Work Hard, Play Harder
Jill Hamburg Coplan
The same qualities I have noticed in entrepreneurs while covering work and family issues -- intensity and individuality, the inclination to do, not to watch -- also drives small-business owners to pursue a dazzling variety of hobbies. Sometimes, it's with family members they don't see a lot otherwise.
Among the owners of high-tech startups we follow most closely, I've come across a blacksmith and a beekeeper, a shark photographer, and a parrot-breeder. There's an international-class bullfighter and a dizzying number of collectors who delight in everything from first-edition William Faulkner novels to British phone booths, ancient maps of the Near East and vintage planes. Walt Thirion, who founded and sold companies to Compaq and Intel before starting his current business, JatoTech Ventures, pilots his two Czech fighter planes, along with a Citation X corporate jet.
The most popular collections? Classic guitars, Star Wars paraphernalia, and pinball machines -- much of it used for office decor. Bill Bumgarner, a founding partner of CodeFab, a Manhattan software developer, takes his pinball so seriously he runs a New York pinball club and hosts its mailing list. So does Kevin Martin, CEO of pairNetworks in Pittsburgh, who owns about 50 machines. He founded and sponsors a tournament for pinball wizards from all over the country.
Nor is there a shortage of athletes, including some good enough to compete at the national level. I found a competitive curler (his wife was the women's champion of Illinois last year), a nationally ranked power-lifter who's 60 years old, and Chris Karkenny, CEO of California high-tech M&A advisory firm NetCatalyst, who breaks horses -- not to mention bones when he's thrown into fences.
He's not the only one addicted to risk. Several CEOs race cars at 150 mph, surf intensively, or play competitive hockey. Ex-Green Beret Bill Hopkins, who's now the CEO of management-consultant Knowledge Capital Group in Houston, has been seen chasing storms on the Discovery Channel. Pete Patullo, owner of Network IP, which makes telecom products and technologies, hosts and competes in multiday snowmobile races in Canada's frozen north.
Nature also poses hazards for Robert Kreitler, whose investment firm, Kreitler Associates, is in New Haven. When he's not managing billions in investment portfolios, he's wrangling upwards of 100,000 honeybees. With help from his son, Kreitler produces about 100 pounds of honey each fall. But the danger prize probably goes to entrepreneur Ursula Schwuttke, PhD and CEO of High Tower Software in Irvine, Calif. She dives near schools of sharks to produce artistic photographs of hammerheads, makos, and great whites -- beautiful conversation starters that hang in her office.
That's not to say there aren't mellower types, though they're driven too, in their way, tending to formal English gardens or, like Mary Westheimer, the founder and CEO of 7-year-old BookZone, a Scottsdale-based publishing site, welding metal sculptures. Michael D'Eath, British-born CEO of Austin, Texas, software firm CaritaSoft, relaxes at the blacksmithing forge behind his ranch. "I find the work extremely stress-relieving and thoroughly enjoy the creative side," he says.
Business owners are no slouches when it comes to the arts. Take award-winning sci-fi novelist Cory Doctorow of OpenCola, a Manhattan PR agency. Or Krishna Subramanian, 29, the former Sun employee who founded a Silicon Valley software firm, Kovair Inc., who spends weekends rehearsing with a classical Indian kuchipudi dance troupe, sometimes with her husband drumming while her mother-in-law sings. "It's a great way to blow off some steam and I get a lot of good ideas about work when I'm doing dance," she says. Ralph Guild, the CEO and chairman of Interep, now a Nasdaq-traded radio and Web marketing firm, is another dancer. While his form is tap, he's built a dance studio at work where employees can take free lunchtime ballroom, jazz, and aerobics classes.
Some entrepreneurs picked up their hobbies in exotic locales. Tory Stuart, the president and founder of Boston natural-foods maker Zoe Foods, still sails competitively (indeed, she turned down a spot on an America's Cup sailboat). She hatched her business idea during a four-month sabbatical crewing sailboats out of Antigua. Troy Williams, the 28-year-old CEO of Questia Media, an online research center for college students, learned his hobby -- speed chess -- as a teen in Russia.
Whatever the hobby, they all provide relief, a creative outlet, and sometimes, a setting for family togetherness. Whether they're at work or at play, these entrepreneurs have been a very interesting group to cover. So thanks to everyone for your letters and for making this column so much fun.
Jill Hamburg Coplan has covered work, family, business, and finance for the past decade as a writer and editor for newspapers, magazines, and wire services. She left Working Woman magazine, where she was senior editor, when her first child was born and now works solo from a home office in Brooklyn, N.Y. You can e-mail her at Jill Hamburg Coplan