The Black Internet Entrepreneur Had the Idea;
Tim Cobb, top, and Jeff Levy, started an Internet company, made millions, then ventured on alone. (Richard Perry/The New York Times)
ATLANTA -- It was shortly before midnight on the eve of 2000, and Timothy Fitzgerald Stevenson Cobb was savoring the moment. Debonair as always in a white dinner jacket, sipping from a glass of the 1990 Krug Champagne he had selected for the party, he was in Miami Beach, surrounded by the friends and relatives he was putting up for the weekend, waiting for the fireworks to start.
He had much to celebrate. Like the dashing hero in "The Thomas Crown Affair," a recent Hollywood remake that had quickly entered his movie pantheon, Mr. Cobb had pulled off something of a coup.
Over two sleep-deprived years, he and his partner, Jeff Levy, had built an Internet research company in Atlanta that ultimately captured half of a fast-growing market. Then came a merger with their only rival and the payoff: a public stock offering. By the end of trading on May 7, 1999, each man's net worth had swelled by about $25 million.
In the booming Internet economy, their windfall was by no means the most spectacular. But it conferred an uncommon distinction on Mr. Cobb: he became one of the country's few black Internet millionaires, joining an elite group of blacks in the upper reaches of American industry.
It also happened to be Mr. Cobb's 35th birthday that balmy night at the Art Deco-style National Hotel in South Beach, and when the clock struck 12, there were hugs all around. Mr. Cobb remembers in particular a warm embrace with Mr. Levy. It reminded him, he recalled later, of how strong their bond had been. They had shared a single-minded drive to succeed, often reading each other's thoughts and finishing each other's sentences. To Mr. Cobb, Jeff Levy, 37 -- one of the few white people in the room on New Year's Eve -- understood his satisfaction in a way that probably no one else could.
Yet Mr. Cobb also recalled a creeping uneasiness that weekend. It showed in his oversleeping the day before, a rare lapse for someone who took pride in never having to set an alarm. And it showed in what he described as one of his worst rounds of golf ever.
One reason for his distraction was his shifting fortunes. Shortly after the merger, Mr. Levy and Mr. Cobb went off to start separate Internet ventures. Mr. Levy's was doing fine. Not so Mr. Cobb's.
Tim Cobb talks with his friend Jeff Levy, right, in the backyard of Cobb's new Atlanta home.
Another reason was the racial mantle Mr. Cobb bore: the black success story in a white world. He calls it both a source of pride and an enduring burden. For all he and Mr. Levy lived through together, in this he was alone.
The racial backdrop to Mr. Cobb's accomplishments went largely unmentioned by the people he did business with, but he seemed never to forget it. When things were good, being black made them better; when things were not so good, it made them worse.
Not that he dwelled on it, he insisted. To wonder how race might have made his success harder or its aftermath rockier would be counterproductive. Besides, he said, it would be unseemly for him to complain. He had a new Porsche, a new Range Rover and trust funds for his sons, ages 4 and 10 months. He was well invested in other Internet companies. He was preparing to move into a luxurious new house.
Moreover, he said, in his business world overt discrimination had been alleviated by legal protections, changing notions of acceptable behavior and an actual improvement in racial attitudes. And the new high-tech economy provided a better semblance of equal opportunity. It was one reason he had risked becoming a Web entrepreneur.
Still, he said, he had no illusions. He knew how race could tip the scales. How skin color could trump money and status when it came to forging business ties. How self-imposed pressures to succeed, particularly as a black man, could take a toll on every part of life. Certainly, he acknowledged, race was in his thoughts as he churned over his game plan that weekend. As he often reminded his wife, Madelyn Adams Cobb, he was nearly alone as a black Web entrepreneur in Atlanta. If he failed, he believed, others would not get the chance. He was a role model.
"Failure is not an option for me," Mr. Cobb said. "I can't accept it. I won't accept it. I won't let it happen. There are other folks coming down the path who will all do much cooler things than I've done, and I want to be sure I'm not blocking their way."
