From the book lists at Adware Report:

All information current as of 14:02:46 Pacific Time, Monday, 21 February 2005.

The Leap: A Memoir of Love and Madness in the Internet Gold Rush

   by Tom Ashbrook

    Houghton Mifflin Co
    15 May, 2000


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Editorial description(s):
These days, if it isn't a dot-com venture, it's no adventure at all. But in early 1996, when Tom Ashbrook jumped from the world of ink and paper to that of computer screen and mouse, Internet start-ups were largely the domain of computer geeks and 18-year-old whiz kids--not exactly the most obvious place for a journalist with a family to support. But with big dreams and a midcareer itch, Ashbrook took The Leap. The result is a look back at those adrenalin-pumped years that's filled with honesty, humor, and a healthy dose of introspection.

Neither a geek nor a whiz kid, Ashbrook was an award-winning writer for the The Boston Globe, where he had worked for 15 years. Shortly after winning a coveted one-year sabbatical in Harvard's Neiman Fellowship program, Ashbrook began talking Net dreams with an old college friend, Rolly Rouse. Their vision was to launch a Web site that would present home-design information and images and enable users to create online idea portfolios and buy quality products for their dream homes. Ashbrook soon quit his job and plunged into the project full time, endlessly revising business plans, tapping anyone and everyone for advice, courting venture capitalists, hoarding free credit cards for backup "security", and forever trying to convince a sane and worried wife that he wasn't zooming headlong over a cliff. As a case study of, it's a story of manic speed and energy. As the story of one man's midlife adventure, it's a tale of trepidation, fear, ambition, love, and wonderment.

Ashbrook writes with eloquence. His descriptions are imaginative, juicy, and always dead-on. For example, Harvard Business School "was a gleaming, vitamin-enriched, brick and marble and white-trimmed monument to economic steroids," and its old buildings "always looked next-to-new, like rich, pampered matrons on full-dose nip-and-tuck regimens of estrogen and plastic surgery." And he remembers the Myers-Briggs personality test "smelled a little like horoscopes for eggheads to me, with its big gumbo of letters and pat descriptions." Occasionally, Ashbrook's tendency to spice up his descriptions gets a bit much as he throws in too many metaphors; it's as if his brain is on hyperlink overdrive. Overall, though, his graceful prose flows with alacrity, and the pace is infectious. Forget the quiet comfort of your favorite reading chair; you'll be stomping down the sidelines, hoarsely shouting, "Yes, yes, you're almost there, go, one more push!" For that's what this is, a breathless tale of giving birth, an exhausting, exhilarating play-by-play of sweaty labor and life-changing success. Beware... it'll give you the itch. --S. Ketchum

Washington Post
"Ashbrook comes across as the kind of guy you'd definitely want to invest your money in..."

The Boston Globe
"A gripping account of an e-commerce start-up by a journalist-turned-entrepreneur."

USA Today
"...great adventure tale ... chronicle of the new economy written with the clarity, style and literary passion of a genuine professional.''

"The Leap is something genuinely new among books on the emerging tech economy. It is a risk-taker's account that makes vivid what risk really means... enjoyable and provocative." -- James Fallows, author of Breaking the News

"Kudos to author Ashbrook for this heart-felt, sobering saga of his walking away from financial security to launch a risky new Internet business venture....Throughout, the author's penetrating candor and self-deprecating humor whirl the reader through his family's ordeal....this is a wild ride of a story."

John Perry Barlow, co-founder, Electronic Frontier Foundation
"The Leap leaps. Exhilerating... Ashbrook proves once again that the journey is the reward."

FORTUNE Small Business
"Entertaining and compelling. - Check out his wife Danielle's valentine to him...

"Entertaining and compelling..."

James Fallows, author of BREAKING THE NEWS
"The Leap is something genuinely new among books on the emerging tech economy. makes vivid what risk really means... enjoyable and provocative."

"...tale of self-doubt ... marital discord and a $25 million jackpot just the thing to inspire would-be entrepreneurs to take the start-up plunge."
"Inspiring...breathtakingly lovely prose ... Readers will identify with him, love his story, and want to try it too."

Fast Company
"Poignant...harrowing...mystical...on fire. By the end of the book, Ashbrook has a company he can view with great pride."

"Kudos to author Ashbrook for this heart-felt, sobering saga of his walking away from financial security to launch a risky new Internet business venture....Throughout, the author's penetrating candor and self-deprecating humor whirl the reader through his family's ordeal....this is a wild ride of a story."

About the Author
Tom Ashbrook is an award-winning journalist and a founder of HomePortfolio Inc., creators of, the leading Internet destination for premium home design products. A longtime foreign correspondent and editor for the Boston Globe, he spent ten years in Asia, working and reporting from India, Hong Kong, and Japan. He was awarded the Livingston Prize for national reporting and held a Nieman fellowship at Harvard University before launching a second career as an Internet entrepreneur. Ashbrook began his writing career at the SOUTH CHINA MORNING POST in Hong Kong, covering the exodus of Vietnamese refugees and the post-Mao opening of China. His earlier work included roustabout and dynamiting jobs on oil exploration crews in Prudhoe Bay and the Alaskan Yukon, a teaching stint with the Yale-China Association in Hong Kong, scripting and dubbing Chinese kung fu films for international distribution, on-air hosting of primetime television in Hong Kong, and research jobs for Illinois Lt. Governor Neil F. Hartigan and U.S. Rep. Leslie C. Arends. Launched out of a third bedroom in 1996 and live on the Web since January, 1998, HomePortfolio has raised more than $24 million in venture backing, and has over one hundred employees and offices in Newton, MA; Chicago; Los Angeles; Charlotte; and New York. Described in the February, 2000 issue of HOUSE & GARDEN magazine as the Internet's "uber-site" for home design, H&G's editor wrote: " blows my mind." Born and raised on a farm in Bloomington, Illinois, Ashbrook lives in Newton, Massachusetts with his wife, Danielle, and his three children.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
I was four days into Africa when the jet lag caught up with
me, when everything caught up with me. Standing naked in my boots at
2 a.m., sweating and wired and doing raggedy tai chi to make the
night pass. Reading Jesus from Gideon's little Bible and thinking
about the girl from Bujumbura and machetes and machine guns and time
and the Internet.
Please fasten your seat belt firm and low, a little voice
advised at thirty-nine. Instead, I was quietly slipping free. I was
ready for a change, for rebirth, for a new skin and tang. I wasn't
sure how it would come or what it would be, but I had to have it.
Deep in a career, in a life, I was unbuckling, eyeing the exits,
ready to walk on the wing.
That night in Bukavu, dreaming wide awake and turning, I saw
everything. I saw Jesus and the girl and old John Peng all moving
with me, soft, intense, in unison. "Combing the mane of the wild
horse," like John Peng taught. Turning like slow motion kung fu
kings. Breathing steady, eyes deep and cool, leaning in and out like
tai chi masters.
"The white crane stretches its wing," John Peng would say,
and we would stretch side-by-side in smooth duet, far from cares and
close to happiness.
"I will help you," the girl from Bujumbura whispered at the
airport in Rwanda. I was the American reporter, arriving late at
night and lost. She was tall and very fine, a Tutsi, and close in the
taxi that drove down dark roads where the dead had lain. Oh,
Danielle, I am too far from home.
Then Jesus off the little page, like a friend, like a
taunt: "Is not the life more than meat, and the body more than
raiment?" I was reading, he was saying, we were moving. In a
crumbling hotel room, in a fever in the dark, he moves with grace so
focused I become a silent mirror.
On this long day I have seen bones and darkness wrapped in
beauty. I have driven out of Rwanda to Bukavu, where Belgian masters
left château after château on the equator and hatred in each stone
and vine. I have seen the villages with every third house destroyed,
and sullen bloodshot boys with dull exhausted knives and guns, and
wide boneyards still soft to touch. I have seen truckloads of dull-
eyed peasants wandering in dread through sweet green hills and the
grimacing joy of old friends finding one another quite unexpectedly
"The Internet will change everything except human nature," I
hear Rolly murmuring. Somewhere in the hotel's dark rafters an
ancient air conditioner kicks to life, sending one sharp, cold stream
down through the swamp of heat. And I am sweating and shivering and
Maybe I'm too old for this. Maybe this is too old for me, for
anyone, a creaking, pointless trick of history too bloody, too
endless. Who said I had to see firsthand? Who said there was no other
So I will think of everything, and think of change. I will
take stock and move. I can't sleep anyway. It's too damned hot and
- from Africa notes, January 1995

