had an authentic, even quaint, ambition to do good.
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So it’s no surprise that today each has found a new career working for a nonprofit.
Hermanson, 39, now heads a department for World Vision, the Christian relief organization based in Federal Way.
Hanna, 35, organizes fund raising for Northwest Environment Watch, a sustainability think tank in Seattle.
The pair followed a path familiar to other achievers who emerged from the economic boom and bust exhausted and vaguely dissatisfied.
“I realized that if I’m going to work that hard I want to be working on things that are really important to me,” says Hanna. “I want to feel that all of that effort is going to help our society get more of the things that it needs.”
Many tech veterans crossed the chasm from corporate to social sector after making their fortunes. Former Microsoft executive John Wood used his wealth to start a charity that builds libraries in Asia. Trish Millines Dziko, another Microsoft alum, started a program to teach computer skills to minority children.
Hermanson and Hanna, on the other hand, barely had savings when they joined nonprofits. In fact, Hermanson was paying off a $77,000 tax debt on stock options he earned while at FreeShop, a Seattle direct-marketing Internet company now called Aptimus.
Ever unlucky, he’d exercised his options the day before the company’s stock tanked, giving him a whopping tax bill on stock that he eventually sold for $3,000.
It was at FreeShop that Hanna and Hermanson met. They both worked typical dot-com schedules, which meant 12-hour days, weekends and nights. For a while they liked the job, but they didn’t love it.
“I would talk about companies that were doing great things with a lot of reverence,” Hanna recalls. “But I never talked about FreeShop that way. I never said we’re changing our industry, we’re doing amazing things.”
That would change, they felt, with their own startup, goNextDoor.com. It would link local businesses with local customers through targeted e-mail. It was hardly a revolutionary or even noble concept, but the entrepreneurs pictured something grander: It would evolve into a community network. If merchants and customers got to know each other, goNextDoor would be doing more than selling stuff; it would be bringing neighbors together.
Even as a kid, Hermanson tended to think like that. He wanted to be a city manager so he could fight poverty.
And while people study Martin Luther King Jr.’s role in the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott, Hermanson was intrigued by and wanted to emulate the people who devised a sophisticated car-pool system to get the boycotters to work.
“Maybe we need people who can make things happen,” Hermanson recalls thinking. “Maybe it could be me.”
But his and Hanna’s dreams for helping society through business were stomped the day they signed the incorporation papers, when the bottom fell out of the tech economy and investors’ interest went from warm to ice cold.
The pair spent the next year running the business on a shoestring. Besides the endless job of trying to raise capital, they renegotiated the lease on their office, designed their own Web site, got donated equipment and bartered for everything else.
The 9/11 terrorist attacks dealt the final blow. goNextDoor closed in November 2001. Because they were corporate officers, Hanna and Hermanson, who had poured their savings into the company, couldn’t even qualify for unemployment benefits.
The struggle to keep their own company afloat — a nonprofit by default — would turn out to be an apprenticeship for their second careers.
Hanna concentrated on entrepreneurship and innovation while getting her MBA, but in heading up fund raising for Northwest Environment Watch, her dot-com experience is sometimes more useful.
“One lesson that I’ve used a lot since then is that there’s almost no harm in asking for anything,” she says. “We got so much support from other people, whether it was employees or contractors or investors. It was support that we wouldn’t have gotten if we hadn’t asked.”
Hanna joined the environmental organization in February 2002, excited about its “market-oriented” approach to sustainability — a philosophy that blends her business beliefs with her social conscience.
But the job also gives something she missed while working 60 hours a week, a schedule that took a toll on her health and cost her a marriage.
She now has free time for a life outside of work.
“I don’t work on the weekends anymore. I just don’t.”
For Hermanson, joining World Vision in July 2002 brought his career dreams full circle. He focused on nonprofit management while getting his MBA from Boston University, and he’d hoped that eventually he’d do just what he’s doing now. Today he runs the global charity’s U.S. gift-catalog business, which provides things like goats or water wells to families and villages in underdeveloped countries.
He’s not rich, but he’s not poor either.
“In the hardest of times, often the most beautiful things follow.”
Shirleen Holt: 206-464-8316 or firstname.lastname@example.org