Simply not failing didn't cut it for him, either. When he was growing up in Durham, N.C., he recalled, his parents told him that he would have to work twice as hard as white people to achieve as much.
Perhaps that was why he took care to be the best-prepared and best-dressed for every business meeting. And why he is so driven to excel. "Michael Jordan is not a role model," he said. "I compete with him."
In one way that statement was a measure of his brashness; it was also a half-joking nod to his freshman year at the University of North Carolina, spent warming the bench while Mr. Jordan dominated the basketball court. But what he really meant, he said, was that to be black and successful in business you had to be more than good; you had to be a superstar.
That was how some friends at the Miami Beach party said they saw him. But Mr. Cobb said he knew that in this moment of glory he had to admit to a more recent defeat: he was spending half a million dollars a month on an idea he had lost faith in. He remembers thinking he would have to work harder than ever on a new venture. And he said he put out of his mind the question of whether his marriage, already frayed, would survive the strain.
Friends and Rivals
Tim Cobb and Jeff Levy chat at a party at the eHatchery offices in Atlanta. (Richard Perry/The New York Times )
Close partners and good friends, Tim Cobb and Jeff Levy were also friendly rivals. On the golf course Mr. Levy was the superior player, but Mr. Cobb challenged him all the same, a trait that impressed Mr. Levy when they were getting to know each other.
"Most African-Americans I know are in some way intimidated or uncomfortable with the white man's world," Mr. Levy said. "They never learned how to play golf, so you take them to a golf course and they're terrible, so they don't want to play. Well, Tim never learned to play golf, and he was terrible, and he didn't care."
Mr. Cobb eventually sought Tiger Woods's coach for tutoring. But if he took some ribbing on the fairways, he dished it back elsewhere, rating Mr. Levy's fashion sense a lukewarm "improving" and urging him to forget his grandfather's maxim, "Dress British, think Yiddish."
"Not so preppy," advised Mr. Cobb, who favored Italian suits.
As they went their separate ways, the former partners kept tabs on each other's business exploits. Each invested in the other's company, each sat on the other's board. Each also noticed who had the bigger office and how much cash the other was burning.
They were, it seemed, equally well-equipped to steer a new enterprise in an industry that claims to be the ultimate meritocracy. In Silicon Valley, the mantra goes, the business is evolving so quickly that the only color that matters is green. In Atlanta, a budding technology hub in an area with a much larger black population, the refrain is much the same.
"I can't imagine that race would be an obstacle," said a white industry executive on the board of Mr. Cobb's new company. "If somebody has a good business plan in the Internet space, that's all that matters."
For whatever reason, though, by the start of this year Mr. Levy had clearly pulled ahead of Mr. Cobb. He had raised an additional $11 million to finance his venture, eHatchery, which helps companies start up in exchange for a sizable ownership stake. The company's offices, in a renovated ice cream factory, were filling up with dot-com fledglings. And good press was plentiful.
But Mr. Levy, a consummate schmoozer who counts compulsive efficiency as one of his greatest virtues, was coping with pressures of his own. He was determined, for instance, to measure up to his great-great-grandfather, Julius Rosenwald, an early chairman of Sears Roebuck & Company who had given millions of dollars to build more than 5,000 schools for blacks in the South. Mr. Levy had dabbled in civic causes and thought about philanthropy, but he first wanted to build an even larger fortune, and to do that he was counting on eHatchery.
That meant he was always drumming up interest in eHatchery's investments and calculating how and when to cash in. At the same time, he said, he had to be careful not to stretch himself too thin. He and his wife agreed a few months ago that he needed to be "present" when he was home and to be home more often. What was the point of the money, she wanted to know, if she and his sons, ages 4 and 2, never saw him?
