Sure, now they're up to their ears in credit-card debt and thrilled to snag free meals at networking events.
But someday, these start-up chief executives intend to be wealthy technology moguls.
So this week the MindShare group of local tech leaders who gather once a month to share stories from the front lines brought in some experts for a panel called, optimistically, "Preparing to Be Rich."
Stephen W. Comiskey, managing partner of the McLean firm Comiskey & Hunt, is personal lawyer to the local rich and famous, including Morino Institute Chairman Mario Morino and Proxicom Inc. chief executive Raul Fernandez.
His advice: You may have a corporate lawyer, but you should also get your own representative.
"You're not the client. The company's the client," he says. "Get somebody who is only worried about you."
The casually clad execs gathered in an upstairs room at the Tysons Corner Clyde's sipped champagne, took notes, and asked questions about wills, children and taxes. Few of those in the room had revised their wills in the past five years, even though most had gone through enormous financial changes by starting a company.
"If you die without a will, the government has one for you," Comiskey warned.
One of the toughest challenges seems to be deciding how much of your own company stock to sell: How can chief executives protect themselves financially without looking like they're losing faith in the company?
"If other people see you're dumping the stock, they worry," says Caroline A. Ross,vice president at U.S. Trust in Washington, where she advises high-net-worth individuals with their trust, investment and estate planning.
Comiskey says to tell analysts who follow the company about the sale beforehand, explaining that you just need the cash.
On protecting your personal assets from potential lawsuits: "If you've got some skeleton, start moving things around. The opposite of a prenuptial: Put everything in your wife's name," says Comiskey.
"The biggest mistake we see is that people fail to plan," says Robert Hottle, KPMG Peat Marwick's partner in charge of personal financial planning for the Washington-Baltimore region. He says entrepreneurs spend most of their time developing their companies but don't think about their personal finances that much.
Hottle suggests forming a team of personal advisers, separate from business advisers.
Paul Veith, senior vice president at Pell Rudman in Washington, specializes in families with assets in excess of $100 million. The worst mistake he's ever seen was by a client and good friend who, two years after the initial public offering, had 90 percent of his wealth tied to the company. The chief executive worried about what it would look like if he started selling. "The wheels fell off the company," says Veith. "He basically went from $25 million [net worth] to $5 million."
Not exactly a candidate for the "Preparing to be Poor" seminar, but quite a difference.
Last week Paula Jagemann, chief executive of E-Commerce Industries Inc. of Frederick (the parent company of OnlineOfficeSupplies.com), finally quit her day job.
For years and through many mergers, she's worked at UUNet (now part of MCI WorldCom), primarily as MCI WorldCom Vice Chairman John Sidgmore's executive assistant. Jagemann, 33, made millions there (her net worth is now around $30 million, she estimates), then launched her own company last year with the help of Sidgmore, who chairs her board.
"When he's not out buying Sprint he's working on this company," jokes Jagemann.
E-Commerce Industries sells office supplies online but also creates customized office-supply sales sites for other companies.
Jagemann also has attracted an A-list of directors, including Earthlink Network founder Sky Dayton, Microsoft Corp. General Manager Dan Rosen and Ascend Communications chief executive Mory Ejabat. She has 60 employees and just leased 20,000 square feet in Tysons Corner. Things are getting real.
So earlier this month, when Jagemann got her first round of venture capital--$10 million from New Enterprise Associates and $3 million from pcOrder of Austin--her new backers said she needed to quit her part-time UUNet job. Her going-away party was "really, really sad," she says.
But it'll all be worth it if plans to go public around this time next year materialize. Jagemann says revenues for 2000 will be about $15 million.
In case anyone worries that Jagemann won't be busy enough with one job, though, she's also taken on a new role as technology journalist.
She's writing a weekly column for the women's Web site Oxygen.com about such topics as how to register a domain name. Jagemann takes in $30,000 a year for the gig but donates it all to charities for cystic fibrosis; her niece and nephew have the disease.
In one of the more interesting recent quarterly earnings reports, Landmark Systems Corp. chief executive Kathy Clark simultaneously announced lower-than-expected financial results and the resignation of her president and chief operating officer, Ralph Alexander.
She didn't hesitate to tie the two together: "Ralph Alexander has made a solid contribution to Landmark over the last several years. Both he and I however are disappointed in the recent results generated by the company," she said in the release.
Now Alexander has taken the role of chief executive and president of another local tech company, software firm Blueprint Technologies of McLean, where he joins several fellow alums of Rational Software in Cupertino, Calif.
Alexander says his goal is to take Blueprint public by 2001 and he is close to raising a first round of venture funding. He says it was his decision to resign from Landmark. "I'd been thinking of leaving for some time," he says.
Send tips and tales of the digital capital's local people, deals and events to Shannon Henry at email@example.com.
TechThursday columnist Shannon Henry will host a live Web chat today at 1 p.m. with John May, a Washington area expert in "angel" investing. To participate, go to www.washingtonpost.com.
CAPTION: Lawyer Stephen W. Comiskey and U.S. Trust Vice President Caroline A. Ross give advice at MindShare's "Preparing to Be Rich" discussion.