The recent resignation of Peapod.com's newly appointed chief executive underscores the stomach-churning, day-to-day vacillations at an Internet startup. After just six months on the job, the online grocer's leader left the company because of "physical and mental exhaustion" amid the cancellation of a $120 million investment.

Certainly, these high-flying positions are not for everyone.

"You need to have a capacity for a strong amount of work, to be flexible to react to constant changes to the business model, and have a high tolerance for risk," said Dan Guerrero, president of Tarzana-based eCruiting Inc., which specializes in placing Internet executives.

As Internet companies multiply like rabbits, headhunters say the litany of requirements for top-brass openings has led to a frenzied search for qualified employees.

"The war for talent is unbelievably competitive. Everyone wants the best five people in the country for that function," said Mary Saxon, principal at Korn/Ferry International, who counts among her Internet clients Mattel.com, Webvan, Eve.com and BabyCenter.com. "They don't want to invest in people that might win, they need someone who's a winner already."

The good news, she points out, is that executives have warmed up considerably to the prospect of working for an Internet startup.

"Eighteen months ago, if you called people about dot-coms, their attitude was, 'Prove it to me,'" Saxon said. "Now it's swung in the other direction and people are dying to get involved in the next eToys."

Acid test

To qualify, applicants for high-level Internet openings are put through a brief acid test, so recruiters can determine if they have basic senior-level management skills. They must have strong strategic-thinking skills, the ability to oversee a management team and a flair for structuring deals. And a candidate's background can make a huge difference in the hiring process.

So where are recruiters looking for talent to poach?

"We're looking at companies that have a strong track record of success, that are known as great campuses of talent, who attract talent and have great training programs," recruiter Saxon said. "They can give our (Internet start-up) companies a sense of cachet, especially if (the recruit was) a heavy-hitter or a significant player at a major organization."

Recruiters fan a variety of industries to hunt down talent. Key sectors have included retail, manufacturing and especially entertainment.

Poaching from other Internet companies is also common, but often more difficult, because many Web executives are still locked into stock-option agreements.

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