Still, in a life Mr. Levy described as a multilevel chess game, the racial plane was one he did not have to play on. As a Jew, he said, he often felt like an outsider himself. But he also knew that his blond hair, blue eyes and white skin shielded him from the kind of scrutiny Mr. Cobb faced.
"Tim has to take things over a hurdle that I don't have," Mr. Levy said.
Though sensitive to race, Mr. Levy prides himself on looking beyond it. He and Mr. Cobb rarely talked about it. "I never saw Tim as black," Mr. Levy said. What mattered, he said, was that they thought alike.
But they didn't always. There was a moment last fall when the two were discussing a young black man pitching an idea. "He's smart, but he doesn't have your polish," Mr. Cobb recalled Mr. Levy's saying. The comparison to an aspiring entrepreneur with no experience rankled, Mr. Cobb said, but he let the remark roll off. He knew Mr. Levy did not mean to offend, he said.
On another occasion Mr. Levy told Mr. Cobb that he thought being black could be an advantage in business when diversity was increasingly viewed as a plus. Mr. Cobb considered. Then, as a way of gently informing his friend that in his experience the drawbacks outweighed any benefits, he broke into a mock-gospel chorus: "Nobody knows the trouble I've seen."
But Mr. Cobb's black friends did know. They included David Crichlow, who in March became the first black partner at the 132-year-old Wall Street law firm Winthrop, Stimson, Putnam & Roberts; Ed Dandridge, who recently left ABC, where he had been one of two black senior executives; and Henry Moniz, who was Democratic counsel to the House Judiciary Committee during the Clinton impeachment hearings.
Each could attest to the power of race. They told stories of being too eagerly sought by co-op boards needing a respectable black face; of being told too often by well-meaning whites that they "transcended race"; of not hailing taxis to avoid being passed by. There was a risk of falling into the "angry black man syndrome," as one of Mr. Cobb's friends put it; show too much anger and people will write you off.
Tim Cobb's new home in Atlanta.
These were the subtle ways race played out. Other moments weren't so subtle. Mr. Crichlow said he would not easily forget the time he stood in a law office lobby, wearing his customary suit and tie and waiting to meet an opposing counsel, who is white. When the lawyer appeared, he mistook the only other person there, a white man, for Mr. Crichlow. The man wore green work pants and a short-sleeve shirt and was standing next to his delivery of Poland Spring water.
Mr. Moniz remembered appearing in court to handle a drunken-driving case as a favor to the defendant's father, an important corporate client. When Mr. Moniz started to speak on behalf of the accused -- a young white man in a goatee -- the judge, also white, interrupted, apparently assuming that the black man had to be the defendant. "You have a competent attorney," the judge told Mr. Moniz.
Mr. Dandridge said that when he went out on weekends in casual clothes near his home on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, he was invisible to the ABC colleagues he might pass on the street, even though they were neighbors. To him, the truth about the daily lives of Mr. Cobb and his high-powered black friends is captured in a monologue by the black comedian Chris Rock. "There ain't no white man in this room that will change places with me -- and I'm rich!" the routine goes. "That's how good it is to be white. There's a one-legged busboy in here right now that's going: 'I don't want to change. I'm gonna ride this white thing out and see where it takes me.' "
The joke had struck Mr. Cobb, too. Told that a white executive at Mr. Levy's company had described him as a "black James Bond," Mr. Cobb knew it was meant as a nod to his fondness for gadgets and risk. But "why a 'black' James Bond?" he had wanted to know, supplying his own answer: "Black is the identifier that goes before you, always. It raises the odds that you will get a real reminder that you are an outsider every time they meet you."
Yet to Mr. Cobb there is a joy in being black. There is the pleasure in the color of his own skin, he said. There is the bond among his black friends, based in part on their being outsiders. There is the trash-talking in basketball that he and his friends have transposed to the golf course. And there is something about being black and successful in a white world without compromise that can make him break into his wide, easy grin. "I love being black," he said.
