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Robot Dreams

Robo Sapiens: Evolution of a New Species
September 1, 2000

Robo Sapiens: Evolution of a New Species
By Peter Menzel and Faith D’Aluisio
MIT Press, 240 pp., $29.95

Scene 1: Tom Ashbrook, a Boston Globe foreign correspondent, and his former college roommate Rolly Rouse are running through the woods of Newton, Mass., “laughing like idiots and whooping and slapping trees.” They’re so high on their plan to become Internet entrepreneurs that Tom is “hopping up on a big rock, pissing a long arc into the woods, laughing and crowing like a goofy rooster.”

Scene 2, two years later: Rolly has left the office with chest pain and numbness in his left arm. Tom, whose wife will shortly send him e-mail saying that she has been vomiting in the bathroom with stress over their dire financial picture, is banging away on his computer in a daze. “A little light was finally coming on somewhere deep in my mind, ” Tom later writes. “[Rolly] could be dead. He could have broken himself over this dream.”

Scene 3, another year later: A venture capital firm has just called to commit $3 million to HomePortfolio.com, as the outfit is now called. Rolly and Tom are once again “roaring with joy. Riffing our air guitars. Leaping.”

The Leap is Ashbrook’s frank, intimate, funny memoir of the hair-raising process of starting, with Rouse, HomePortfolio.com, an Internet business that helps people design their homes and pick out the products they’ll need. Without quite knowing why, but feeling he had no choice, Ashbrook left his successful career at the Globe for a life of infrequent paychecks, maxed-out credit cards and endless dog-and-pony shows before skeptical investors. Today, HomePortfolio.com has raised more than $25 million and is the leading site on the Web for previewing and buying premium home design products, like those $3,000 gold-plated faucets you always wanted for the guest bathroom. But if Ashbrook’s colleagues had known what he and his family were about to go through when he resigned from the paper in 1996 to co-found the company, fewer of them might have expressed their envy.

This is the face of innovation in the new economy: the elation of having a new idea, the agony of pleading for money to get the idea off the ground, and, for a lucky few, the blessing of venture capitalists. There’s little in Ashbrook’s account to suggest that he was deeply passionate about home design or the company’s business model. Instead, he seems driven by the raw need to be on the frontier, to build something out of nothing, the way his ancestors did when they took the leap and came to America. That takes courage, faith and a little bit of madness-all familiar strains in the history of innovation. Maybe this new economy isn’t so new after all.

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