Chapter 1
That word was in the water lately. It was in the air. It was
Everything to win. Everything to lose. Have everything. Risk
everything. Walk away from everything.
And, of course, everything changing. The way we thought and
felt and dreamed. Our expectations. The economy. The century. My
marriage. The news business. Me. Everything.
It had been almost fifteen years since I first walked into
the Boston Globe on a bright winter morning with shoes full of snow
and a couple of scribbled names in my pocket. The Globe was a temple
to me then, with its big presses and its brassy editorial voice. It
had colorful characters and idealism and prestige and power. It hired
me, and it held out the possibility of changing the world. I loved it.
Now things were changing, all right. But the paper didn't
seem to have much to do with it, and neither did I. It was the
economy, stupid. It was technology I barely understood. And some kind
of new world, humming through the telephone lines, that we couldn't
touch but was all around us. Changing everything, they said.
I had always been a heat seeker, but somehow the heat had
slipped away from my corner. I was a top editor at the paper now, but
what were we editing? And when we went out to report and write, who
was honestly panting to read the stuff? We held a management retreat
to look into the future, and a somber professor told us that
tumbleweeds would blow through the pressroom within a decade. Nobody
would bother to pull the last paper from the presses. Nobody would
care to read it. When we all laughed, Ted Leonsis, the burly tough
guy who would soon be president of America Online, flushed and
growled into his microphone from the podium.
We had a simple choice, he said. "Digitize or die."
And I didn't know what he meant.
I would lie awake in bed with Danielle, her leg thrown over
mine, and ramble in the night, when the boys were tucked in and she
was diving for sleep and rest to face another day of work. I never
knew how much she heard. My rant was almost always the same. I don't
know where I'm going, I would say to the dark. I'm working for an
outfit that pours ink onto wood pulp and sells yesterday's news.
We're writing stories I'm not sure anyone cares about. I'm not even
sure they're the right stories. I'm not sure anymore, I would say,
about anything.
"Uh-huh," she would murmur.
I'm restless, Danielle, I would say. I'm crawling out of my
skin. You know, at work, people actually sit in the cafeteria and
debate whether newspapers will last long enough for us to retire.
Maybe I'm paranoid. But the whole place is starting to smell of
dinosaur. I didn't get into this business to be a minor priest in a
dying religion, Danielle. I got in because it had gusto and life.
Because it felt big and urgent and true. And now I don't know. I
don't know if I've still got the passion for this. If it's worth it.
Everything's changing. It's not what I came for anymore.
And she would sleep. And I would not. And I wondered what
that meant, too.

Danielle was pregnant again. It was her third time, not counting the
false starts, and this time we knew it was a girl. It had been eight
years since Ben had come, twelve since Dylan. This pregnancy was an
indulgence, but we weren't ready to be finished with kids.
We looked at it this way:
If I got promoted to a fabulous career at the paper, this
third baby would be the icing on the cake, the lucky jewel in the
crown. It could happen. And this would be the lucky child who got the
extra trips to Disney World, the fancy skiing lessons, the long
summers on the Cape.
And if the career just chugged along, well, that would have
to be its own reward, and this child would be our alternate joy. She
would be our fresh stake in the simple life, in soccer games and
school concerts and silly dancing on winter nights in the living room.
"And what if I just go nuts and throw everything over?" I
asked Danielle one Sunday afternoon as we walked around the
neighborhood lake. "You know, try something crazy. Something new."
At the water's edge, a fat brown duck fought with two
seagulls for a crust of bread. I wished our house were on this lake,
with a great, wide lawn and fine veranda and the summer splashing of
happy children and us around to hear it.
"You won't throw everything over," she said, pulling my hand
onto her budding stomach. She was beautiful. She was sensible. She
had known me for a long time.
"Not everything," she said.
Then a promotion passed me by. The next rung on t he ladder
was suddenly far away. The pull of the chase for the top had kept me
with the program. Now I had taken a slap. It didn't mean I had to
bolt. I could sit tight. Or I could jump to another paper. But here,
suddenly, was a moment to do some completely fresh mapping. Here was
a time to look honestly at myself and the world, to acknowledge how
much I was chafing, how urgently I needed to make some big decisions.
And there was something else. My old college pal Rolly Rouse
had been calling with a stream of wild ideas lately. I couldn't get
used to hearing his voice again. In my mind's eye Rolly was still a
skinny kid with a long ponytail and an unplugged electric guitar,
racing through Jimi Hendrix riffs in 1973, our freshman year at Yale.
We had shared a suite of rooms and some sweet, goofy growing up. I
could still see young Stone Phillips, already anchorman-handsome,
rolling on our floor in tears of laughter, reciting Kant while we lit
farts with a match. And David Levitt, now a software wizard for Bill
Gates's old partner Paul Allen, wrapping on a boa constrictor and
dancing free and naked under his banana curl Afro. And Danny
Schneider, an attorney in New York now and my dearest pal, grinning
his beautiful idiot Buddha grin at the whole show.
But intense, hyperkinetic, driven Rolly Rouse on my phone?
Now? This I would not have predicted. For years we had barely kept
up. I knew he had gone on to study architecture and engineering and
to do something with energy and housing. I knew he was married, to
Carole, and that they had a young daughter. And that was about it
until we happened to move into houses a mile apart and ran into each
other at the local liquor store in Newton, our leafy suburb on the
western edge of Boston.
Rolly was as high-strung and cerebral as ever - a "brainiac,"
my kids would say. At first the reaquaintance made me jumpy. His rate
of idea production per second seemed almost crazed. At any moment he
would cut loose on lessons of history and economic cycles and
patterns in time, on Peter Drucker and George Gilder and technology
waves and the finer points of inflation adjustment. Everything.
Danielle would roll her eyes and flee. I was charmed. My
world of reporters and editors and deadlines was full of quick takes
and deep irony and carefully veiled inner lives. We had our passions,
but they tended to be well armored and held in reserve. Rolly was
different. Twenty years after college, his personal world was still
charged right out front with clenched-fist conviction and a dukes-up
passion for big ideas. He wore everything on his sleeve - heart,
brain, obsessions. He would talk and talk with complete and sincere
absorption in his subject, whatever it happened to be, and I would
wait for the cynical disavowal or ironic cocked eyebrow that never
came. This was strangely refreshing.
We saw each other occasionally for a beer and conversation,
and now he was on the phone almost every day. Talking about "new
media." Talking about the Internet. Talking about maybe starting a
new company - maybe with me.
How could we do that? He had a mortgage. I had a mortgage. We
had no money worth mentioning. We had car payments and insurance
bills and credit cards with all-American balances. We had lives
already and kids to feed!
But I always returned his calls. They were too interesting to
ignore. And I was too restless not to listen.