He remembered telling his mother he would not have had the same success if he were not black. If he were white, he told her, maybe he would have believed more in his chances of making partner at his old law firms. Maybe as a junior executive at Turner Broadcasting he would have had mentors and so would not have left. In some ways, he said, the doors that seemed less open directed him down the entrepreneurial path where he was happiest.
Still, Mr. Cobb called the idea that race was not a factor in the technology industry "laughable," if only because of who has more access to capital. Like most Internet entrepreneurs, he and Mr. Levy had raised their first million from friends and family -- and most of it had come from Mr. Levy's friends and family.
"It's one thing to have people who can write checks for $1,000," Mr. Cobb said. "It's another thing if they can write checks for $100,000."
But he would not blame race for the disparity between his and Mr. Levy's recent fortunes. That would be too easy. They had started different businesses; the market moved in unpredictable ways. And he harbored no resentment toward his former partner. Mr. Levy remained one of the few people he could talk to about what really mattered: business.
"Dude, what's your burn rate right now?" Mr. Levy demanded recently, speaking into his ever-present cell phone. "How much of the company are you giving away?" On the other end, Mr. Cobb, in his faint drawl, said something that made Mr. Levy laugh.
Only One Could Be C.E.O.
The first time the Levys and the Cobbs met as couples was in early 1994 at an Atlanta cafe. Valerie Hartman Levy had wanted them to get together since Mr. Cobb, a lawyer, joined Turner, where she held a senior position in the legal department.
Struck by his sense of humor, she remembered telling Mr. Cobb in his job interview that he reminded her of her husband. Later, Mr. Cobb told his wife that Ms. Hartman Levy, strong-willed and forthright, reminded him of her.
The couples soon discovered they had a lot more in common. Two years earlier, both men left coveted jobs at fancy New York law firms to follow the women, whose careers had taken them to Atlanta. And both men soon chafed at their new jobs, Mr. Levy's with another law firm.
By the time dinner was over, the women had become friends and the men had begun plotting their entrepreneurial escape. Their rapport was immediate.
It was a rare thing, both men said, the way they could let their guard down and talk so freely. When the Levys' first son was born, Mr. Cobb became his godfather.
The men soon became convinced that the Web was their generation's cable television. Then the idea struck. "You know," Mr. Cobb recalls saying, "I don't think there's a Nielsen's of the Internet." His idea was to create an audience measurement system for Web sites that Internet companies would use, much the way the television networks rely on Nielsen ratings. He thought of a name, too: RelevantKnowledge.
By then Mr. Levy had joined Turner's legal department and Mr. Cobb had moved on to its business development unit. They began meeting for coffee at 6:30 every morning, calculating and debating their chances of success.
Finally, during the opening ceremonies at the 1996 Olympic Games, Mr. Cobb turned to Mr. Levy. "If Billy Payne can bring the Olympics to Atlanta," Mr. Cobb said, referring to the lawyer who had done so, "we can start this company."
As Mr. Levy saw it, Mr. Cobb had more to lose, having less of a financial safety net. But at the same time Mr. Cobb felt that at 32 he had hit a glass ceiling. Of the several hundred vice presidents at Turner, only seven were African-American, he recalled.
Mr. Levy remembers taking courage from Mr. Cobb's resolve. In the fall of 1996 they quit their jobs. RelevantKnowledge was born.
At first, the two were 50-50 partners in everything: finances, decision making, titles. But when they began raising money, the venture capitalists told them that a company led by co-C.E.O.'s would not fly. Investors would be comfortable only if there was one chief, someone to hold accountable for making a profit.
The decision about who would be chief executive was made in one of the nearly wordless exchanges they often had in those early days. Both knew that Mr. Cobb was more qualified, they later acknowledged. He had more business experience than Mr. Levy, whose specialty was libel law. And the company was his idea. But both also believed it would be easier to raise money with a white chief executive than a black one. They did not think people would refuse to invest simply because Mr. Cobb was black. Not exactly. They just thought a black C.E.O. would make the company look more unusual, Mr. Levy said. And as much as Mr. Cobb cared about being a positive role model, risking the company over racial pride could be self-defeating.
