Two years ago, when Renato Soru told prospective investors that he wanted to challenge Telecom Italia, they smiled politely. The determined Sardinian was forced to finance his rival telecom-and-Internet startup, Tiscali, with $600,000 of his own capital.
Now, the 42-year-old Soru, a former bond trader and real estate developer, is the one who's beaming. He has already grabbed 25% of the Italian market for Net access from Telecom Italia and now is on a shopping spree. Since taking Tiscali public last October, he has snapped up a half-dozen European Net and telecom players for nearly $500 million in stock. Soru also is bidding for a third-generation mobile-phone license in Italy and investing in a fiber-optic network so that Tiscali can offer high-speed media and Internet services across the Continent.
In a country where powerful vested interests have long stifled real competition, entrepreneurs like Soru are a rare breed. The Sardinian dabbled in different businesses before ending up an Internet millionaire. Eager to run his own company, he quit trading bonds and began developing shopping malls across Italy. He headed to Prague in 1995 to build one there, but decided to launch a Web business instead. With only eight phone lines and modems, he built up an online service that quickly snared 70% of the market. Soru eventually cashed out and returned to Italy to launch Tiscali. The experience, he says, "taught me to do a lot with a little money."
Now, Soru's goal is to turn his company into Europe's leading Internet access provider. He's doing that by adding new, innovative services as quickly as possible in order to stay one step ahead of bigger rivals. Tiscali was the first in Italy to offer Internet access free of subscriber fees, prompting Telecom Italia to follow suit. Now that the race is on to drop telephone charges, too, Soru is pumping up revenues from advertising. Since January, they have jumped from almost zero to $140 million. Although Tiscali is not yet profitable, its revenues are expected to top $1.5 million this year, up from $32 million in 1999.
Like any Netrepreneur, Soru keeps grueling hours and he is often on the road. But he has kept Tiscali's headquarters in Sardinia, where he can watch pink-orange sunsets and seagulls winging over the dunes--Soru's antidote to the nonstop Net economy.