Venturing into the I-void, Martin Puris sees his chance

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You might consider becoming an Internet venture capitalist today as roughly akin to entering the O-ring business around the time the space shuttle Challenger blew up. But Martin Puris is unapologetic. In fact, he's almost exulting in his contrarianism.

"All these people running around saying, `The Internet is dead!'--that's ridiculous," he scoffed. "It's the natural evolution of a new category. There were 400 car companies in 1915, God knows how many hundreds of computer companies in the '80s. If the categories are vital, after the startup frenzy, the industries reform in a less hyped, more realistic, more consumer-focused type of way.

"The Internet," Mr. Puris affirmed, "hasn't even started yet."

True on its face, but that doesn't make Mr. Puris's second career-formalized in the past week or so with the announcement of the formation of New Things, his venture partnership-any smoother. Readers not born yesterday will recall he was one of the advertising industry's more successful practitioners during the 1980s and into the '90s, his agency-Ammirati & Puris-having profited from a rafinee approach to a medium better known for in-your-face yuks and brazen promotionalism. (Actually, make this his third career. Before his stewardship of memorable campaigns for Club Med and BMW, Mr. Puris spent time as a stand-up comedian.)

Mr. Puris exited the agency business about a year ago, after selling his company to Interpublic Group of Cos., overseeing its merger with Lintas, and wrestling the multinational behemoth as its chief this-and-that for a few years. But he made clear at his departure that he had no intention of ending his days wearing knee breeches and trotting his horses out on Long Island's East End. A VC he intended to be. The transformation of the World Wide Web into the World Wide Wreck not only failed to dissuade him-it emboldened him.

"The crash of the Internet last year had little to do with technology and everything to do with lack of marketing understanding," he said when I caught up with him last week. "When we started out, we saw hundreds of plans, most without any plan at all. We saw one which, on its front page, said, `Our target audience is 260 million Americans.' I said, `Even sugar doesn't have a target audience of 260 million Americans, so everything else in here must be wrong, too.' That showed us the demand for marketing thinking in this space. A lot of what we apply is Marketing 101: Is this a product? Should it be a product? And will anyone buy it for more than 10 dollars?"

True, that attitude can be the craggy shoal on which an inexperienced sailor might founder. But Mr. Puris has several winds blowing in his favor. The first is his partner, David Bennahum. Mr. Bennahum, still in his ludicrously early 30s, was a top writer at Wired who was far too smart, energetic and ambitious for the magazine industry, from which Mr. Puris plucked him to help run Ammirati Puris Lintas Digital. (I can speak knowledgeably about Mr. Benna-hum's bona fides because I was his editor and taught him everything he knows, although I may have that backward.) The two hatched New Things together, and have seen it through a year's worth of evolution, out of which emerged its second advantage: wireless. The two are focusing their firm on an industry that is widely identified as the next frontier in interactivity.

There are those, including myself, who fear that the wireless Internet's purported universality may be overstated, despite the billions in investment pouring into the medium from the world's largest companies. Mr. Bennahum's response is solid. "Pretty much every person on the planet will be using a cell phone with data access within the next two years," he said. "Regardless of who uses it-doctors or teen-agers-that opens a tremendous market for software and infrastructure. And that's what we're looking at-middleware, infrastructure and services." His firm's first two investments-Vettro, a wireless services consultant, and Avesair-are well positioned and seemingly well resourced, with backing from the likes of Citi-group and Nokia.

Avesair, by the way, is developing wireless ad-serving technology. The nut, it seems, does not fall far from the tree. "It feels like the ad business felt in 1964, when I first got into it," said the nut, Mr. Puris, of his new life at New Things. "It's filled with bright people, stacked 10 deep. I missed that."

Mr. Rothenberg can be reached at [email protected]

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