Anyway, did it really matter? That was the question they kept asking. They were grateful just to have found each other, two ambitious young men -- one the descendant of a sharecropper, the other of a millionaire.
The eldest of three children, Mr. Levy grew up in Lawrenceville, N.J., in a modest home that reflected the family's conscious effort not to show off its wealth. Mr. Levy's father, Paul, was a judge, who as a lawyer in the 1970's had represented the National Urban League. His mother, Linda Levy -- an heiress to the Rosenwald fortune -- was a humor columnist and cookbook author.
For Mr. Levy, the family heritage always loomed large. Things came easily to him: childhood summers on Martha's Vineyard; family golf vacations in Scotland; early admission to Harvard, where he was captain of the fencing team; a first job with a good law firm in Manhattan. Taking risk, too, came easier with family money to fall back on. But for Mr. Levy the family money was also what made him so determined to prove that he didn't need it.
Tim Cobb was born in Burlington, N.C., where his father, Harold, was a Baptist minister and his mother, Armadia, a teacher. Race was the main topic of conversation at the dinner table. Once, Tim's father came home drenched. He had been marching for civil rights and hoses had been turned on him. Mr. Cobb's mother still lowers her voice when she says "white," an indication, he said, of her perception of how the world was divided, which side had power.
When the family moved to Durham, Tim excelled in class and on the basketball court. In the 11th grade, he was accepted to Andover, the elite Massachusetts prep school, and persuaded his parents to let him go. His father had suspicions, though. "They said, 'We need a black kid,' and Tim had good grades and spoke nice," Harold Cobb said.
When Mr. Cobb decided to attend law school at the University of Pennsylvania, an uncle warned that corporate law firms would not hire blacks. But for Mr. Cobb, law school was an epiphany.
"That was the beginning of seeing firsthand dozens of people like me who had similar ambitions, similar talents and similar skills and résumés, all getting job offers and getting hired," he said. "That was a confirmation in my mind that there are times when an individual can limit themselves by not trying, and so I vowed never to say I'm not going to try that because I don't see any black people doing it."
And yet, about a decade later, the issue before him was whether he and Jeff Levy would dare try a path that few had taken -- naming a black man chief executive.
Mr. Levy remembers as painful their conversation about the C.E.O. question. They were taking a huge risk with their careers. They would be investing their money and that of friends and family. In the end, Mr. Levy recalls, they sort of said it without saying it. Mr. Cobb picked up the phone afterward and left Mr. Levy a message: "If you want to be C.E.O., that's fine with me."
The Payoff, Then the Parting
If their bow to pragmatism was troubling, it is hard to argue that it did not pay off. A friend of Mr. Levy's from Harvard put them in touch with J. H. Whitney & Company, the venture capital firm that eventually put up several million dollars after dozens of others had turned them down.
Mr. Cobb and Mr. Levy knew they were really co-C.E.O.'s, Mr. Levy said. "It wasn't like I would ever say, 'I'm C.E.O., so that's what we're doing.' " Friends remember that he always took care to refer to Mr. Cobb as his partner and co-founder, and Mr. Cobb, who took the title of president, attended every meeting with potential investors.
Neither man recalls overtly racist incidents during their partnership, although they remember that an associate of Mr. Cobb's once told Mr. Levy that he had been "jewed" out of something, and Mr. Cobb called to demand an apology.
Mr. Cobb had a joking explanation for the paucity of racist remarks. "I think they were afraid I was going to beat them up," he said.
Lowering his voice, he mimicked what a venture capitalist might say about him: "He could be angry."
"The angry Jewish man just doesn't command the same fear in the heart," Mr. Levy said.
But there were times when racism may have operated below the surface, they said. For instance, an investor who seemed ready to give them money abruptly changed his mind after meeting them. Billions of dollars had been flowing into Internet companies, and the venture capitalists at J. H. Whitney had told the partners that getting financing from that investor should be "a layup."