For a while, John Peng saved me from the itch. He showed up like a
perfect gift, like oxygen, wisdom, and calm.
I met him early one morning on the big field near our house.
I was out walking our tall yellow lab, Sadie, as I did every morning.
The field was dog central for the neighborhood. When Sadie was a pup,
I had always socialized with the neighbors rounding the field,
jogging along in twos and threes or mobbed up for a stroll while our
dogs tumbled and yelped. I had loved the fresh air and early morning
sky and the easy puppy care chatter of feeding schedules and chewed
But now Sadie was a few years older and less frenetic, and I
often walked alone with her, tossing her sticks and thinking. Work
was weighing on me. Money, too. And time. There wasn't enough of it,
and the little we had was slipping by. I was hopeless at office
politics. The paycheck was good but never enough. The kids were
growing up too fast, and the hours we worked seemed only to get
longer. Danielle and I weren't laughing the way we used to laugh.
Passion, even communication beyond the car pool schedule, had to wait
in line with everything else. Life was a mess of compromises that I
was tired of making.
I stopped noticing the morning sky. I started talking to
Sadie more than usual, and one morning had to admit flat out that I
was talking to myself, muttering vague complaints and bits of
combative conversation like an old man on a bus station bench. I was
living the two-car, six-figure, green suburb American dream - and
muttering to myself like a bag lady in the rain. I was scaring the
Then John Peng appeared. The first time I saw him, it was as
if I had stumbled into a misplaced clip of exotic film. The
neighborhood field was a familiar zone of soccer balls and L. L. Bean
jackets and well-fed hounds with names like Brewster and Benson.
Neighbors walked their dogs and rushed off to jobs as psychiatrists
and lawyers and architects and software programmers. They had
different degrees but one class: striving suburban strapped. Nobody
felt secure, but everyone tried to act it.
On this morning, on a low hill in a corner of the field, I
saw a dignified Chinese man slowly removing a dark blue jacket,
folding it, and placing it carefully on the grass. With an old
athlete's ease, he moved to a sunny spot at the center of the hilltop
and began what was clearly a deeply familiar routine of stretching
and deep breathing. By the time I had rounded the field again, he was
doing tai chi.
I couldn't stop staring. Danielle and I had spent almost ten
years in Asia, a good chunk of that time in Hong Kong, where for
several hours every morning the parks were lined with people moving
through the smooth ballet of tai chi. It looked like underwater
martial arts, with its slow, meditative mix of balance and motion,
retreat and attack. I had always wanted to learn but had never found
the right opportunity.
Within a few weeks John Peng had become both my teacher and
my friend. I didn't make new friends much anymore. Certainly not
seventy-five-year-old friends from Harbin, in the far north of China.
He was visiting his son, a mathematician in Boston. He was my good
John Peng was a man of action, with clear, dark eyes and a
striking strength of bearing. In our third conversation, I asked if
he would teach me tai chi. He agreed, glad for the company, I think.
The next morning he met me on the low hilltop with a handwritten
list, in English and Chinese, of the first twenty-four basic moves I
would need to learn, and we began.
We met every day, on fine mornings and in rain and in snow. I
was awkward. He was patient, moving side-by-side with me, working to
convey the significance of each motion. He was insistent that my
learning be more than physical. Tai chi, he said, was about the mind
and spirit.
"Comb the mane of wild horse," he would call out in his
halting English and dignified Chinese on our first mornings, starting
me through the sequence of movements that added up to simple tai chi.
"No thinking," he would say when we paused. "Only moving.
Breathing. Be focused but free of mind. Be full of energy, but calm.
Be full of power but never rigid."
Could he possibly know, I wondered, how well and truly I
wanted to take his advice? Maybe he did. Morning after morning, month
after month, we worked on that hillside, repeating and refining and
repeating until even Sadie knew the routines by heart and would dance
with a stick in her mouth as we approached the end, eager to move on
and play fetch.
I was never a more willing student. I wanted more than
anything to be full of energy but calm, full of power but fluid. To
be focused. To breathe like a bodhisattva. To be free.
"Grasp the peacock's tail," John Peng would say, and I would
follow his smooth, embracing gesture across the wet morning grass.
"Move with cloud hands," he would say, and we would move
slowly sideways, palms turning softly before our faces, minds
floating free.
"Pick up needle from bottom of sea," he would say, and I
would bend close to the ground, exhaling cares and finding depth.
Silently, after the first weeks, we would repeat the slow
routine three times, start to finish. When the concentration was good
and the effort was complete, I left the field exhilarated, aware and
alive in every breath and fingertip. The colors came back to the
morning sky, to the trees and grass, to everything.
One morning after a year of mornings, John Peng told me he
was going back to China, that the time had come for him to see his
other children and grandchildren. He told me he had first started
doing tai chi at the same age I was now, and that he had never
stopped, and that it had never failed him through many difficulties.
He advised me to do the same and invited me to come and do tai chi
with him along the Sunghua River in China. Then we practiced together
one last time, immersed in a common prayer of motion and breathing
and awareness.
I knew I had been given a gift. John Peng's tai chi had
reawakened me. It had opened my eyes to the pleasure and power of a
focused spirit.
Which was good.
But it wasn't enough.

"You won't throw everything over," she said.
"Not everything."
She said it with a confidence shadowed by an old fear, and
with some reason. We had led a charmed life, people said, and I
guessed they were right. Things had come easily, but I was the one
who believed in the charm. I was the Illinois farmboy raised in the
warm embrace of small churches and "Kumbayah" campfires, raised to
believe that the world was full of warm hearts and helping hands and
endless possibilities that only required full-throated pursuit.
Danielle was not so sure on any of those points.
We had been sweethearts since we were sixteen. I was a tall,
bookish kid, raised baling hay and herding sheep and dreaming of the
big world. She was a first breeze from that world, the honey-skinned
immigrant daughter of a French father and German mother, exotic in
our prairie town, writing fevered teenage poetry and grappling with
America, grappling with me. Biologically, we were a happy head-on
collision. In other ways, we seriously mistook each other. I saw Euro-
exotica in a gentle, brown-haired girl whose charmingly accented
family had suffered war and dislocation and wanted stability in
America. She saw American bedrock in a blue-jeaned native son who was
locked and loaded with relentless American dreams. We were not what
we each first perceived. It would be interesting.
The year we met, in the summer that Watergate tumbled out,
she watched me catch a ride on a hog truck from Peoria to
Philadelphia, go to work in Washington's political disintegration,
and get caught up in riots in Miami, when National Guardsmen and
antiwar protesters fought in the streets over Richard Nixon's
nomination to a doomed reelection.
When the Alaskan oil pipeline boom was on, she waved me
north, twice, to work as a roustabout and dynamiter and come back
long-haired in the muscled pride of youth, battered hard hat and
caribou antlers off the tundra thrown over my Kerouac backpack.
When Eastern my sticism was the rage we headed out together,
to India for a year, still just kids, to study Telugu and the Vedas,
to wander through the Himalayas and dance along the Bay of Bengal,
knowing everything and knowing nothing.
As a boy, one of my dreams had been to somehow hock our
modest family farm and buy my hometown newspaper, the Bloomington
Pantagraph. In the early '80s, when prices for farmland were at a
historic low and prices for newspapers at a historic high, the de
Young family, who owned the San Francisco Chronicle, bought the
Pantagraph for tens of millions of dollars.
The de Youngs didn't know me from a bump on a log, from a boy
on a tractor. Neither did the local sellers. But I watched the
transaction with a private sense of humiliation. My naive dream had
been utterly laughable. There was no printing press out there with my
name on it and probably would never be. So I kept moving.
When Mao died and China opened, Danielle and I made our base
in Hong Kong to start careers in journalism and education, me as a
green reporter at the South China Morning Post, she as a teacher for
the United Nations, helping the waves of refugees that were sailing
out of Vietnam.
When Asia exploded with wealth in the late '80s we were back
again, now for the Boston Globe, starting a family in Tokyo and
watching Japan's economic bubble grow, with fresh-off-the-boat
Ferraris purring through the narrow, golden streets of the city.
We came home as the Berlin Wall came down, me to guide
foreign news coverage from Boston at the end of the Cold War, she to
become a young associate dean at MIT. We thought we were settling
down, but it wasn't that simple.
People in my family had never had corporate jobs before my
generation. They were farmers and forest rangers and schemers, always
on the margins of the celebrated mainstream economy and its
impositions. I could still remember that my father had a copy of The
Organization Man under his nightstand when I was a boy, but I would
bet he never got through it. I had never expected a corporate job
either. Journalism had been my dodge. Now here I was, a newsroom
manager in a large media company with an increasingly corporate feel.
I had proven I could climb a corporate ladder, but was that what I
had started out to do? I didn't think so.
My old friend Jonathan Kaufman, a reporter for the Wall
Street Journal, used to accuse me of being a serial adventurer, of
requiring a life-shifting thrill every few years, the way a vampire
needs blood. Maybe he was right. When life is charmed, why not keep
rolling the dice? Danielle probably could have told me why. She had
her own view of life's odds and dangers. But I didn't want to hear
it. I was on a hot clock, and I was restless. Yes, this time things
were different. We had a lot to lose, with real careers and kids and
commitments. But there had to be a way to keep life fresh and free.
Surely there was a way.
I remembered castrating lambs in the long-ago spring with my
grandfather. We had a nifty tool like a long pliers that reached over
their nappy little sacks and pinched the narrow tubes behind their
nuts until they snapped. The lambs ran off as if nothing had
happened. But of course it had.
"And what if we didn't have this nice tool?" our beloved old
Swede asked me, standing in the barn as we sent the last lamb out the
door, out into the pasture where Danielle and I would be married ten
years later.
When I looked blank, he pushed his worn hat back and told me
how when he was a boy the old shepherds would take a lamb's fuzzy
scrotum right in their teeth, find the tubes, and bite down firm till
they could feel them pop. That way you knew for sure the job was
done, he said. And you didn't need fancy tools.
I made a face.
"Aw, that's nothing," he laughed, eyes twinkling. "Listen,
Tom. I'll tell you something. Y ou get in close enough to anything,
and you really mean business, you'll be surprised at the things you
can do."
Yessir, I nodded. And I got in close to a lot of things.

