Welcome to the eye of the hype hurricane.
First and foremost among Internet incubators,
is furiously scrambling to stay atop the heap. But standing in the middle of it all -- though firmly out of the media glare -- Peter Mills is a picture of calm. Mills guides the hype-tossed fate of
, the $2.28 billion venture capital arm of Wall Street phenomenon CMGI.
Mills, managing partner at CMGI, is working tirelessly on two new billion-dollar venture capital funds, one solely for business-to-business e-commerce and one focused on Internet infrastructure companies. He also is fanning away the choking buzz cloud created by CMGI CEO David Wetherell's hints in December that @Ventures would go public "sooner rather than later."
Mills is fighting to keep his adopted California cool.
"I'm just a farmer," Mills chuckles after another helping of deadpan silence. Go ahead, play coy with us.
You may be familiar with CMGI's standard practice of buying or incubating entire Internet companies such as
, recently acquired
. @Ventures, on the other hand, nurtures less-than-50% stakes in private companies. It has invested in more than 40 companies since 1995 through five funds, with another $1 billion general Internet fund soon to come. Six of those companies have gone public, including
is acquiring) and
, which went public Feb. 9.
But what would be the point in taking @Ventures public?
First of all, @Ventures might suck a little hype-driven valuation inflation out of gassed-up CMGI competitor
Internet Capital Group
. Announced Nov. 24, @Ventures' narrowly focused business-to-business fund looks like a direct challenge to ICG, whose shares have soared fivefold since its early August 1999 IPO. @Ventures has steadily built up a stable of "vertical marketplaces" -- business-to-business e-commerce sites where companies can conduct their back-end grocery (
) or life-sciences (Chemdex) business -- as well as several sites to streamline the business purchasing process. The latter includes
Second, an IPO would rake in even more cash fuel for the CMGI machine. All this Wetherell-stirred-up speculation may be a wee bit distracting for Mills, a man who has honed his laid-back attitude to an art form.
"You mean my blabbermouth partner?" Mills says with a laugh at the excitement CMGI's CEO generated. He then tranquilly explains that both he and Wetherell see @Ventures as merely a prelude of things to come. So does that mean an IPO or what? Cough it up! "Beats me. I believe there are different ways that
outside investors can provide money to VCs, to general partners. We're going to be out in front of the parade," he says.
All right, all right. Mills won't budge. But we'll be sniffing through his recycling bins for the next six months.
The best we can figure is that Mills and CMGI haven't started pitching Wall Street on the idea of a public @Ventures. Yet. "I'm not sure it could be done, structurally," says Steven Frankel of Boston-based brokerage
Adams Harkness & Hill
, speculating on the short-term likelihood of an IPO. He thinks the current fund setup doesn't have public markets in mind. "You could form a new fund with the structure to be spun out. But the 'carry' interest is already divided up. There isn't a slice of the pie to give away," Frankel explains. For the reader without an address on Sand Hill Road, the carry is the venture capital equivalent of a commission, but it includes cash and stock in the funds' investments.
Not that the Street lacks confidence in CMGI's ability to execute on its loftiest of goals. "They are almost unmatched among investors," says Net-sector analyst Phil Leigh of St. Petersburg, Fla.-based brokerage
. "Wetherell and Mills have had great success in the anticipation of mutations and changes on the Internet." (Adams Harkness rates CMGI a strong buy, while Raymond James gives a milder accumulate rating. Neither has underwriting entanglements with CMGI.)
For the moment, the only sure thing is that @Ventures will continue to press forward with CMGI's "labor-intensive, hands-on and engaged" investment style. @Ventures believes in sharing experiences and contacts among its portfolio companies. That's the goal of most venture capitalists, of course, but with CMGI that family consists exclusively of Internet companies.
Despite Mills' past work as the head of trade organizations for chips (
) and computer monitors (the
U.S. Display Consortium
), @Ventures avoids the tantalizing returns in networking, telecom and semiconductors. In case you doubt @Ventures' self-control in this bull market, Mills says of hardware: "We're not expert there. There's no sense in us trying to play in that area. There's a lot of blood there."
Instead, Mills mixes CMGI's Internet-marketing and back-end technology expertise with his personal penchant for straight talk. "I ultimately decided to join Vicinity because Peter was committed to us," says Emerick Wood, who was brought in to spruce up and redirect lagging Vicinity as its CEO in 1997. Mimicking @Ventures' recent shift, Woods moved Vicinity from the business-to-consumer market to businesses selling their wares to other businesses. "He promised, no matter how hard it gets and how tough, CMGI will be there through thick and thin. It took a while to effect the transition from B2C to B2B, but I was never worried that Peter Mills or Dave Wetherell were fully committed to what I was trying to do."
Straight talk often tops colleagues' lists of Mills' attributes. "He's completely honest with you about exactly what he's thinking. You don't see that a lot," says Mark Fletcher, founder of community email list orchestrator
and now vice president of strategic development at
, similarly focused on managing online communities' missives. "Whether it's good or bad, you'll know."
Vicinity's Woods agrees: "What you see is what you get. You don't have to figure out what he's thinking. And he's got real operating experience."
So what is he thinking when it comes to a public version of @Ventures?
"I actually don't think it
being a public company would be much different," Mills says before diffusing the IPO hysteria. "Maybe then I could sit there and watch the stock, smoke cigars and drink brandy."
Yeah, yeah, Mr. Poker Face. You can't fend off the hype forever.
Tish Williams' column takes at look at the people who make Silicon Valley tick. In keeping with TSC's editorial policy, she doesn't own or short individual stocks, although she does own stock options in TheStreet.com. She also doesn't invest in hedge funds or other private investment partnerships. She waits breathlessly for your feedback at