William Martin, 21, found the perfect first job by creating the perfect first company. While still in college, he and two buddies started an online financial Web site called Raging Bull. Last September, with barely an asset -- much less a profit -- to its name, the company attracted a $2 million investment from CMGI, the same venture-capital firm that bankrolled Lycos and GeoCities.
Martin's entrepreneurial journey began at age 14, when he got a job as a caddy near his home in Millstone, New Jersey. That job, he says, "got me over being intimidated by adults -- in that case, rich adults who worked on Wall Street." It also turned him into a hard-core networker: "Working at the golf course wasn't about making $80 a round. It was about meeting the right people."
One of the "right people" was a partner at Goldman, Sachs -- a man who helped him snare an internship at that investment bank after his freshman year at the University of Virginia. "I spent a lot of time with partners, just picking their brains. I went to Goldman's Internet conference and heard people like [Yahoo! CEO] Tim Koogle speak."
By summer's end, Martin knew that a traditional career was not for him. "I had a blast, but I didn't like the milestones," he says. "You have to be at a certain stage of your game by year five; you don't get to see your family." Happiness, he realized, "isn't about making partner."
But his interest in the Internet had been stoked: "On the bus home from Manhattan, I would think about the Net and what kinds of businesses might work there." Back in Charlottesville for his sophomore year, he recruited other Internet enthusiasts to help him set up an investment-discussion board. His roommate, a graphic designer, created the site's look and feel. Fellow members of the university's investing club helped with content by writing daily market recaps.
By the next summer, Martin decided to try making Raging Bull a viable competitor of Silicon Investor and Yahoo! -- the industry leaders. He amassed $30,000 from savings and credit-card loans to finance a business expansion and moved Raging Bull to the basement of his parents' New Jersey home. A co-conspirator, Rusty Szurek, 21, passed up a summer job and moved in with him.
"We spent the summer making changes, adding features, and watching how the changes affected traffic," Martin says. Over the summer, the number of registered users grew from a few dozen to 15,000, and Martin made his first big capital investment: a $7,000 Sun Microsystems server.
As September 1998 approached, classes beckoned. Martin, worried that Raging Bull would wither without his full-time attention, wanted to continue building the business. He had a hard time convincing his partners to bag their studies. Even worse, the team was running out of money. Just then, the company got some much-needed media attention. "Within days," Martin says, "we had eight interested investors. It was crazy. Our only asset was that Sun server."
One suitor was @ventures, the venture-capital arm of CMGI, an Internet conglomerate based in Andover, Massachusetts. CEO David Wetherell, 44, discovered Raging Bull while surfing the Web during a vacation. "I was looking for applications that had the potential to grow quickly," he says. When CMGI asked to see a business plan, Martin and his pals pulled an all-nighter to write one. The next morning, Wetherell requested a one-on-one with Martin.
A few days later, Martin found himself at Wetherell's house, hammering out a deal. "That night," Martin remembers, "I called Rusty and Greg [Wright, 22, another partner] and said, 'You're not going back to school.' It was the perfect opportunity. We could learn from the masters. Today I'm learning all about running a company in Internet time."
His partners bagged classes as well, and the three set up shop in a small office at CMGI's headquarters. They started hiring employees -- including Stephen Killeen, 36, formerly a senior vice president at Fidelity Investments and at DLJ Direct, who serves as president and CEO. By March, Raging Bull had 15 employees, 85,000 registered users, and 2 million page views per day.
College can wait.
Scott Kirsner (email@example.com) is a Fast Company contributing editor. You can visit Raging Bull on the Web (www.ragingbull.com).