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

Jan 12, 20045 mins

Packing them in at the 'Chipcom prom.'

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.

The Alteon alumni site was launched by Dan Tuchler, now a consultant, and a former colleague who registered a domain name for alums a few months after leaving Nortel but didn’t quite know what to do with it. “We thought it might serve as a way to give people free e-mail accounts,” Tuchler says.

Now the site serves to alert alumni to reunion events, at which tequila shots are commemorated in online photos, and keeps them up to date on which Alteon products are selling on eBay. And where else can you find the notorious “Ad we never used,” which features a picture of a baby staring at a mother’s breast and includes the words: “Did you ever think you could be this happy again?”

Perhaps the granddaddy of network industry alumni sites is Digital Equipment’s, which launched in 1993, years before Compaq snapped up the struggling computer maker.

The site is actually a for-profit organization that features ads and sells merchandise such as sweatshirts.

“It’s not a huge money maker; we just raise enough to stay alive,” says Peter Koch, a 25-year Digital veteran who now runs the site. He says there are 7,000 alums in the site’s database, with roughly one-third of them active at any time.

Koch says he gets inspiration to stick with the effort given the closeness of the Digital community, which still rallies in the hundreds for holiday and other reunion parties around the world. “[Founder] Ken Olsen established a culture in which people were given big responsibilities and were held accountable. People don’t forget that sort of thing, even this many years later,” he says.

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