The flight from Brussels to Rwanda was seven easy hours, with clear
skies all the way. The earth rolled under our little jet like a
perfect promotion for National Geographic: alps, sea, desert, jungle.
From 30,000 feet, it all looked as clean and virgin as the day it was
In seat 7A, I dropped a file of notes and clippings into my
old gray shoulder bag. I had picked up that bag years before in a
jammed Hong Kong alleyway. I had carried her on hundreds of trips
through places in boom or in trouble, packed with the simple tools of
the correspondent's trade. In India and Moscow and Nicaragua and
Tokyo and Tibet she had been my portable note file, the rough sling
for my laptop, my stashbox of rumpled press credentials, my lumpy
pillow, my companion. Her zippers stuck. Her worn pocket corners were
full of strange small coins and odd phone numbers and dust from all
over. I was stupidly loyal to that bag, sentimental the way you might
be about a favorite saddle or an old baseball cap. Or maybe an old
career. Now we were on the road again, and I was testing.
This spring's itinerary was all laid out in her side pocket.
Rwanda. Zaire. Somalia. The Balkans. Even with stopovers in London
and Paris, it was a nasty lineup, by design. I had taken a few years
off the road to work as an editor at the newspaper. I was cocky. My
climb through the newsroom ranks was very fast. For a moment it
seemed just possible that I might be running the whole show before
lunchtime. But it didn't work out that way, and I was bailing out of
the race for the top.
This was my first season back in the field. I didn't want to
ease into it. I wanted destinations that would put my nose right back
in the hard spots. I had always loved the news business, with its
deadlines and drama. But I was hitting the age when journalists ask
themselves if they really want to spend the rest of their lives
chronicling other people's passions. There was still a newsroom to be
run, and I would have a hand in that, but I was suffocating there. I
needed to be out, maybe farther than I knew, to see if the old joy
would still meet me. And it was there, but it was changed and so was
I. I was judging in a new way. What I saw was sorrowful and moving,
but it looked older than news should be, as if the world were living
all at once across so many centuries that flight was time travel, and
I was headed back when I wanted to go forward, to find the world's
new energy, and my own. The past would be with us always, present and
consequential and demanding. But I didn't have always. I had now.
Forgive me, I thought, walking through the gutted streets of
Mogadishu and Vukovar and graveyards on the equator. For a while I
may need a different vista.
And there was a candidate. They called it the Internet, and
it was supposed to be the new frontier. It was young and fresh and
knew nothing of genocide and war. My pal David Levitt had been
talking about it by different names for years, since his early days
at MIT. I barely understood it, but I did understand "new frontier."
That had a ring to it. I thought about it one blazing afternoon when
a Somali gunman laid the business end of his grenade launcher against
my neck at about the same moment that my kids were heading off to
school on another continent. He was General Aidid's man, at the shell-
pocked edge of General Aidid's godforsaken bit of turf. But what
difference did that make?
I needed a change.

The baby came right on schedule. She was beautiful from her first
wrinkled, blue, and mucky moment, straight out of the womb, to the
drying table, to her mother's arms. She bellowed like a little sailor
and we cried, Danielle and I, like we always cried, and I felt the
familiar, primal rush of emotion. I would die for this child. I would
kill for this child. And most of all, I would live, really live, for
this child.
We named her Lauren Ingrid, an American name teamed with a
middle nod to family Germans and Swedes. Danielle had vetoed India,
my first choice, as too colonial and odd, and who could care now that
she was here. Her hair was jet black and stood straight up, as if she
carried an electric charge. Her tiny face beamed with instant self-
possession. Her brothers, Dylan and Ben, huddled happily around their
mother and new sister on the hospital bed, and I saw my whole family
right there, young and trusting and vulnerable.
From the middle of the tableau, exhausted and serene,
Danielle's deep green eyes stared straight into mine. I had known
those lovely level eyes for a long time. I couldn't hide much from
them. They saw. And they spoke. And right then they were speaking
I'm counting on you, her eyes said as she cradled our tiny
new daughter. Do you understand that?
I got it - loud and clear. I always had. I had always
delivered. Not riches, not mansions. But a full fridge and good pay.
Now I'd been with one employer, and doing well, for more than a dozen
years. If that wasn't steady, I didn't know what was.
But I was twitching, and she knew it. She knew my rhythm. And
now it had a reason. A big wave to ride and a hole to watch out for.
Despite every near-giveaway and marketing trick the Globe's inventive
circulation department could come up with, the paper was losing
readers. So was nearly every other major newspaper in the United
States. I didn't have the same old confidence in the institution that
cut my paycheck. For that matter, the whole brick-and-mortar economy
seemed to be shouting the same message we saw on the flood of mutual
fund fliers that fattened our daily pile of junk mail: past
performance is no guarantee of future returns.
Brick-and-mortar. I had just begun to hear the phrase used,
and used derisively. Brick-and-mortar as distinct from online, from
electronic, from digital. Brick-and-mortar meant factories and
warehouses and stores - and printing presses. It meant any commercial
asset that was physical, heavy, solid, depreciating - as opposed to
the world that was electronic, light, untouchable. For thousands of
years, wealth and power had been measured by brick-and-mortar. Now,
brick-and-mortar was suddenly the butt of jokes. It was the past.
Zipping electrons were the future. Brick-and-mortar was a burden, a
ball and chain. It was the old economy. It was history. And its past
performance was no guarantee of future returns. Damn straight, I'd
tell myself, proud to imagine that I was no slave to habit or fear.
Every boomer and under with six ounces of awareness ought to be
asking him- or herself right now how they were going to make it when
the rain came, when their corner of the old economy met its maker.
The scythe of time. The new economy.
Yessir, I would spout when the kids were in bed and I was
brooding and pacing. It's all changing, and I for one am not going to
be caught flat-footed. Not me. No way. I would not be frozen by dumb
fear and some pitiful need to gulp the next paycheck. I would walk
"But to what? What is your alternative?" Danielle would
gently ask, looking up from a stack of bills and the checkbook (which
to my great relief she ran). She had heard me rant many times before,
then calmly packed me off to work or the kids' soccer games or maybe
Africa, and I would cool off and get back into our routine. My
outbursts were coming more often now. And each time, those green eyes
would level in for just an instant, for a quick reading, just
checking the bullshit meter, deciding there was nothing unmanageable
to worry about. Not yet anyway.
Now she w as taking her reading again, locking eyes from the
big hospital bed, her long hair pushed back and spilling over one
shoulder of her dressing gown, her children gathered around her, our
new daughter perfect and helpless in her arms. I have just given you
another child, her eyes said. You wanted a daughter, and I have given
you a daughter. She was still exhausted from the delivery. I could
see it in the economy of her movements - nothing wasted, nothing
quick. Even her eyes moved at a slow, gentle roll, taking in her
sons, her daughter, me, the moment, defining the intimate universe of
our family.
We are counting on you, her eyes said.
I stepped close to the bed and leaned down to put my forehead
on hers, my arms around the boys. Yes, I thought. I'm here for you.
Always. With everything I have. Everything.
But what does that mean I should do? I wondered in the car on
the way home, while Dylan and Ben laughed and tussled in the
backseat. Dig in or move on? Fight on with the paper or get the hell
And if, just if, I left the paper - hell, maybe leave
newspapers entirely - what about Danielle's question?
What exactly was the alternative?
I wasn't sure. It would probably never happen. But I was
starting to see a slim little path. I was keeping dangerous company.

