BUSINESSWEEK ONLINE : JULY 10, 2000 ISSUE
WORKING LIFE

Give a Geek a Break
More Silicon Valley hotshots are taking extended periods of time off--and getting away with it

Like many other wonder boys of the New Economy, Mark Breier seemed headed for Silicon Valley's stratosphere. After amassing a fortune by creating the first radio ads for Amazon.com Inc. (AMZN), the 41-year-old was recruited by Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) co-founder Paul Allen to become the CEO of software e-tailer Beyond.com (BYND). The company stumbled badly last winter, laying off 20% of its workforce and reworking its strategy to become a business-to-business outfit. But in the Internet's inverse psychology--in which failure is revered and a stint at a startup is more prestigious than a stalwart sure bet--the bump only seemed to make Breier shimmer more in the eyes of headhunters and venture capitalists. With hundreds of job offers, he was a wanted man.

So what did he do? He hit the road in a Winnebago with his wife, two kids, four bicycles, and enough play gear to fill all the closets. Ever the entrepreneur, Breier couldn't quite let it all go: Behind the camper hangs a banner advertising his book, The 10-Second Internet Manager, due out in September. But in every other sense, he quit, trading a life of power coffees at Starbucks and traffic nightmares on Route 101 for 18 months off--the latest from a Valley that can't stop spitting out trends.

''If I hear one more CEO say, 'I'm taking time off,' I'm going to go crazy,'' says Becky Stein, who heads the Internet headhunting practice at Russell Reynolds Associates' San Francisco office. The hyperkinetic Stein is used to going head to head with big-name board members who swoop into town on Gulfstreams to persuade CEOs to stay at their old jobs. But more than bank vaults full of options or visions of career utopia, the issue of time off is what makes Stein's job so Sisyphean these days. ''It's impossible to get anybody,'' she laments.

It used to be that those who took time off from their careers were branded with a big L--for Loser. ''Fifteen years ago, we thought, 'What's your problem?''' says the doyen of headhunting, Heidrick & Struggles International Inc.'s (HSII) Chairman Gerard R. Roche. But that was before the labor shortage made recruiters desperate enough to stalk would-be candidates at Disney World, where they were vacationing with their families.

BLOOM IS OFF. No longer do workers with talent--or even just run-of-the-mill midlevel types--have to fear the once-dreaded gap on a resume. Says Steve Potter, CEO of Highland Group, a New York recruiting firm: ''With the red-hot labor market, the guy willing to throw it all away is admired.'' That's exactly what more and more of the Internetigentsia are doing. After falling prey to the many seductions of their careers, these nerds-turned-hotshots are pining for some of the slacker moves they used to scorn in their less success-obsessed peers.

The timing has never been better. Now that the bloom is off the Nasdaq, and now that many Internet companies have hit the four-year mark, options have vested, passions have waned, and a bad case of burnout has set in. ''I was just bone-tired,'' says Susan Bratton, Excite@Home Corp.'s (ATHM) vice-president for marketing, who is on month two of a three-month sabbatical. She has a lot of company: Lawrence Levy, former chief financial officer of Pixar (PXR), John Wilson, Gap's (GPS) former chief operating officer, and Eileen Richardson, former CEO of Napster, have all taken extended periods of time between jobs. But as an otherwise hard-charger type, Richardson is finding that dropping out can have its disadvantages. ''The problem is,'' she muses after two weeks out of the office, ''I'm already getting itchy to do something else.''

For those who think time off is only for the dukes and duchesses of dot-Comelot, take heart. People without fat savings accounts are buying how-to books and getting creative with finances so that they too can plan fantasy sabbaticals. ''In reality, it's something even a Starbucks barista can do,'' says Janet Luhrs, author of The Simple Living Guide. Since corporations will do almost anything to hang on to a warm body, ''people would be surprised at how willing a company is to allow time off when you ask for it,'' says Lora Colflesh, vice-president for human resources at Sun Microsystems Inc. (SUNW) and herself a beneficiary of paid months off in Hawaii.

Not surprisingly, the young and the restless are often the first out the door. Stacey E. Stillman, a 27-year-old second-year law associate at Silicon Valley's Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison, marched into a managing partner's office in March and told him she needed three months off to be a contestant on CBS Television Network's smash hit Survivor. Evincing the sense of entitlement rampant among the sub-30 set--who have never had a whiff of a recession--Stillman didn't ask whether she could leave. She simply inquired as to how she and the firm ''could work it out'' with a combination of paid and unpaid leave. ''I felt confident in the job market, and this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,'' says Stillman, who got what she says was an unfair ''bitchy lawyer'' rap on the show and was voted off the island after three weeks.

WALKABOUT. Since kicked-off contestants aren't allowed to show up in their normal lives until taping is finished, Stillman traveled alone for the next month. ''I wanted to go home the whole time,'' she says. But for Warren Adams, the dream of recapturing those lost days of lazy summers hasn't been a disappointment. ''I really thought it was time to focus on life for a while,'' says Adams, 34, who in 1998 sold his Web-calendar company, PlanetAll.com, to Amazon for $100 million. He then worked as Amazon's director of product development, a job that frequently had him showering at the company gym. He rarely saw his wife, Megan, even though she also worked at Amazon as a product manager. Now, they're on a yearlong walkabout around the world together.

People often take breaks to spend time together just before they start a family, or to make up for the time they've lost with their kids. For Breier, the decision to hit the eject button on his warp-speed career came after he and his wife started asking friends about what it took to raise kids right. ''What they all said was, 'Go get in an RV together and travel, because you can't escape from each other,''' Breier says, speaking by cell phone from a Rite Aid near Yosemite. ''It's Family 101.''

But punching out can have its perils. ''It got lonely,'' says James R. Tolonen, CFO of Snowball.com Inc., an online network for 13-to-30-year-olds, who ended a yearlong stint in October. Still, don't look for the trend to wane while the economy is good. About 10% of Silicon Valley companies, including Intel Corp. (INTC) and 3Com Corp. (COMS), have sabbatical programs. As the old ''lifer'' ethic continues to give way to free agency--and the labor shortage pinches ever tighter--other companies might not have a choice.

By Michelle Conlin in Silicon Valley

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