Can Marimba's Ceo Keep The Beat?

A Silicon Valley sensation tackles startup problems--and skeptics

By now, Kim Polese is accustomed to the spotlight. The 35-year-old founder of Marimba Inc. has been living in its glow for the past two years. As a product manager at Sun Microsystems Inc., she helped make the company's Java programming language a household word. She became an overnight sensation when, at the height of the Java buzz early last year, she quit Sun and, along with two key Java engineers, formed Internet startup Marimba. A rare female CEO in a male-dominated industry, Polese hobnobs with President Clinton and Vice-President Gore, and is often mobbed by autograph seekers at trade shows. Musician Thomas Dolby, a friend of Polese's, calls her "Silicon Valley's answer to Madonna."

Just like the material girl, Polese has her share of critics, who say she is inexperienced and overrated. Indeed, her fame does not sit well with some Valley denizens. "Kim spends an awful lot of time in the public eye, but I don't see that many products coming out that are generating revenue," says Christopher R. Hasset, CEO of PointCast Inc.

Legitimate gripe or sour grapes? While critics and press reports have focused on her fame, Polese has been quietly proving her mettle. Marimba, which makes technology for delivering software updates and information across the Net, has grown from four founders in January, 1996, to 70 employees. The company boasts 300 paying customers, including Lehman Brothers Inc. and PeopleSoft Inc. It just released a third version of its product, Castanet, which first debuted in January. And in mid-September, a half-dozen strategic partners are expected to invest up to $15 million in Marimba.

Still, Polese faces hurdles before earning her place among Silicon Valley's entrepreneurial successes. She's made some missteps. For example, Marimba early on tried to go after the consumer market as well as corporate customers. The result: an overtaxed staff and a muddied message. Now, Marimba is focusing on selling to corporations, which use Marimba's push technology to automatically deliver software and information to employees and customers. At Alain Pinel Realtors in Saratoga, Calif., for example, Castanet delivers real estate listings and photos to the computers of 400 agents.

Additionally, this is the first time she has managed more than a handful of people. And in the months ahead, she must win over hundreds more corporate customers, which are typically hesitant to take a risk on an unproven company. Only then will Marimba get its share of the Web-software management market, which Forrester Research Inc. estimates will be worth $400 million by 2000.

Polese has been preparing for the challenge her entire life. Her business instincts were inspired by her parents, Italian immigrants who ran a machine shop in Berkeley, Calif. Standards were high in the Polese household. She studied piano, danced, strove for straight A's. "You didn't come home from school and turn on the TV and open a bag of Chee-tos," says Polese.

Her study habits are paying off today. Acknowledging her inexperience, Polese has sought management help from Douglas Mackenzie, a partner at the venture-capital firm of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, which invested $4 million in Marimba last year. And she has assembled a top executive team--rich in startup knowhow and expert at dealing with corporate customers.

That has helped forge essential bonds with established players, such as IBM and Netscape Communications Corp. "The relationship with Netscape gives us confidence they'll be around for a while," says Robert Offutt, a senior technologist for Sabre Group Holdings Inc., which is considering using Castanet to distribute software updates to 35,000 travel agents worldwide.

HARD-NOSED. Most impressive, Polese has demonstrated a steely pragmatism. Two months ago, she decided to accelerate hiring a dozen engineers and tech-support folks, even though that meant pushing back the startup's breakeven target. "Breaking even isn't the goal right now," she says. "Owning the market is." Another hard-nosed decision: developing a version of Castanet that works with Microsoft Corp.'s Windows-based programs, instead of just Java.

Polese has taken a conservative approach from the beginning. She and her co-founders, who each put up $15,000 to start the company, waited until they had a product and customers before they accepted outside financing. "We didn't want to get fat and happy," says Polese. Although the buzz surrounding her company almost guarantees demand in the financial markets, she's in no rush to go public--late 1998 is the target.

The strategy could pay off. As more companies use the Web to reach customers and employees, technology like Marimba's will be in great demand. Right now, Polese has only a smattering of competition, mostly from startups such as BackWeb Technologies. Longer term, Microsoft has signaled it will add software-distribution features to its products. "She's in a battle where Microsoft is trying to kill her every day," says L. John Doerr, a venture backer at Kleiner Perkins. Polese shrugs off the Microsoft threat. As long as Marimba keeps innovating, she says, it can be successful. As for the critics? "There's substance here, in me and in my company, and I don't let it bother me," she says. Good thing, because the spotlight isn't likely to dim anytime soon.

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