Rolly Rouse was the only person I knew who stopped breathing when he
It wasn't that he breathed less. He didn't breathe at all,
for long, long stretches. There wasn't time. And there wasn't
leftover brain capacity for mundane chores like firing up the lungs.
When Rolly talked, he thought, and when he thought, his brain was
like a great furnace that sucked up all the oxygen in his body,
sometimes all the oxygen in a room. They say humans use only ten
percent of their mental capacity. Rolly surely used more, much more.
When he got into high gear, which is where he spent most of his time,
he used so much of his brain that he couldn't breathe.
For a long time I didn't know this. We were spending more and
more time together, after work, on weekends, over lunch. I was
looking for new ideas and inspiration, and Rolly was a blazing idea
factory. He was medium height and weight, with the big shoulders of a
former lacrosse player now set above a hint of middle-age paunch. His
skin still had its youthful translucence and his face its fine
features. His fingers were lean and deliberate - what you'd expect in
an architect or fine craftsman. The ponytail of his college days was
years gone, but his brown hair was still on the long side, and he
still wore the full Sundance Kid mustache, slightly drooping at the
corners, that gave him, at first glance, a jaunty wayfarer's look.
But he was not a jaunty guy. With a monumental effort, he could laugh
and slap backs and play the hail-fellow. But his pale eyes always
blazed under long, thin lids and a swept-back pair of hawkish
eyebrows. And when he talked, not breathing, those eyes began to
bulge, and in his passion and intensity and oxygen deprivation and
rising flush, you could see a touch of Mongol warrior. If this guy
rode into your village on horseback, you hoped he was on your side.
Conversation with Rolly was not for the faint of heart. There
were no throwaway lines, no casual, uncommitted riffs. Every
statement was linked to a sincerely held idea, and every idea was
linked to a hundred more equally impassioned ideas, and each of those
to a thousand more, and every single one joined in a vast, deliberate
mental matrix that Rolly's mind never stopped tending and updating
and rearranging and testing. It was a full and amazingly detailed
worldview and fact catalogue and logic engine behind those bulging
Way back in college I had already thought of Rolly's interior
life as unusually intricate, conscious, crystalline. Xanadu. A grand
and mindful intellectual project in all the ways that my inner music
was simply sensual and wild. Now, twenty years later, I realized to
my astonishment that his intellectual project, the great crystal
palace in his mind, had never stopped growing, had never even slowed
down. It had doubled up and doubled up like compounding interest
behind those pale, fired-up eyes. And it was still growing, like that
fifty-ton mushroom unearthed in Michigan, like the expanding
universe, like Xanadu on steroids.
For precious chunks of nearly every day I checked out of
deliberate thought - singing out loud, savoring a sunset or a pretty
smile, rolling on the floor with the kids. Just a happy, dumb animal.
Rolly never checked out. He couldn't. He was too desperately
committed to the project within. It was his pride and his prison.
In social settings I would watch as some unsuspecting soul
cradling a glass of wine stepped into Rolly's perimeter, exchanged
pleasantries for a moment, then made a casual remark that held the
slightest, uncrafted, unintended hook of a serious idea. Rolly would
turn, the hook would go in, and the palace within would be engaged.
His poor chatmate had no idea what she was in for, and Rolly had no
way of disengaging. It was the old pig and python story. Once he bit
on an idea, even a mere notion, he had to go all the way with its
consideration. All the way to hidden assumptions and nineteenth-
century antecedents and Renaissance parallels and the base behavior
patterns of our Neanderthal ancestors. Every idea that hit the
perimeter had to be processed and tested and integrated or rejected
or finally, very rarely, laughed off. There was no reverse gear and
no neutral.
Some people ran. Some played through. I loved it. It was just
the amazement I was looking for, just the fresh prism and challenge
and, maybe, the brewing vat for a change of life. And once I
understood that he wasn't breathing, that the flush and desperate
edge had a simple physiological explanation, it was even relaxing to
engage his realm, a relief from the ordinary chatter that poured out
of the radio and the TV and half of what I read. It was invigorating.
Rolly, Carole, and Kendra lived just ten or twelve blocks
from us, in a bungalow on the other side of the town center, on a
quiet street that nestled up against wooded reservation land. The
house was homey - with a steep roof, perched on a hillside with a big
green and white awning that shaded its front porch in the summertime.
Rolly and I sat there in the summer of 1994 and talked and talked.
The subject was usually new media - the CD-ROMs and online services
that were beginning to change the way information was moved and
shared. The goal of our conversations wasn't clear, but we were each
looking for something that maybe the other had.
When I had headed off to Hong Kong in 1977, Rolly had thrown
himself into the innovative end of the energy business. Those were
still the years of energy crisis, and Rolly had become a leader in
passive solar design, working out of the Massachusetts Energy Office.
In the mid-'80s, he joined Citizens Conservation Corporation, a
subsidiary of the innovative oil company Citizens Energy run by Bobby
Kennedy's son Joe.
By the mid-'90s, Rolly had left Citizens, where he had been
chief operating officer, and launched a successful consulting
business using sophisticated software to help multifamily property
owners update their buildings to maximize market value and
profitability. He was making good money, building a great reputation -
and crawling out of his skin - not so much with boredom as with a
sense that this could not be what life was all about.
We sat on his shaded porch one late afternoon in July as
Rolly described how he had opened a notepad at a suffocatingly dull
energy conference in 1991 and begun making a list of major trends he
saw unfolding in the wo rld, then mapping them against what he was
doing with his life.
There was no match. And he began to dream.
He loved homes, beautifully designed homes that created
environments where people could find joy and thrive. He loved
traditional homes, not the boxy cookie-cutter homes of postwar
modernism but the soaring, celebratory, character-filled homes of the
Victorian era. He saw that a lot of other people were gravitating
toward such homes, too. People wanted to live, he joked, "in the home
they wished their grandparents had had." Not the dark, cloistered,
and usually modest home of reality but an open, gracious, sun-filled
version of that traditional home with all the modern conveniences.
The home of people's dreams.
He told me how he had shared his vision with an old friend,
Katherine Ahern, in early 1994. Katherine was an artist working as a
real estate assessor who could never quite decide how to define her
own path in life, where the focus of her career should be. She had
listened closely as Rolly poured out his obsession.
"She just stared at me while I went on," said Rolly, solemnly
describing the epiphany he had had that day. "And when I was
finished, she put it right to me. She said, 'Look, Rolly, I don't
know what I want to do with my life, and I desperately wish I did.
You know what you want to do with yours, and you're not doing it!'"
So he had begun to push his ideas out into the world. He
talked with Buz and Shawn Laughlin, friends in Wellesley who were a
talented filmmaking and editing couple as well as serial home
renovators; they had repeatedly bought old homes, turned them into
showplaces, sold them at a good profit, and moved into ever-grander
old homes. He had talked with Megan Gadd, a ski resort heiress with a
great eye for design. And to Tom Timko, an old pal in high-tech
marketing. And of course to Carole, his wife, who oversaw the
management of thousands of units of public housing for the State of
Massachusetts. And to a few others, including me.
It was getting late, and I needed to install an air
conditioner at home for Danielle and the baby. Rolly and I kept
talking as we drove to a warehouse store, picked up a window unit,
and took it to my place. We had talked before about homes and new
media and the opportunity there. We had talked about home design and
the difficulties people faced in getting the homes they really
wanted. But this conversation was more concrete. Rolly was beginning
to decribe the outlines of a business, a business he wanted to call
He had written down some ideas, he said, and wanted me to
take them home and think about them and tell him what I thought. So I
did. And on that day I saw Xanadu beginning to come out into the

