Halsey Minor's Major Plans For Cnet

The CEO wants CNET to offer everything there is to know about tech products and news

In many ways, Halsey M. Minor, chief executive of Net publisher CNET Inc., was born to run an Internet company. He has long been an innovator with supreme confidence: At age 9, he invented a triple-decker version of checkers and sent his creation to Milton Bradley, certain the game giant would snap it up. It didn't, but Minor kept hatching money-making schemes, including, in college, a computerized apartment-finding service that foundered once Minor left his hometown of Charlottesville, Va. And he's a nerd to the core: For his high school, Minor chose the private, all-boys Woodberry Forest School because of its computers. "I've always been fanatical about technology," he says.

Little wonder, then, that Minor has grown up to be the archetypal Netrepreneur. In 1992, even before Marc L. Andreessen met James H. Clark and formed browser pioneer Netscape Communications Corp., Minor was hard at work on CNET, a company that uses online services and TV to deliver news and information about technology. Despite scads of obstacles, such as near personal bankruptcy in 1994, Minor felt certain that his baby would be big. And he was willing to risk everything to prove it. "I could go bankrupt, but I was not going to quit," he says. "I have learned that you can will success."

Minor's belief has paid off. At 34, he presides over a 540-person company in San Francisco that went public in 1996, valued at more than $3 billion. CNET's investments of $23.5 million in other Net startups have delivered more than $650 million in gains. As for Minor's personal fortune: It has topped $500 million. Minor, his wife, and three kids (all under the age of 3) live in the swank Seacliff neighborhood of San Francisco, with sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean and the Golden Gate Bridge.

But now, even though the world seems to be at his feet, Minor is suddenly talking about making colossal changes in his life. At CNET, he has assembled a new senior management team so he can step back from day-to-day operations to focus on the company's next wave of growth. At the same time, he's launching a $40 million venture-capital fund with his own money. And he's even discussing retirement, saying that by the time he's 40, he wants to focus on other interests, such as education.

TECHIES' DELIGHT. For now, though, CNET is at the top of his mind. Minor is cooking up grand plans to turn it into one of the elite destinations on the Web. For all its achievements, CNET, which brings together buyers and sellers of computers and consumer electronics, remains largely a niche collection of 10 Web "channels" and five TV shows visited most often by techies. Researcher Media Metrix Inc. ranks the company's Web sites No. 17 among the most popular cyber destinations, and it has only 4% consumer brand recognition. Bottom line: The company has yet to live up to Minor's grand vision.

Minor regrets that in the past he abandoned his projects, like the apartment-finding service, too early. He vows to stick with this one. He has in mind a worldwide network with the name-brand appeal of an ESPN or CNN that reaches out to hundreds of millions of computer owners, from newbies to graphics hogs. And he wants it to be incredibly broad and deep, offering everything from directions to local computer stores to information on who should host your Web site. He believes there is literally nothing users shouldn't be able to find out about technology on CNET's sites. "Our goal is everything--every product and every service within our category--and to do it on a global basis," says Minor.

No company, on- or offline, has achieved such completeness. Most of the other so-called niche portals offer relatively narrow slices of information within their categories. ESPN.com, for example, delivers reams of information about professional teams but nothing about how to shop for baseball gloves. Even CNET's Web sites are only "10% there," says Minor. He has a lot of empire-building to do. "The foundation has been laid," says analyst Tonia Pankopf of Goldman, Sachs & Co. "Now, it's just a question of being able to increase the number of users and vendors on CNET's network." To make that happen, Minor has decided to forgo profits, which in 1998 were $3.2 million on revenues of $19.6 million--mostly from selling advertising. He'll spend $100 million in the next 18 months on building brand and reach.

To invent the new CNET, Minor has to play a dramatically different role. On June 1, publishing industry veteran Richard J. Marino joined as president of the company. He follows a string of other hires over the past 18 months--moves made largely to beef up the company's senior management team and rid Minor of operational responsibilities. With the new additions, Minor has trimmed the number of executives reporting directly to him from 17 to 4. "I'm working on transitioning from a passionate, product-oriented CEO who wills a company into being to being a more stable hand on the tiller," says Minor.

