Clarence Wooten Jr. admits he has a problem. He cannot stop starting companies.
At age 28, the co-founder of ImageCafe.com, a company that serves up custom Web sites for small businesses on a tight budget, is on his third venture. It is not that the other two were not successful. Wooten simply keeps having good ideas and feels compelled to act on them. He just cannot help himself.
"You realize you can fulfill a need and you feel obligated personally to do it, to make it happen," he explained.
Call it the curse of the serial entrepreneur.
This particular breed of entrepreneur -- who starts companies, exits, and then repeats -- has long baffled the general public. After all, other people dream of someday starting one successful company -- heck, even a company that failed -- just to break out of their ordinary corporate lives.
One famous local example is near-billionaire Ted Leonsis. The America Online marketing whiz and part-owner of the Washington Capitals hockey team had two companies, the second of which he sold to AOL. Another example is Doug Humphrey, a co-founder of Internet service provider Digex who went on to found Skycache.
So what makes these people tick? How do they do over and over again what so many of Americans, though they want to, will never even try once?
Associates of these entrepreneurs agree it is not money that motivates them, although money -- in the form of profit, or valuation -- "is often the score card," said John Sanders, a consultant to technology firms and a local venture capitalist who sold one of his companies to The Washington Post Co.
To those who study them, the difference between the serial entrepreneur and the one-hit wonder is a combination of idea generation, team building and an impeccable sense of when to get out.
Most people who start companies start them in an industry that they have already worked in, said Randy Myer, an entrepreneur in residence at the Lubin School of Business at Pace University in New York.
"A number of people can come up with a frustration within their own industry . . . `our company should be doing this, or that, or selling a product on the Internet,' " and go off on their own, Myer said. "Anyone can see that once."
But although the serial entrepreneur may start out in one industry, the more he experiences, the more the ideas flow.
Take Wooten. As a freshman in college, he chose to study architecture. As part of his course work at Catonsville Community College (he ultimately graduated from Johns Hopkins University with a degree in business) he took several classes in computer-aided design, where he met many older architects attempting to update their skills.
After countless conversations with these veterans, Wooten, who lives in Columbia, decided architecture was not as exciting a field as he thought, but it needed him.
So, he took his newly acquired computer design skills and started Envision, a company that built three-dimensional animated computer models for architects.
But serial entrepreneurs are not mere idea people, explained John May, head of the Private Investors Network, a group of angel investors in the Washington area. Sure, there are plenty of inventors who sit in their basement and build prototypes. But though serial entrepreneurs might be independent thinkers, they are not lone wolves. "The ones that know how to succeed best are team players," May said.
"I guess I'm [like] a starting pitcher," said Ken Wolff, a three-time company founder who now is a principal at United Consulting Group of Silver Spring, a management consulting firm for fast-growing companies. Like good starting pitchers, he noted, those entrepreneurs who have multiple successes know how to get a good lead, and then leave the game in the hands of trusted teammates.
The graceful exit is the mark of a true serial entrepreneur.
"They can make something out of nothing . . . and they are very interested in high rates of initial growth," said David BenDaniel, a professor of entrepreneurship at Cornell University. But when the company stops the initial assent, a serial entrepreneur hands over the company to someone who likes the day-to-day details, and does so happily.
"When they leave the business, they're not leaving it with dishonor," BenDaniel said.
Wolff has found many of his star players through the Young Entrepreneurs Organization, a networking group in which the maximum age is 40 and the minimum in company revenue is $1 million. (According to a recent member poll, 49 percent had been involved in at least one other start-up in addition to the company that qualified them for YEO membership.)
After selling his first company, a temporary services firm, "I went back to my old relationships . . . and relied on peers who were very successful in the areas I was not," Wolff said.
The increasing popularity of support networks such as Young Entrepreneurs, which has grown from 1,200 to 3,000 members nationwide in the past two years, has created more serial entrepreneurs than ever, said Brien Biondi, executive director. Ideas and energy "are just flying around," he said.
Of course, successfully navigating through all of the ideas, and choosing the winners, is another mark of the serial entrepreneur.
"I see ideas all the time that I think are very good," said Gregory Keough, a former agent for the Central Intelligence Agency and founder of Zona Financiera, a financial services Web portal for Latin Americans and Keough's third venture. "The key is to stay focused."
Keough launched Zona two years ago and the company now has about $10 million in financing and 85 employees. Keough, of Falls Church, said he has two or three other ideas for companies he could start, but he would not think of leaving now. "At some point the growth is going to come down a bit," he said, but he would like to stay until that point.
Wooten agrees. "It takes a lot of energy to start a company, so it has to be an awesome idea to make me want to jump ship and pursue something else," he said.
Of course, with his track record, that will likely happen soon.
These people are like mountain climbers, said Myer. "There's that rush of adrenalin as they get closer and closer to the summit," but once they get there, they don't waste time enjoying the view.