The packet Rolly gave me was twenty-two pages long, on simple white
paper, stapled at the corner. It wasn't really a business plan.
Later, we would get to know all about business plans, more than I
ever imagined I would know. This document was more basic. It was part
business plan, part raw vision. And it was part - a large part -
simple fantasy. None of the software and systems it confidently
described even existed. There was no explicit mention of the
Internet. It was a set of ideas and an impulse. But it was a
beginning, and we took it seriously. Why be embarrassed to be
When Rolly had gone, I sat down on the back steps of the
house and took off my sneakers and socks. It was early evening. Sadie
was sprawled in the backyard, snapping at the occasional bee buzzing
by from our weedy flower garden. I leaned against the warm brick wall
of the house and began to read.
BuildingBlocks Software
The Electronic Pattern Book Company presents
The New Victorian Home
A. Unique Selling Proposition
1. A New Way to Design Houses
The New Victorian Home is an "electronic patter n book" on CD-
ROM. It is a high-tech, high-touch version of the 19th century
architectural pattern book. (These popular, mass-market publications
presented design styles and ideas, practical construction advice, and
philosophical notions linking good building to healthy living.
Coupled with rising affluence and cost-cutting technological
innovations, they helped make possible the profusion of high-style,
high-craft "Victorian" houses that homeowners today hold in such high
Our pioneering program lets you make choices for yourself
before you hire an architect or builder. It helps you to explore the
design tradeoffs you think are most important. It zooms quickly from
whole houses to building elements and back and highlights
relationships between the parts and the whole. . . .
The New Victorian Home is as simple to use as leafing through
an interactive magazine and pointing and clicking on what you like.
It is a combination of a game, an educational program, and a
practical home design tool.
2. Satisfy the Baby Boomers
Available in both CD-ROM and applications software versions,
The New Victorian Home is designed to appeal to the rising
architectural tastes, standards, and construction budgets of the baby
boom generation. . . . Affluent "boomers" want houses that are the
modern day equivalent of those built during the Victorian Era. . . .
The New Victorian Home helps satisfy the growing demand for
customized house design by tapping into the skills, knowledge, and
learning capacity of the most important - and most disenfranchised -
player in the process: the home buyer or renovator. You choose the
building style and details you like best. You identify the attributes
(e.g. "a ten-room house with a wraparound porch and large kitchen")
and design qualities (e.g. "cute with lots of nooks and crannies")
that are most important to you. . . .
3. First to Market in Its Niche
Rapid growth in computing power, falling hardware prices, the
wide market penetration of the Microsoft Windows graphic interface,
and the explosive sales trajectory for CD-ROM players have set the
stage for a revolution in how people use computers. It is making
possible new ways of organizing, exchanging, and using information.
Our flagship CD-ROM product is designed to create a new
market. By being the first to take this approach, BBS hopes to define
in our customers' minds a new class of knowledge-building
software. . . .
The New Victorian Home is based on a simple premise: that
homeowners need a way to sort out their home design options,
preferences, priorities, budget constraints, and household conflicts,
and to do so effectively. . . .
4. A Proprietary Open Architecture
BuildingBlocks Software will create an open graphical
knowledge-building architecture for The New Victorian Home. We will
create additional titles using the same interactive visual problem-
solving environment. We will encourage other companies to create
titles using our development platform, which will be a proprietary
open architecture.
For example, building products manufacturers will be able to
use customized versions of The New Victorian Home to showcase their
products and services. This will create opportunities for in-context
informational advertising in response to specific or open-ended
customer requests. Use of BBS's object-oriented graphical environment
on both user and senders' computers will allow fast downloading of
complex images and information over standard phone lines. . . .
A mosquito made a pass at my ankle. I slapped it away. I was
making a mental list of questions. Object oriented? No idea.
Graphical environment? I guessed that meant the interface.
Proprietary open architecture? I had an idea what that might mean,
but it sounded like an oxymoron. Platform? I thought Microsoft and
Bill Gates had a pretty go od lock on software platforms, what little
I understood of them.
And what was up with all this Victorian stuff? It could be
right, but it sounded stuffy.
Still, something here was grabbing me. I liked a handsome
house and had seen people struggle to get the home they wanted. I
could relate to that. But there was more. Intuitively, this seemed to
me like a big potential piece of new economy turf. It was a long way
from covering the news, I thought. But this new economy, this digital
stuff, might be the news of the next century.
I riffled through, looking for the money part. It was the
slimmest section of the packet. Barely there. Bone simple. Up to
fifty percent of the company would be sold, it asserted, to build a
prototype, develop the product, and market it nationally. With no
point of comparison, that sounded fine to me.
How big was the market? Well, the United States had 60
million owner-occupied homes, it said, and at any given time,
probably half would be interested in home design software that helped
them "clarify their preferences and options, have fun, and dream big
Have fun and dream big dreams. I liked that.
BuildingBlocks modestly assumed it could win a five percent
share of the market for such software in its third year, or revenues
of over $8 million on the sale of half a million CD-ROMs. But the
real goal would be to win half of the market, or ten times that
revenue - $80 million - by year three.
Eighty million dollars! Fine! Beautiful! Why not?
Sadie jerked up off the grass and snapped furiously at some
bug. I moved to a lawn chair to stay in the fading light. The lawn
was not looking good this year. And the house definitely needed a
paint job. What would that cost me?
Never mind. Rolly's packet was getting deep into the realm of
The Decline of Modernism
For 75 years, the underlying ideology of architecture has
grown out of a core set of ideas - that a "universal" design style
was desirable and that ornament and attempts to achieve beauty were
decadent and misguided. Buildings were supposed to be simple, boxy,
and preferably white.
The modernist philosophy and aesthetic all but put architects
out of the business of home design. As a result, for decades builders
have been the primary arbiters of style.
Now the pendulum has begun to swing back. Consumers are again
defining the market. Styles and building design details are becoming
more and more elaborate, especially for high-end homes. Computer-
aided design has increased flexibility. Builders are offering more
choices. Architects are again designing houses.
Rising Aesthetic Sensibilities and Standards
We are living through a period of great awakening. Along with
democracy and markets, artistic sensibilities are on the rise around
the globe. This is not an elite phenomenon. People are getting better
and better at deciding what they like - at defining for themselves
what is beautiful. It is a virtuous circle, a rising tide of
sensibilities and sensations. It promises to lift upward our
aesthetic standards and physical surroundings for decades to come.
Something is happening to art that hasn't been seen for 120
years. Art is blossoming at every level of life - in our magazines
and movies, in our greeting cards and grocery aisles, in our houses
and home computers, in our hand-crafted decorative arts and our mass-
produced objects from stores like Crate & Barrel. . . .
The implications of this are simple. For the next 25 years,
nonartists will get better and better at discriminating, and will
increasingly choose quality over kitsch. . . . The expanding market
will drive down costs, permitting the emergence of an enormous
consumer market for high-quality fine art, and decorative art, as
well as for aesthetically-pleasing mass-market goods and services.
Okay. That was a mouthful. And there was plenty more in that
vein. This was Rolly's crystal palace space/time/big bucks Xanadu
analysis machine in high gear. And I loved it. I had no idea how it
would sell in the real world. I had no idea if it would ever make
sense as an effort for me to join. But it sounded great. Big changes.
Big ideas. A bunch of exciting new technologies to support them. And
big money! The Internet was still just a peep on the national screen
that summer. But CD-ROMs were a phenom. And America Online was making
plenty of noise. There would be lots of technology avenues opening
up. Yeah, it sounded a little crazy. But weren't new things, real
breakthroughs, supposed to sound a little crazy?
So I told Rolly I liked it. I liked it a lot.
And the next packet he handed me had my name in it. And a
title attached. It was the second line in a hypothetical management
roster: Tom Ashbrook, President and Publisher. Publisher, as in the
one who would bridge the business side and the editorial side of this
hypothetical operation, with its editorially presented home design
information and images and ideas.
Next to my name and title was a penciled question mark. On
the page it looked small. In my mind it was huge.
Who was I kidding even thinking about this? I didn't know
squat about business or software or anything online. The only modems
I had ever used were to file news stories as fast as I could and
catch the next plane. The CDs I liked best were the ones I dropped
into my stereo. This was surely not the profile of your average high-
tech startup executive, not even the shadow of the profile.
And what about Rolly? Yes, he was brilliant and accomplished
and knew a lot about architecture and housing and had a good mind for
software. But he had never started a full-blown company before. He
had never written a business plan. Rolly, the chairman and CEO of our
pie-in-the-sky dream enterprise, didn't even breathe when he talked!
Yet here was the next packet, boiling again with ideas and
numbers and lists and refinements. BuildingBlocks would use software
and online services to help people design and furnish their homes. It
would help people get the homes they really wanted, not the mass-
produced junk that too many had to settle for. It would not try to
turn consumers into amateur architects or draftsmen like the flood of
shrink-wrapped "design your own home" software products that were
beginning to hit the market. It would start with wonderful whole
designs and let people easily tailor them to their own tastes and
needs, right down to the individual products that would make up the
The company would "secure a line of venture funding totaling
$5 million from the start," the new packet said. Venture funding as
in venture capital, I assumed. I had a vague idea how that worked,
but I didn't personally know anyone who had ever raised a penny of
venture capital. I didn't know anyone who was a "venture capitalist,"
if that was the right expression. The phrase brought to mind pirates
and adventure and sharp business school guys with boatloads of money
and a pair of dice in their pocket. The $5 million, combined with
cash from operations, the new packet said, would carry BuildingBlocks
through its first five years. At that point "we may take the company
public to raise additional capital for growth."
Simple as that! Boom! The first product would be ready in
July 1995, it said. Ten months away. No problem. Big idea, big money,
big future!
But it couldn't be that easy, could it? This was just a
fantasy. Just a couple of twitchy guys playing catch in the backyard
and bullshitting and dreaming they were major leaguers.
And yet, there was something compelling here. I couldn't let
it go. Rolly certainly couldn't let it go. It was all we talked
about. We would walk in the woods by his house, kicking up leaves and
hopping over old deadwood and thinking it through again and again.
And the more we talked, the bigger it got. And on really high days we
would actually start to run through those woods, laughing like idiots
and whooping and slapping trees. We would take new technology and the
Internet and remake a whole industry! Hell, we would roll up our
sleeves and change the way people lived, the way they slept and
cooked and saw the sun and loved and breathed and the rooms they
danced in. We would remake the whole freaking world, one house at a
time! And we'd get rich doing it! We would not get steamrolled by the
new century. No sir! We would ride this new technology like hot-damn
buckaroos. We would not be bugs on the windshield. We would drive the
car! I hopped up on a big rock, pissing a long arc into the woods,
laughing and crowing like a goofy rooster.
We would be golden geeks!
But maybe I wouldn't say too much about this to Danielle just
yet, I thought, walking back to the house. After all, I had a job -
more than a job. If you believed American journalism's claims to a
special, vital role in society, I had a calling.
And I absolutely did believe those claims.
And I had always loved that work.
And this was just an idea.
Just Xanadu.
But maybe it was the way.