That's not to say Minor is any less ambitious. One big project in the works: gathering Netizens into one big purchasing club. He's already hard at work on a novel plan to give buyers the power that sellers typically have. How? By using his network to bring together buyers of products who, en masse, can demand better prices from suppliers of everything from cell phones to laptop computers. Minor plans to introduce the service later this year.

Down the road, he believes he can extend CNET's business model to other vertical markets, such as auto sales, real estate, or sporting goods. And, as with CNET, he'll create TV programming to make the brand a household name. "Halsey is somebody who is really very alert to the technology marketplace and peering ahead into the future," says Amazon.com Inc. CEO Jeffrey P. Bezos. "He is an incredibly engaging visionary."

But not necessarily the best manager. Indeed, CNET had no formal employee-evaluation or budgeting process in place until late 1997. As for managing individuals, Minor's method of choice has been either to bathe employees in lavish praise, known to some as getting the "Halsey bear hug," or to flame them in hot-tempered E-mails sent at all hours of the day or night. "It's sort of a company joke," says Robin P. Wolander, a CNET executive vice-president. "How many flame-mails did you get from Halsey at 6 a.m.?"

DETAIL MAN. Sometimes, Minor nearly drives his employees nuts. Before the launch of CNET auctions in May, for example, Minor was checking the beta site nearly every 15 minutes, offering developer Nihad Hafiz tips and feedback on each and every change that was made. Unable to complete any task because of the flood of interruptions, Hafiz finally posted a notice on the front door of the service. It read simply: "Halsey, please stop looking at this."

Minor says he will still pore over each and every page on CNET's network. But he no longer wants to be the last word on how the products or services should look and feel. Instead, he plans to use more of his time to build CNET and to nurture some pet projects of his own. One example: the $40 million venture-capital fund he is in the middle of forming. The idea is to invest in promising Internet startups that target areas CNET would never touch. He has already put more than $1 million into his first venture, Listen.com, a San Francisco-based directory for online music. And he's putting money behind Salesforce.com, a Silicon Valley company involved in sales-force automation on the Web.

And then there are Minor's political aspirations. Two years ago, he briefly toyed with vying for the Virginia governorship. While he no longer harbors any desire to run for office, Minor does want to help advance the causes of the technology industry, such as open cable access. In 1997, he hosted a high-profile dinner for Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton at his home. On July 9, Minor, a registered Independent, hosted a group of 21 congressional Democrats interested in networking in Silicon Valley. "He's definitely a rising star and will become more and more prominent in the technology milieu," says Silicon Valley financier Sanford R. Robertson.

That may be short-lived. Minor says he's willing to devote only six more years to high tech's cause, or for that matter to the running of CNET. Minor says that by the time he turns 40, he wants no more of the headaches from employees and shareholders that come with running a large public company. He hopes he'll be involved in education, perhaps by becoming a professor or by going back to school.

That may help him make more room for his few indulgences. Apart from his family, Minor spends most of his free time on the golf course where he has a 17 handicap. Friends say he's just as intense on the fairways as he is in the virtual world. "Halsey is one of the most competitive people I've ever met," says pal Theodore W. Waitt, chairman and CEO of PC maker Gateway 2000 Inc. Jeffrey Moore, who was best man at Minor's wedding, says he and Minor enter the same golf tournament every year in New York. "We are always underprepared and overclassed," says Moore. "But Halsey is convinced we're going to win it from the first hole."

Another priority is Minor's family. He grew up comfortably in small-town America--his father was a real estate agent, his mother a breeder of show horses. He just bought a farm in Virginia to be nearer to them. And he has his heart set on spending time with his wife and kids. So that he can have breakfast with his children, he no longer schedules meetings before 9 a.m. Nor does he sit on the boards of directors of other companies because of the time commitment it would require.

Friends say Minor talks a good game about wanting to relax, but they have their doubts. After all, even on his honeymoon, Minor amassed a $1,200 phone bill chatting with the office about a pending investment. "He wants to slow down, but he doesn't have the ability to," says friend Jeffrey Edwards. "He believes he has a business and a company with an enormous way to go." And if Minor's next scheme doesn't pan out--just like with the triple-decker checkers game--he's bound to try another.

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