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Old net start-ups never die, they just become alumni clubs

Packing them in at the 'Chipcom prom.'

By , Network World
January 12, 2004 12:06 AM ET

Network World - As Fanny Mlinarsky squeezed her way through the crowded Cambridge Hyatt cocktail lounge at last fall's Chipcom reunion, she could hardly wait to reveal what hid in the small Estée Lauder shopping bag in her clutches. Leaping at her opportunity during a break in conversation with her former manager, Menachem Abraham, she sprung open the bag and yanked out . . . a circuit board.

Of course, this wasn't just any board. Rather, it was prototype No. 1 from an Ethermodem, the very first product made by the now-defunct network equipment maker, which 3Com gobbled up about eight years ago.

"We were 20 years ahead of our time with that cable modem," said Abraham, shaking his head and pointing to a full-blown Ethermodem on a nearby memorabilia table covered with mugs, photo albums and other tchotchkes.

Chipcom is one of many former network industry stars that lives on through an active alumni group. Others, from Alteon to Digital Equipment to Netscape, do the same. Groups also exist for companies that are still around, such as Lucent, that might have shed many employees over the years by one means or another.

The groups help keep former colleagues and friends in touch. On the Netscape alumni site, many former co-workers are still issuing salutes to a company that - as Mike (employee No. 335) put it, "changed the world." Others are still griping about how Microsoft or Sun or AOL ruined Netscape and turned working there into, well, work. "I'm tired . . . tired of dragging myself to 'work' and dealing with the daily corporate drudgery," wrote one alum recently.

Aleks Totic, an early Netscape developer who started the site in 1998, says it gets about 20,000 hits each month and that 1,000 people have added their entry information on the site. "That's impressive considering that we've only had 3,000 alumni," he says. Traffic spikes when Netscape's Mozilla open source development offshoot makes news or when there are layoffs at what's left of Netscape within AOL, which bought the company in 1999.

Like these Netscape alums, former Chipcom employee Mlinarsky has clearly not forgotten her roots. She now heads a wireless network start-up called Azimuth that boasts a board of directors featuring former Chipcom CEO Rob Held and a board of advisors including Abraham, Chipcom's fourth employee and now the head of 40G bit/sec optical network company Mintera. What's more, Ilan Carmi, former vice president of engineering at Chipcom, is the company's lead venture capitalist and a board member.

Held says one reason former Chipcom employees - some of whom refer to themselves as "Chippers" and their parties as "Chipcom proms"- continue to stay in touch is that the company was really brought together during an 18-month period when it was without a CEO.

"People got used to making compromises across departments," he says. "It fostered a lot of trust among people and that never went away."

Another former network equipment maker, Alteon of Jumbo Frames fame, also lives on via an alumni group even though Nortel consumed the company roughly three years ago. One ex-Alteon employee who asked not to be named says Nortel's "dismemberment" of Alteon drew him and his former colleagues ever closer together, partly to stay in touch, partly to rip former Nortel's management team.

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