I knew I had dreams my life wasn't touching. I knew there was a clock
ticking. I knew the world was changing in ways that meant I shouldn't
count on old assumptions anymore. But I didn't know if I could act on
that, with kids and a mortgage and all the habits of a familiar life.
Hello, boomer! Are you stuck yet?
How funny that the Internet gold rush should show up in the
middle of our lives, a seductive, invisible frontier as big as our
imaginations. It was the direct descendant of every wild, golden
sunrise that ever set armies of dreamers in motion. We sing songs
about those times and pass down their legends, of pilgrims and
pirates and settlers and gold-mad '49ers.
I wasn't the only one who went chasing thrills and fortune on
the Internet, but I must have been one of the least equipped. I was
not a tech wizard or an entrepreneur. I had only been on the Internet
half a dozen times myself. I knew almost nothing about computers
beyond what it took to get through a working day. And I had never
started a business before, let alone one that would require millions
of dollars to get off the ground.
Here's what I did know: something huge was happening,
something on a scale so large that I was lucky to see it even once in
my lifetime. It was stirring economies and imaginations and
possibilities like nothing I had ever known. And the more I looked at
it, the more desperately I wanted to be part of it.
Here's something else I knew: I was going on forty and was
desperate for fresh oxygen. I probably would have joined a mule train
or a circus or any damned thing that moved if the Internet hadn't
come along. I wasn't twenty-four with nothing to lose or fifty-five
with a trunk full of play money. I was just a hungry soul crashing
clumsily into midlife vertigo a little earlier than most. I had
played out the better part of a first career and found some of its
limits - and some of my own. It was time to make the leap.
It was the kind of leap that, one way or another, we were all
beginning to weigh in those days. A leap from security to risk. From
the known to the unknown. From well-grazed limits to open vistas. It
was thrilling. It was terrifying. It changed me. It changed the
people I loved most, whether they liked it or not. But I couldn't
know that then. Hey, there were twenty-two-year-olds riding the
rocket all around me. How hard could it be?
Danielle, who deserved better or at least easier, had always
said she expected me to do something crazy in the middle of life.
Just not this kind of crazy. But maybe we don't get to choose our
madness. More often, it just shows up.
They called it a digital boom. I could hear it, in the
Like a big train coming.
For me.

