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The Mind of an IT Innovator

In 1992, Halsey Minor, then 29, founded CNET Networks (CNET) and embarked on an entrepreneurial ride that saw his technology-resource site become one of the Web's busiest and most successful. Along the way, he helped create PRISM, later sold to info-tech outfit Vignette (VIGN), and, which netted him millions of dollars. Having seen ups -- and downs -- over the past decade, Minor now sits at the helm of Grand Central Communications, which provides a network for companies to integrate business software services such as payroll and accounting.

Minor recently launched a $50 million venture-capital fund, designed to back startups that make the on-demand applications essential to Grand Central's platform. SmallBiz Editor Rod Kurtz sat down with the serial entrepreneur to discuss his latest project, his career and experiences, and how those influences have shaped his approach to business. Edited excerpts follow:

Q: Describe your new venture and why this is appealing to you at this point in your career.

A: The fund is focused on helping entrepreneurs who have recognized that the enterprise-software industry, which has created so much wealth for [Microsoft's (MSFT)] Bill Gates, [Oracle's (ORCL)] Larry Ellison, and so many other people, is going through a huge transition and moving from a model of companies buying and running stuff internally, to companies consuming things as services, almost as if they're Web sites. Literally, the entire enterprise-software industry and hardware industry is about to be rebuilt, so I think there's a lot of opportunity to support entrepreneurs and a lot of money to be made supporting entrepreneurs who share that vision.

Q: Do you think your own experiences shaped that, the need for entrepreneurship to play a role in this?

A: I've certainly been very close to it, in that I've started software companies and started a media company that covers the technology industry, so I've certainly seen the shortcomings of the current model, and that helps me understand what the new opportunities are.

The one thing I can say is that I think I've been a far better investor as a result of having been an entrepreneur, and I think I recognize the skills in successful entrepreneurs, having sort of been through the battles and having earned the battle scars of trying to start a company myself. It makes me much more effective at being able to identify opportunities and primarily identify people who I think have a strong chance of being successful.

Q: What are some of those skills? What do you look for? And do you think they're inherent, or can you pick things up?

A: The number one thing I look for is passion. I want somebody who is a passionate believer in what they're doing and not simply trying to do something to get rich. Because I think those people have the ability to weather good times and bad times, and there are always bad times whenever you're starting a company.

I think passion is very important. And it's not just a matter of being passionate about something, but actually knowing enough about it so you understand the consumer behavior...or the behavior of the buyer, having spent enough time in and around the industry that you're interested in.

And I think, lastly, just my own instincts around what the size of the opportunity is. There are a lot of things that people can do to build businesses, but the question is: "Is it a big business?" And that really would be the third thing I look for.

Q: What have you learned? What would the Halsey of now say to the Halsey of 10 years ago?

A: I'd say the number one thing is that I work a lot smarter. I've realized the things that don't really matter and the things that do matter. I would say earlier on I thought my direct involvement in every decision was essential. Now, my direct involvement in hiring great people is essential.

I also have learned that it's more important to make sure you articulate a vision that's really clear to everybody in the company, as opposed to trying to communicate that vision by showing everybody a bunch of small decisions. Instead, you've got to lay out the master vision. And then, oftentimes, if you hire the right people, they'll rally around it, and they'll do the right thing without you having to constantly stay on top of them.

Q: Why keep doing this? What's appealing about this, starting something new, seeing it grow and mature? And how do you know when the time is right to walk away?

A: I enjoy this. Every company I've started, I've started because I had a passion in what the company was about. When I've backed entrepreneurs like Marc Benioff, who started Salesforce (CRM), they tend to be very passionate individuals themselves.

So for me, ever since I became an entrepreneur, I've never viewed a single day of my life as a day of work. I literally wake up and do what I want to do, which is help build and grow companies. So for me, it's not work, it's fulfillment. And there's really no other way to describe it.

It's not that I keep pushing myself to do something I don't like. I'm fortunate enough to be able to continue to do the things that I enjoy.

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