Some Preventive Medicine for Cases of Dot-com-itis

FRAMINGHAM (03/20/2000) - Depending on whom you ask, it's either a personality disorder, a temporary condition, or perfectly normal behavior. It's called dot-com-itis, a persistent and seemingly pervasive preoccupation with Internet company employment. Is it simply human nature in entrepreneurs' clothing? It certainly says a lot about who we are and what we want; but even more, it's showing us how much we stand to lose in embracing this brave new Webified world.

I never imagined Bill would succumb to dot-com-itis. Newly married and a respected partner in a distinguished consulting firm, he left for an Internet company after turning down his firm's generous counteroffer to solidify his standing and double his pay. Or Karen, a top-dollar consumer electronics marketing star with a carefully crafted schedule that allowed her to spend most nights and weekends with her husband and two toddlers. Now she's clocking 75 hours a week at an Internet startup and is lucky to make it home in time for bedtime readings, much less dinner.

Mark, however, got over a bad case of it and is now clam-happy at his former Wall Street employer. And he's back on a regular exercise routine and getting more sleep.

Here's a quick diagnostic test for dot-com-itis: When you first heard of the popular game show "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?", was your answer a knee-jerk "I do!" or the more cautious, "It depends on what it's going to cost me"?

People with Internet fever are generally too oblivious to personal and career trade-offs to be that insightful. They're blissfully unconcerned that the average length of employment at Internet companies is only eight months. And they seem unaware that few will actually be lucky enough to cash out via initial public offerings, or that it will take five years of vesting to get at the money if they do - and meanwhile the company's share prices could end up plunging from triple to single digits.

That only adds to the stresses in the personal lives of thirty- and fortysomethings like Bill, Karen and Mark. Twentysomethings at dot-coms with less to lose are perhaps the only absolute winners for now. But in a recent poll, 58 percent of executives said hiring skilled staff is the top roadblock to completing e-commerce projects. So the temptations will soon be much tougher to resist.

If the current growth rate of greed and opportunism continues unchecked, dot-com-itis could become known to future generations as the Green (as in money) Plague of the Information Age. What should you do?

Use common sense. When this economic boom goes bust, do you really want to have all your eggs in the basket of a startup or high-market-cap-but-money-bleeding Internet company?

Check your motives. Money, career or both? Make career your top priority and use your current employer wisely to help you build an attractive portfolio of skills and experience. Besides, what good is more money when you hardly have time to spend what you're getting?

Know thyself. An online career is like no other. Can you endure the brutality of long hours, a lack of structure bordering on near-anarchy, manic management and probably a cut in pay? If you suspect you might have an overinflated sense of your abilities, don't jump.

Choose your dot-com wisely. If you really want to be an Internet pioneer that badly, choose a click-and-mortar company. If things don't work out, you can opt for the security of a more traditional model without changing employers.

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