Copyright (c) 2000 by Tom Ashbrook. Reprinted by permission of
Houghton Mifflin Company.

Book Description
In 1996, Tom Ashbrook was an international reporter who, in a crisis of the soul, resolved to join an old college classmate on the Internet rocket ride. THE LEAP tells the story of how he walked away from an enviable career to launch a risky new business venture, and it could serve as a template for anyone with e-commerce fantasies. As a deeply felt tale of a man who risks and rediscovers his family and purpose, it also has all the hallmarks of a classic.
Ashbrook undertakes his white-knuckle journey in pursuit of the dream of an Internet startup without business experience, a technical background, or money. "I always knew you would do something crazy in the middle of your life," his wife, Danielle, tells him as their relationship careens through a dramatic rebirth of its own. "I just never knew it would be this kind of crazy."
Ashbrook's odyssey is also the great American joy ride -- the story of two guys in the laboratory, in the garage, on the frontier, betting the ranch and then racing, half scared out of their wits, half giddy with adrenaline, toward the finish line. Success, when it finally comes, is sweet, but it is Ashbrook's story of self-transformation along the way that wins our hearts with its candor, its unabashed zeal, and the self-deprecating humor the author shares as he throws himself and his family over the edge in the middle of life to reach out for a new beginning.

Reader review(s):

absolutely riveting!, June 29, 2000
I read this in about two days...could barely put it down. I actually cried at a couple places late in the book, which is absolutely weird for a business book, but Ashbrook's tale is poignant, beautiful, and wonderful, as much a story of indefatigable spirit and the human appetite for risk and glory as it is a business case study. And this book worked on a different, more personal level for me, too. I've lived a teeny bit of "The Leap" myself -- my husband founded a small financial magazine with his childhood friend and eventually quit his job to make a go of it, doing the venture capital route, etc. He wound up selling the little company to an Internet company (in the process, he actually met with some of the same people who Ashbrook talks about), and got a tidy little sum as well as the satisfaction of seeing it live on online. I never knew quite what he was going through then, and admittedly I could have been more supportive, but now I think I know. Wonderful, wonderful book...not just for Internet fans or business book people, but for anyone.

The Leap is the first "perfect" business book for women, April 25, 2000
The Leap is a book that tells the story of the launch of a business but, the story is told through the lense of the author's relationships. The author's journey is powerful and his experiences are palpable. The writing is vivid and powerful. In addition, Ashbrook truly captures the restlessness and angst of his generation. I could not put it down and I learned a great deal...a most unusual experience and a most extraordinary book.

The Landing, April 27, 2000
Tom Ashbrook's book is the thinking man's action story, a true story of taking a chance, trading security for freedom, treating the internet economy as the 21st Century Klondike. Its a very personal tale, and obviously a candidate for a movie starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman.

One gets the feeling that Ashbrook has not only taken the leap, he has landed as well.

A good read; a must read from anyone over 18 and under 50 (older folks will also enjoy what could have been ---- perhaps, indeed for some with the freedom to take chances, what still might be!).

The Leap Inspired Me, May 15, 2000
I loved the leap. Read this even if you have no interest in the internet, the new economy, business etc. The story is not about starting a business or how to make millions on the internet. It is about a regular guy's unchartered, frightening, exciting and emotional journey into a world he knew he had join. Tom Ashbrook's story is funny, romantic and crazy. Most of all it is inspiring. After reading it, I was compelled to evaluate my own life choices - we should all hope to be as courageous And driven as Ashbrook in our search to be challenged, motivated and successful.

Fun and Easy Read for An E-Commerce Blank Slate, July 26, 2000
"The Leap" is a fun, accessible and page turning foray into the world of e-commerce wannabes, especially if you happen to be clueless but intrigued by the phenomena of web start-ups and the preternatural sums of money required for so many of them. A friend lent me this book unsolicited. More out of courtesy than curiosity, I thought I'd skim the first few pages and return it. Wrong! Until I read it, I didn't think I was particulary interested in e-commerce matters, especially yuppie-sounding ones. But I found instead that Tom Ashbrook's book resonates on multiple levels, so that someone like me who'se not likely to be interested in what goes into starting 'just one more cyber company' is in for a big suprise. "The Leap" is an edgy mixture of personalities, relationships, families, mid-life crises, risk taking, and lots more. It's a quick and suspenseful read. Given the fickle nature of these companies, there's no final ending. Since completing this book, I've found that I pick up on media stories about other similar ventures undertaken by people with little or no capital and have a more fully informed (albeit of a 'cyber start-up 101' nature) idea and appreciation for what's involved. While people like Tom and his partner, Rolly Rouse (the obsessed and original brains behind the entire Homeportfolio venture) may not be entirely like you and me (they are after all Yale educated and know lots of people with potential deep pockets) they and their families are enough like lots of us that their story is simultaneously exciting and frightening. Enjoy your leap into their leap!

The Leap: A Guaranteed Blockbuster, April 28, 2000
I can't remember the last time I read such an extraordinary book!

The Leap is the story of a successful journalist who risks everything he holds dear to follow an Internet dream. Tom Ashbrook allows you to live vicariously through the eyes of someone who dares to do what so many of us merely dream about. This richly crafted book is both a thrilling page turner and a beautifully written story where each chapter, each sentence is treasured.

I guarantee you will love The Leap! Don't miss out on the first book by the best American author to come along in a generation.

His Prose Flow Like Sweet Honey!, May 9, 2000
It's not about success. It's not about arriving. It is simply about the journey--and a sweet one at that. A perfect read for this Saturday night.

Hip Mother's Day winner - A dotcom love story, May 1, 2000
Wow. What a book! What a storyteller! Ellen Goodman says this book delivers the mega-buzz of a double latte, and she is sooooo right. Finally we get an honest to god dotcom love story. Ashbrook delivers the passion worthy of this huge change in the economy and its thousand deep effects on our lives and loves. His wife Danielle is an amazing hero. What should you do when your husband/spouse goes off the deep end with a wild vision? It's all here: romance, terror, and a relationship reborn. Get this book for her, and read it for yourself, big guy. This is a brave, gifted writer who is not afraid to be richly human and real.

Totally Unexpected, June 22, 2000
As someone who "took the leap" myself, I was expecting to see a book with business insights that I could compare with my own, or with others found in, say, "High Stakes, No Prisoners." I figured there'd be "do's and don'ts" about leaving your job in midlife to try an Internet business.

Instead, this book is in a completely different genre. To me, it reads like an inspirational autobiography of someone who once was a drug addict or a prisoner of war. It's a tale of pain, degradation, and ultimate redemption.

You see how this comfortable, middle-class guy lets his need to join the entrepreneurial crowd take him lower and lower and lower. He goes past the threshold of pain that I could have taken and past what he would have believed he could take.

Once my expectations adjusted, I loved the book. He writes so powerfully! Anyone with a soul will find the book to be thrilling and moving.

This book leapt right out of our hands-into the garbage!, May 12, 2000
The fact that this book was about the '' industry, did NOT make it interesting. In fact it read like a book that was really the way really boring books are. Get the idea? The 'author', realizing his first draft was 30,000 words short, felt the need to double his descriptive sentences by repeating them. EX: "There was something between us that had been torn. It had not been torn before." Or, "...farther than the eye could see. They were beyond eyeshot".

Does the author think that unless he is redundant with his descriptions, driving his meaning into the ground, that no one will get it?

It was difficult to even enjoy this so-called "wild ride of a story", when one is so distracted by the lame descriptions of being naked. Being caught in the blinding snow. And being naked.

This story "races along" like a broken push-mower clogged with wet grass.

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