"From my perspective it was the most bizarre thing," Mr. Cobb recalled. "It could have been for some other reason. But I chalked that one up to his just being uncomfortable with me."
Mr. Levy is reluctant to link any difficulty in their raising money to Mr. Cobb's race. But he remembers noticing how people sometimes looked to him in a meeting as if he, not Mr. Cobb, would have the answers.
"It wasn't like, 'Hey, he's the better business person.' It was, 'Hey, he's the white guy,' " Mr. Levy said.
Yet he also said he thought Mr. Cobb was able to use race to his advantage, drawing a comparison to a woman who might use sexual attraction to gain an edge. He could "play the angry black man" when he felt like it, Mr. Levy said, and people reacted.
"All's fair in love and business," he said. "You play to win."
By the beginning of 1998, much of the Internet industry was relying on Relevant-Knowledge to measure Web-site popularity. And because he carried the top title, Mr. Levy was becoming more closely identified with the company's success. He was the one quoted in the media; he was the one who networked with other Internet moguls.
That March, Mr. Levy spoke in Tucson at PC Forum, an annual gathering of technology executives. At the next year's forum he met Bill Gross, an Internet entrepreneur who became a mentor and, later, the biggest investor in eHatchery other than Mr. Levy.
Whether it was because Mr. Cobb always seemed to be one of only three black people at conferences or because he was too impatient to mingle without purpose, he was glad to leave that duty to Mr. Levy. So what if his name wasn't in the paper?
But Mr. Cobb's taking the lesser title and a quieter role appears to have had a price. Mr. Levy was reminded of it at this year's PC Forum. On Mr. Cobb's behalf, he approached the sponsor of another conference, which Mr. Cobb wanted to attend.
"You remember my partner, Tim Cobb?" Mr. Levy asked.
"No, never heard of him," came the reply.
"To the world, I was C.E.O.," Mr. Levy said, "and I think certainly that had an impact."
If Mr. Cobb regretted taking the No. 2 job, the closest he would come to saying so was to comment: "I don't make the rules. I have to play by them, and I have to win by them."
Still, once the partners decided to merge with their major rival, Media Metrix, Mr. Cobb did not stick around long. He knew that only one of them would be able to participate in taking the company public, he said. Mr. Levy wanted that job, and as the public face of RelevantKnowledge, he seemed like the logical choice for it.
Instead, Mr. Cobb invited Mr. Levy to help him start a Web site aimed at teenagers, an untapped demographic niche, according to the information they had gathered at RelevantKnowledge. This time Mr. Cobb would be chief executive, and this time they would take the company public themselves.
Mr. Levy declined. The idea of a lifestyle site for teenagers did not grab him, he said. And he couldn't imagine not being chief executive. He, too, wanted to take his own company public, and he tried to persuade Mr. Cobb to be his No. 2 at eHatchery. This time, Mr. Cobb declined.
One Succeeds, One Struggles
HipO.com, Mr. Cobb's new company, let teenagers buy clothing and accessories through its Web site with "HipCards" and attracted some major sponsors and investors.
But by late fall, Mr. Cobb was stumbling. Deal after deal with potential partners had fallen through. By January, visitors to the site were seeing an animation bidding them farewell.
Ms. Adams Cobb, now a vice president for employee development at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, believed that her husband might have had an easier time with HipO had he not ceded the top job at Relevant Knowledge. Little slights gnawed at her. Sitting in the audience at the Atlanta Convention Center in October as Mr. Cobb and Mr. Levy were introduced on a panel of local technology executives, she bristled as Mr. Cobb was introduced last, even though he was not sitting at the end of the dais.
The moderator introduced Mr. Levy as the "former chief executive of RelevantKnowledge" and described eHatchery. When he got to Mr. Cobb, he said simply, "This is Tim Cobb, who helped found RelevantKnowledge." Helped found?
