SAN MATEO (03/09/2000) - Not long ago Jaime Lerner was sitting with Joe Cha in Joe's kitchen, trying desperately to come up with a name for the business the two had just started.
"The thing had literally taken off from underneath us," says Lerner, the company's CTO; Cha is the CEO. "One day we were talking about a new business model, and the next, we had landed a couple of big accounts."
The two accounts were Pacific Gas & Electric Co. and Canon Inc. With more on the way, and lawyers faxing boilerplate contracts straight to Joe's kitchen, the two realized they had better get a name. They were already thinking ahead:
"With four letters, your name can also be your Nasdaq symbol," says Lerner.
Thus Xuma was born.
After the fact, the founders discovered that Xuma means "charging horse" in Chinese, a case of serendipity that pleases Lerner.
So far it seems to be working: "In less than two years we grew to an $18 million business, without taking any venture funding," Lerner says.
Xuma's business model is to fill the gap for companies wishing to enter the business-to-business e-commerce fray by building and hosting their B-to-B Internet solutions. The company aims to do it faster and cheaper than established firms such as Andersen Consulting.
Looking back down the path that led him to this point, Lerner explains that past roles at larger firms, including Andersen, gave him the idea for Xuma.
"I realized I could take a team of about six people and accomplish the same thing that, at Andersen, took 100 people," he says.
So in 1998 Lerner and Cha, another fugitive from Andersen, got together in San Francisco to make something of their own.
"From the start our goal was to create a system of reusable components that we could weave into our assembly line of solutions," he says. "And we host these solutions on our servers."
As CTO, one of Lerner's primary responsibilities is to get and retain technical talent. "A big piece of our business is the culture," says Lerner. "We try to create an environment that will attract those 'rock-star' engineers who have gotten bored after the fourth or fifth release of a product."
He is also responsible for something a little less tangible: the firm's technical vision.
"I bridge the gap between engineering and marketing," he says. "One of the biggest barriers to success for a CTO is to get too infatuated with technology for its own sake. The technologists that really advance into leadership are those who see technology for what it can do, not for what it is."
Communicating your understanding of how the technology drives the business is equally important. "If you can appreciate the real business power of technology and then communicate this message to nontechnical people, then you are a valuable technologist," Lerner says.
This is exactly what he has done, and continues to do. Xuma is now a venture-funded startup, and Lerner frequently flies off to Wall Street to meet with investment bankers. The company no longer takes up space in Joe's kitchen, although some trappings of home still remain.
"One of my favorite office chairs was a gift from Joe's mom," Lerner says.