Life after venture capital Featured

9:38am EDT July 22, 2002

Derek Minno sits at a keyboard in Jovio's headquarters giving a demonstration of how the technology developed by the company he's heading will add convenience for TV viewers.

Showing others how the technology works and, by extension, how the company proposes to make money, is a switch for this venture capitalist turned entrepreneur. Not long ago, Minno, once a partner with Pittsburgh-based Point Venture Partners, would have found himself at the other end of the interaction, taking in a presentation by and asking questions of an eager entrepreneur looking for a round of venture funding to propel his company to the next growth stage.

As CEO of Jovio, Minno has opted for a path that is, in some ways, more demanding and frenetic, something to which most start-up entrepreneurs would attest, than even the role of venture capitalist. After spending years combing business plans and market research to identify promising investment opportunities, Minno now finds himself at Jovio, a business that proposes to impose some order on the clutter of programming available on hundreds of cable and satellite television channels.

Essentially, the technology will allow television viewers to record selected television programs offered through their cable or satellite providers and play them back on demand, all controlled from a personal computer. It is one of a number of ventures seeking to offer "time shifting" of programming, which allows viewers to choose, via PC, the programs they want to record and store them on a set-top box provided by the user.

The shows are recorded in their entirety, commercials included. Jovio inserts a one-minute ad, tailored to the viewer's demographic profile, before each recorded program. Even if users fast forward through the inserted commercials, a brief, still impression of the advertiser's message will appear when the viewer hits the fast-forward button. As Jovio's founders envision it, the service gives advertisers access to tightly targeted groups of consumers. Users will be able to access the service at no cost, with commercials providing Jovio with its revenue.

Forrester Research, a company that studies online business, has concluded that digital set-top boxes will be in more than half of U.S. homes by the end of 2005, and 87 percent of homes will pay for TV programming, either through cable or satellite providers. The boxes will enable interactivity and on-demand content, Forrester contends, changing how consumers use, watch and buy TV.

"A nice career move"

Minno spent better than a decade in the world of venture capital, including time as a founding partner of Point Venture Partners. Now, with venture capital looking like it's heading for a heyday in Pittsburgh, why has he opted for a fling with a start-up?

"This is a great opportunity -- that's one of the big things," Minno acknowledges. "I came to the conclusion that I didn't want to travel halfway around the world to invest venture capital because I had a young family, and international travel isn't all it's cracked up to be.

"For me, it's a nice career move." I've seen venture capital from a lot of different perspectives now."

While he's in a new industry, Minno's segue to direct entrepreneurship wasn't all that abrupt. While involved as an investor with Safeguard Interactive Inc., a company that backs up computer hard drives over the Internet, Minno spearheaded the effort to engineer relationships with other companies, including Intuit and StorageTec, the Louisville, Colo., company that purchased Safeguard Interactive last summer.

One of Minno's partners, Bill Krewin, was president and a founder of Safeguard Interactive. A third partner, Richard Roberts, is an advertising and marketing expert with 25 years of experience.

In a sense, Minno has arrived at his original destination. After graduating from Carnegie Mellon University in the early 1980s, he looked around for an entrepreneurial opportunity in Pittsburgh. Unfortunately, business development wasn't the hottest game in town at the time, and Minno says he couldn't identify the right situation.

"As I learned about venture capital, it seemed to be the next best thing to being an entrepreneur," says Minno.

He ended up in a venture capital operation within Mellon Bank's trust department and got an education in venture investing over the next three and a half years. Later, he helped found Point Venture Partners.

You never leave the office

Minno has found life as a business builder something of a contrast to that of a business bankroller. As an entrepreneur, for instance, particularly in an early-stage venture, you never leave the office.

"In venture, you can sort of leave it," Minno says. "You're checking reports, you're doing research, but day to day, you kind of walk away from it. In this situation, you really can't."

Case in point: they're considering installing a shower at Jovio's Century Building headquarters.

Being closer to the business changes perceptions about it.

"Sometimes from that 30,000-foot view, everything looks OK -- you sort of rest a little easier at night," Minno says. "When you're on the ground, you can see the challenges businesses have."

Money isn't everything

Being in the operations role of a company has changed Minno's view of business in other ways, too. For one, he sees the role of capital differently.

"As a venture capitalist, you have the view that money's the most important thing in these companies, and I think when you assume more of an operating role, you realize that money's just a part of it. There are certainly other important parts."

Such as human resources.

"This is an environment where you have to manage people. Venture is an environment where you have to manage money," Minno says. "Managing people is a lot harder than managing money, because they come with all of their particulars that you have to be aware of."

While it is more challenging in some respects, Minno says he enjoys the independence and control that being an operating executive offers.

"I think you're certainly a lot closer to the action as an operating executive, and I think I like that," Minno says. "You control your own destiny more."

And, while venture capital is no easy way to make a living, Minno is finding that running a start-up might be even more challenging.

"In a sense, it's a more intense professional life," he says. "I'm probably working as hard as I ever worked."How to reach: Jovio, www.jovio.com; Forrester Research, www.forrester.com

Ray Marano (rmarano@sbnnet.com) is associate editor of SBN.