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Winter 1999-2000
Vol. 62, No. 2

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START ME UP

Suppose you and three of your former co-workers decided to team up to create a new company. Perhaps, for example, you'd come up with a better way to distribute and manage software over computer networks.

To get started, each of you would have to ante up $15,000 of your own money and commit to working 15 hours a day, every day for months--if not years--with no certain payoff in sight.

Would you quit your job and climb aboard?

For Jonathan Payne '88, co-founder of the Internet-based software-management company Marimba, the question is a no-brainer.

A former programmer at Sun Microsystems, Inc., when he suggested the idea to his co-founders in 1996, he was looking for the chance to get in on the ground floor of a company in which he could have a personal and professional stake.

"We just saw an incredible opportunity," Payne says of the founding of Marimba. "The only problem is you're not allowed to slow down when you're doing a startup. There's just never a time to take a breather."

At the ripe old age (in Internet time) of 4 years old, Marimba, based in Silicon Valley's Mountain View, California, probably no longer meets the textbook definition of an Internet startup. But the company's success qualifies as an example of the entrepreneurial spirit that drives much of the newest sector of the American economy.

The company, which specializes in developing ways to distribute and manage software over the Internet and through individual intranets, went public in April. Initially priced at $20 a share, Marimba stock leapt to $74 a share before settling in at the upper-20s and low-30s this summer.

Payne, who holds the title of senior engineer, clearly remembers the days when "sweat equity" was much more common than the kind of equity that comes with an IPO.

"We basically worked really, really hard for six months with no salary," he says. And he jokes about the personality problems that crop up when four people work closely together for a long time.

"It was a very intense experience."

A cognitive sciences major at Rochester, Payne had intended to focus on artificial intelligence as a career. But the more hard-core programming he did as an undergraduate, the more he enjoyed it and decided that was the future for him.

He took a job with Sun right out of college and worked on the company's vaunted Java programming language, co-authoring the alpha version of HotJava.

Although he says he enjoyed being at Sun and is grateful for the experience of working on major projects for the company, after seven years he was ready to look for new opportunities.

"Sun never really felt like a startup," he says, noting that he was employee number 6,888 in what was then already a $1 billion operation.

In 1995, he left Sun for StarWave, a small Seattle-based software company that promised more of a ground-floor feel. But that, too, didn't qualify as a startup, Payne says, because it was financed by Microsoft's Paul Allen, giving it plenty of financial cushion.

"I decided that I needed to get some success for myself," Payne says.

He'd remained in contact with other former Sun employees, and they put their heads together to come up with Marimba.

Payne, who describes himself as "just a programmer," says he's watched a lot of the financial workings from the sidelines, but he has learned some important lessons about running a successful business.

"The hardest part, really, is coming up with a good idea," he says. "We have an engineering team that can turn out anything."

He's also found the adage that the business world is "dog eat dog" to be indeed true.

"We're out there competing with a lot of other companies, and we're out to destroy them and they're out to destroy us," he says. "It's a constant struggle.

"May the best man win--or, may the luckiest best man win," Payne says.

Still, with recent success--and a new baby--Payne is finding more time for other things in life. He's down to working 10 hours a day, often only five days a week.

He sees a value in pacing himself for success.

"As our V.P. for engineering said, 'It's going to be a marathon, not a sprint.'"

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