supbWhen Judy Estrin decides it’s time for startup No. 3, she needn’t worry about funding. All she has to do is look to Philip Greer. He’s a honcho at Weiss, Peck & Greer Venture Partners, which made some $57 million on Estrin’s first two startups — Bridge Communications and Network Computing Devices. If Estrin comes calling again, he says, only half-joking, “My response would be: ‘”How much do you want?”‘

Estrin, 39, who resigned as president and CEO of NCD just three weeks ago, doesn’t know what’s next. Not yet anyway. She wants to “decompress” from her 70-hour workweeks. Plus, she and husband Bill Carrico, NCD’s former chairman, feel better suited to running something smaller than $144 million NCD. But don’t expect the duo to stay out of the startup mode for long. Estrin figures she and Carrico will be back within a year.

Keep an eye on them. They’ve shown amazing prescience. When they founded Bridge in 1981, overall sales of internetworking devices totaled less than $50 million annually. Today, internetworking is a $3 billion-a-year business, says Lee Doyle of International Data Corp. And the X hardware and software market, in which NCD was again an early arrival, grew from almost nothing in 1988 to $1.5 billion today, according to Greg Blatnik of the X Business Group, in Fremont, Calif.

How does Estrin come by such a good eye? It may be in her genes. Her parents are both professors of computer science at UCLA. But she also credits her 44-year-old husband, someone she also calls “mentor.” Says Estrin: “Both of us are very keyed in with technology and where it’s going.” Each has an electrical engineering degree. Between them, they represent 40 years of high-tech experience.

Estrin, who’s been married to Carrico for seven years, says it’s unlikely she’d ever do a startup without him. “We complement each other, and we enjoy working together,” she says. They’re so inseparable a friend has taken to calling them “The Bill & Judy Show.”

They met at Zilog in 1979. Estrin was engineering manager, Carrico a business unit manager. Two years later, Carrico got the bug to do a startup and convinced Estrin, by then at Ungermann-Bass, to join him. It took them about six months to write a business plan and get venture funding.

Estrin says she’s drawn to “building markets,” which requires a lot of long hours. “Sometimes we wonder why we pick things that are so hard,” she says with a laugh. At Bridge, she not only had to create a company, she had to educate the market about how to tie networks together. “She spent more time on the road with customers than Bill or myself, and that enabled us to never miss a beat or a trend,” says Eric Benhamou, a Bridge co-founder and now CEO of 3Com Corp. 3Com acquired Bridge in 1987, but it’s Bri dge’s basic strategy that prevails. Benhamou, who became the company’s chief in 1990, shifted it out of network operating systems and servers to concentrate on interworking products. “The new strategy that has worked astonishingly well is similar to that of Bridge, just broader,” he says.

Estrin and Carrico left 3Com after nine months in a disagreement about the company’s direction. They planned to take six months off, but a friend asked them to hear a pitch from six people at a new company called Network Computing Devices. It didn’t take them long to recognize the virtue in the company’s plan to make something brainier than a dumb terminal but much cheaper than a workstation for use on LANs. They spent just one day calling industry people — including Estrin’s sister, Deborah, a computer s cience professor at USC — to confirm the X market’s promise.

Promising as the market may have been, Estrin, once again, had to work hard to nurture it. “An awful lot of education had to be done for X,” says IDC director Eileen O’Brien. “Judy appeared on practically every single panel, did hundreds of press interviews, and spent an awful lot of time with folks explaining X.” O’Brien dubbed her the “mother of X Windows.” Estrin was more than a market evangelist, however. She was instrumental in capturing paying customers for NCD. “She sold some of the biggest accounts we have,” says NCD director Greer.

Carrico passed Estrin the mantle of president and CEO in October 1993. Together at the top they broadened NCD’s software line to include E-mail and gateways. Now, as she passes the torch, she leaves behind some big challenges for her successor, Ed Marinaro, an NCD diector and 25-year industry veteran. While NCD remains the largest X terminal vendor, Hewlett-Packard is gaining fast. And Sun Microsystems jumped into the market last year. Competition plus the PC price war are eroding NCD’s gross margins, whic h fell from a hefty 40 percent in 1992 to 32 percent today. It lost $9.2 million in the first quarter — due to the purchase of E-mail developer Z-Code Software Corp. And it reported a meager $182,000 second-quarter profit on sales of $41 million. Meanwhile, its stock price is sitting at $3.75 — down from its 1992 IPO price of $12.

But Estrin doesn’t see all this as departing on a down note. “Being at the top of one’s game doesn’t mean that your stock price is at its highest or your earnings are at their highest,” she says. NCD, she insists, is actually in better shape than it was a year ago — when its stock price was higher — because it’s well-positioned to make a stronger push in software.

Whatever happens at NCD, the fact remains that Estrin and Carrico worked their startup magic again. Estrin says she honestly doesn’t know what she’ll pull out of her sleeve next. “I’m purposefully not looking [for startup ideas],” she says. “I don’t want to get excited about something.” Whatever she decides on, you can be sure investors will be close by. Says Benhamou: “If I have an opportunity to invest in whatever they do next, I will.”