Building CNET one person at a time

Building CNET one person at a time


CNET logo sign

Jason Hiner/CNET

This story is part of CNET at 25, celebrating a quarter century of industry tech and our role in telling you its story.

Editor’s note: As part of our 25th birthday, we’re publishing a series of guest columns from former CNET leaders, editors and reporters. You’ll find Halsey Minor’s bio below.

CNET was literally a ridiculous idea when it started: an ad-supported online service with content supplementing a “TV channel” run by people who knew nothing about TV. But it also had a shot at succeeding because you could see the excitement in the content vision we created.

My idea for CNET came after I built one of the world’s very first intranets in 1990 for Merrill Lynch in New York. I was a passionate reader of computer magazines from the time they began. But in 1993, as AOL was beginning to take off, I realized I needed to build a new kind of media company that combined my passion for tech media with my skills in building “hypertext” content, today called HTML. 






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At the time, it all felt very daunting. I’d written a 100-page business plan and had another 100-page document describing the online service we would build. Though people took me seriously because I had a clear vision for where I saw technology was going, I had a very limited amount of funding.


Brett Pearce/CNET

As I was creating all this great content, the first $100,000 I’d raised went fast. I was totally done and I saw no way out, but then I started talking to a fellow University of Virginia graduate named Shelby Bonnie, who was doing well at a New York hedge fund. He liked the idea and, I guess, my passion, because on a depressing Friday, with me a weekend away from calling it quits, Shelby wired $50,000 while he was on a vacation. 

On to San Francisco

In January of 1994, I moved to San Francisco from New York with our two other employees. We found an amazing building at 150 Chestnut Street — in those pre-dot-com days, San Francisco had an 18% office vacancy rate — that had a big open area that could be used as a studio. To be clear, at this time I’d never used a home camera, much less operated a TV studio.

halsey-minor

CNET founder Halsey Minor


Halsey Minor

My job at the time, and it’s still likely my best skill, was finding people. So I went after a well-respected TV executive, Kendall Wendell, who’d played important roles in starting the Fox Network and other well-known TV properties. We convinced him this media model was the future and he joined us, moving to San Francisco from Los Angeles. I was able to convince Jonathan Rosenborg, who ran the media group at Bellcore, to become my CTO, and I hired the best graphics firm in the world, Pentagram, to create CNET’s logo. I even hired former MTV video producers to do a “vision tape.”

People think of CNET for content, but there was a lot of magical technology behind the way we did things. One of the problems we had with publishing at that time was that no software packages existed for doing web publishing. There wasn’t a single website on the internet that was connected to a database — and we were creating a database of content. All of the websites had static content that was programmed by hand. I gave Jonathon six months to build a dynamic solution, and so he created the internet’s first tool to publish pages that can change based on a database.






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Growing and going public

Then, in June of 1996, Morgan Stanley took us public. When Netscape had gone public in 1995, it had become a cultural phenomenon. Investors were noticing the internet, so we quickly started raising private money for our own IPO. After Netscape and Yahoo, which also had an IPO in 1996, we were one of the very first internet companies to go public. We raised $25 million, which doesn’t seem a lot today.

The 1990s, commonly known as the “internet bubble,” felt like a TV show playing four times fast-forward. Everything happened fast. Deals happened fast. People were hired fast. People left their jobs fast. People invested fast. Stocks went up fast. It was very tiring trying to run a company that could be attractive to the industry but meet our ideals.

This was followed by the primary focus of making our internal systems better and improving every aspect of our business so we could be the best company possible with our mission of providing everything related to computing under one brand. I wanted a company that would have the right ethos and survive when others fell apart. Twenty-five years later, CNET is thriving and that ethos is intact.

Halsey Minor is the founder of CNET and served as CEO until 2000, when he left the company. Today he’s the CEO of LivePlanet.



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