John Colangelo and his two colleagues at the Federal Reserve had a secret to tell their bosses, and it was not going to be fun. They were the brain trust behind the Fed's Web site -- they built it, they ran it and they trained everyone on it -- and now they were leaving, en masse.

They'd been bitten by the start-up bug and had begun meeting in November to form the framework of ideas and goals that would become their company, 4Ward Logic. After a couple of months of late nights and pizza dinners, they picked a date in late March to make it official.

Then they broke the news to Po Kim, who coordinates the Fed's Internet services.

"He, uh . . ." Colangelo squirms slightly at the memory. "He was very quiet."

But Colangelo and his partners, Jason Bulson and Roger Kahler, feel no guilt about their departure earlier this month. They had given their employer three months' notice -- an eternity in tech start-up time, but in keeping with their structured, sensible approach to 4Ward Logic. And the lure of pastures beyond the central bank was great: The threesome had been immersed in cutting-edge Internet technology for several years, as the Fed spends lots of money on such things. Armed with such skills and experience, the real opportunities were outside, not inside, the Fed.

Which is how Colangelo finds himself sitting in his small but sunny office -- on a long corridor of identical offices at the Fed's massive headquarters downtown -- surrounded by at least half a dozen PCs, trying to wrap things up. He has one more day at the Fed and a lot to think about. At 33, he talks about the future with a drama that betrays his liberal arts education and passion for opera.

"I'd rather end up $20,000 in debt, but have learned what I'll learn and had the experience, than be 55, retiring from the Fed and wondering, `What if I had taken the risk?' " he says. "The `what-if' is just too painful."

There are Colangelos and Bulsons and Kahlers all over this town, lying awake at night wondering, "what if?" They are leaving the government agencies, Beltway bandits and telecommunications firms that form our corporate landscape, but which now serve, as much as anything, as a training ground for would-be entrepreneurs. They cut their teeth at America Online or UUNet, then leave with new skills -- and a vision.

They are making this the hot place to start a business in the hot field.

Not that 4Ward Logic is exactly sexy. World headquarters, as the partners call it, is in the living room of Bulson's pedestrian Falls Church apartment. It smells a bit like dirty laundry, and you soon learn, in fact, that it's been awhile since any laundry's been done.

But the computers are powerful, and the maze of wiring creates an office network and lots of potential. From here, the three bachelors -- Bulson and Kahler are 27 and 25, respectively -- can put their caffeineladen minds to work building Web sites, gathering and sorting Web site data, solving Web site problems, advancing Web site technology.

They have high hopes, in particular, for streaming media -- a little window on your computer where you can hear a crystal-clear audio track of anything, say, a sales pitch or training session, while watching a simultaneous slide show or choppy video of the person talking.

Colangelo put this technology to work at the Federal Reserve, making The Chairman's speeches -- always "The Chairman," never "Alan Greenspan" -- available to anyone on the Internet. He believes the business and commercial applications for this technology are great.

So on Day Two as a full-time employee of 4Ward Logic, Colangelo sits at a computer with dazed eyes from working all night, trying to perfect a slide show of photographer Duane Hincy's work.

Beautiful pictures fade in and out to the soothing sounds of new age music -- a slick little commercial, right there in the upper right-hand corner of his computer screen. The photographer can use this display at his own Web site to make a compelling pitch for his work, Colangelo explains.

How'd you get this client?

"He works at the Fed."

The music's nice.

"Actually, a guy at the Fed wrote it."

Bulson sums it up: "See, we're all about sucking the marrow out of the Fed."

It's awfully hard to leave home. And while the 4Ward Logic guys do have clients that have nothing to do with the Fed, in many ways they have brought the Fed with them. They are methodical about their business, responsible about risks, tempered about their dreams. They started all this with what they call their "Founders' Survey": each one answering written questions about their goals and skills and desires, to establish what they were expecting from each other.

No irrational exuberance here.

"This thing doesn't have to go through the roof in the first five years," Bulson says. "Some people are really focused on that."

That's not to say the partners wouldn't welcome a meteoric rise -- they'll simply do it hitched to someone else's wagon. Among their goals is creating the Web sites for entrepreneurs who have a great idea for a Web site but no idea how to do it. For this they will take no money, just an equity stake. They could hit big, but this is not their focus.

Still, soberness does not mitigate the overwhelming commitment it takes to grow the business. For months, they worked full time at the Fed till 6, drove to Bulson's apartment and worked until midnight or 1 or 2 in the morning. Some days, until sunup.

Personal lives are a mess -- to say nothing of apartments. Bulson says he is "blessed with the world's most understanding girlfriend." Kahler's girlfriend, too, is "taking it well." Colangelo was not so lucky -- he has already lost a girlfriend over this.

And forget mountain biking and rollerblading, passions they share.

"You make decisions," Bulson says. "All the things you want to do, you do one. And all the people you used to spend time with, you pick one or two. And then you don't pay your bills, you don't do your laundry and you don't eat well."

But this is what these guys want, and have always wanted -- to be in business for themselves. They are all young and ambitious and were well paid at the Fed, so they can afford some deprivation.

This is what you have to go through to never have to ask yourself "what if?" and to create in your own little business what you know you like and what you think you'll want.

Bulson says, "We're trying to build the business that we'll want to work at for the rest of our lives."

CAPTION: The lure of opportunities beyond their jobs at the Federal Reserve led John Colangelo, left, Jason Bulson and Roger Kahler to create their own Web company, 4Ward Logic.