"It was almost like an aside," Ms. Adams Cobb said. "I know how hard he worked, and he didn't get the credit."
Mr. Cobb had a different theory.
"I often feel on panels like this that the moderators don't know what to say to me," he said. "Maybe they're afraid they're going to say something offensive, so they don't say anything. I don't know."
In college, when a member of a fraternity known for flying the Confederate flag called him "nigger" one drunken night, the response was clear: a punch. Now, in a more sophisticated world, he was often left with nothing to do but shoulder the weight of shadowy perceptions.
Did the demise of HipO have anything to do with race? He did not think so, he said. Even in the midst of the current Internet frenzy, the majority of start-ups fail. But he could not know for sure. How had he performed at dinner when the Time Warner executives talked about wine and people they knew in common? What impression had he made on the National Football League executives when he had tried to recruit the N.F.L. as a sponsor? Anyone might go through such a self-evaluation after an important business meeting, but for Mr. Cobb each question came with an unspoken qualifier: how did he perform, what impression did he make, as a black man?
Asha Appel, his lieutenant at HipO's New York office, said she often thought that potential partners wanted to work with Mr. Cobb because joining a successful black man would make them look good. Ms. Appel, who is white, said she had been conscious of feeling that way herself and had not been proud of it; it is a reaction to racism that is racist itself, she said.
"In meetings they all look to him, and that look doesn't come from just wanting to see his reaction," Ms. Appel said. "It comes from, 'We want you to know we're respecting you.' "
Her white boss in a previous job never got those looks, she said.
"Now they will speak to me and look to Tim for approval," she said. "And it's not about business. It's personal. Tim is a touchstone. His color is a touchstone."
Reactions like those by white associates only make it harder for him to establish the rapport that is often necessary to make business deals, Mr. Cobb said. "Ultimately it comes down to relationships," he said. "I've got to be able to connect with the person, and it's harder for people to connect with me as a black man.
"I'm never going to remind somebody of their little brother or their cousin or their next-door neighbor. I might remind them of someone in business school who they thought was smart and wish they'd gotten to know better."
Mr. Levy had no such concerns, of course. He was busy leveraging his reputation from RelevantKnowledge to attract investors and draw attention to eHatchery. A spread in U.S. News and World Report and an appearance on CNN followed the first article about the company last August in The Journal-Constitution. "Jeff Levy is an Internet success story," it began.
By contrast, HipO received scant press attention in its early days. In January, The Atlanta Business Chronicle ran an account of the demise of Mr. Cobb's HipO.com under the headline "Not Hip Enough? Web Site Dumps Pursuit of Teens."
Tim Cobb, left, and Jeff Levy quickly became fast friends and were soon planning a business partnership together. (Richard Perry/The New York Times)
But if Mr. Levy's public profile is higher than Mr. Cobb's, in part owing to his position and exposure at RelevantKnowledge, he also made an effort to raise it. He joined the board of Atlanta's science museum, helped the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and was invited to Washington for a dinner with President Clinton. Occasionally he answered his cell phone and found a senator on the line. He got a kick out of that. And his "Thursday Nights at the Hatch" cocktail parties attracted a crowd of Atlanta movers and shakers.
He was also spending more time with his sons as his wife became more involved in causes like the Million Mom March.
"Jeff is a poster boy for the new economy in Atlanta," said a prominent lawyer in a toast one Thursday in March.
Mr. Cobb, meanwhile, was traveling more and working longer hours. He was determined to make sure his investors did not lose their money and was working furiously to transform HipO's assets into a new Internet business. His wife remembers his coming home exhausted, with little energy for anything but watching ESPN.
He was also too overextended to think about community involvement, he said. Besides, he had never shared Mr. Levy's enthusiasm for it. Although he joined a panel of black entrepreneurs in a program for black students at the Wharton Business School, Mr. Cobb turned down requests to join political campaigns and civic groups and passed on a chance to work with Magic Johnson on a Web venture aimed at blacks.
In his view the struggle for blacks now was mainly economic. He could do more good, he said, by ensuring his own success, by supporting other black professionals and by offering himself as a model. And he had a hard time with peers who chose not to, like the black man working out at his gym who turned out to be the chief executive of a public Internet company. The man told him he kept a low profile, Mr. Cobb recalled, because he thought it would be better for the company's stock performance if people did not know he was black. "I told him that was messed up," Mr. Cobb said.
Soon, Mr. Cobb insisted, there would be more like himself. To ensure that, he paid special attention to black entrepreneurs who asked him to invest, and recently put $200,000 into an Internet start-up run by young African-Americans. If they did well, they in turn would finance others, Mr. Cobb said. "That's how you get the momentum."
But sometimes, he said, he grew frustrated with how slowly the ranks of black entrepreneurs were growing. He wished he could page the entire listening audience of the Les Brown show, a radio call-in program aimed at blacks, and tell them: "Here, do this. I did it, you can do it. I didn't do it dunking a basketball or singing a song, not that there's anything wrong with that. So have all my close friends, they've done it too. But we need other people, other success stories."
Tolls and Prospects
In April Mr. Cobb and Mr. Levy dined together at an Atlanta restaurant. They ordered a bottle of cabernet. They talked about business.
Mr. Levy was preparing to raise more money. He wanted to set up another eHatchery office, perhaps in Washington D.C. Soon, he hoped, an eHatchery investment would be ready to take public or be sold.
Prospects had also brightened for Mr. Cobb. He had transformed what was left of HipO into a new company, Edaflow, which was using the Internet to connect clothing manufacturers and retailers.
They also talked about their personal lives.
Mr. Levy's 4-year-old son, Mr. Cobb's godson, had been admitted to a private preschool where he would start learning Spanish. As for Mr. Cobb, shortly after they returned from Miami, he and his wife separated. He moved into the new house in March while his wife remained with the boys a few blocks away. But he spent more time with his sons now, three nights a week.
Ms. Adams Cobb said some combination of the missed family dinners and the constant feeling that her husband had blinders on had worn her down. Mr. Cobb acknowledged that his approach to work had burdened the relationship: "When I'm in a foxhole I divorce all emotion from what I'm doing and just do it," he said. "Madelyn doesn't like me when I'm like that."
Their marital troubles were similar to those of many entrepreneurs battling the odds. But some of Mr. Cobb's friends suggested that because the sense of going into daily battle was heightened for black men in business, so were frictions at home.
"The toll," Mr. Cobb said, "is probably higher than I realized."
Meanwhile, Mr. Cobb's oldest son, a few months older than Mr. Levy's, had begun to explore the meaning of race in his young life. Mr. Cobb had started what he knew would be a continuing conversation with him about what it means to be black in America, and why a white boy in a similar situation might have an easier time. In lectures that echo those of his own parents, Mr. Cobb said, he tells his son that he must not allow his race to hold him back.
"I tell him it's important to work hard, it's important to succeed. Absolutely, I'm burdening him with all that early on. He'll be like, 'I hear this stuff in my head, I don't know where that comes from.' "
Yet Mr. Cobb said he was confident that his sons' racial experiences would be better than his, partly because of social progress and partly because of his effort to provide for them. It will never occur to them that they should not have access to something because of their race, he said.
When he was growing up, he remembers, there was a country club he knew his family could not belong to. Now his sons play in the pool with Mr. Levy's at the exclusive Ansley country club and never question whether they should be there. Still, they were becoming aware of a difference.
"Dad," Mr. Cobb recalled his older son's observing one morning, "I'm the only brown boy in my class."
"I told him not to worry so much about color of skin," Mr. Cobb said. "I told him to look at his friends, and if they're nice people, to make his determination based on that. And I told him I was the only brown kid in my class too, and it's O.K."