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Venture Profile: Todd Pietri, Milestone Venture Partners

By Angel Mehta, Managing Director, Sterling-Hoffman Executive Search

Venture capital investors like Todd Pietri have no choice but to become experts in the art of the start-up. But ever wonder how start-up investors start up? Launching a venture fund comes with all the challenges that regular entrepreneurs face. Todd Pietri, Founding Partner of Milestone Venture Partners, chats with Angel Mehta, Managing Director of Sterling-Hoffman about getting started in the venture business, and why 'being impatient for profits" can still go hand in hand with aggressive growth.

Angel Mehta: I heard that you had studied English in college, which isn't the most common training for a role in venture capital… what happened?

Todd Pietri: I went to Duke University and probably spent more time than I should have reading literary theory and philosophy. Frankly, I wish I'd spent more time reading literature and history and less time reading literary theory and "deconstruction" but the latter was kind of the rage at Duke at that time. Duke had acquired a bunch of superstar academics in the English Department. Unfortunately, most of the literary theory was a lot of Marxist, feminist and psychological mumbo jumbo, but that's what we were reading and studying, that was the environment. It was an intellectually exciting place to be and I had some great professors but I pursued a lopsided curriculum. In fact, the Wall Street Journal around 1990 did read like kind of a satirical piece on the Duke English department and its emphasis on "star" professors and the "politically correct" environment there. On the positive side, the Blue Devil basketball program had a great run while I was there!

So, in any event, entrepreneurialism had really taken a backseat because I was studying a lot of radical stuff and I didn't expect to be in business or entrepreneurship. At that point, I expected to be an academician.

Angel Mehta: What was the trigger point that made you go in another direction?

Todd Pietri: I'm not sure, but something held me back from getting the Ph.D. -- I just sensed that it wouldn't be fulfilling. I spent a few years after college trying to figure out what I was going to do, and then someone told me something useful: just get a job -- DO something. It was solid advice.

Angel Mehta: So you landed in the software business…

Todd Pietri: Yes… the first half of my career was spent with various technology companies. One was a voice processing software firm called Innovative Technology, Inc that had been founded by a terrific inventor, a kind of mad scientist type, John Alderman, who had invented the statistical multiplexor many years back. He later founded DCA Communications, which had the rights to the IRMA board. At ITI, he tried to be an early leader in PC-based voice processing solutions, i.e. voicemail, interactive voice response, banking by phone. He spent a lot of his own money trying to make that a success, and that ended up being a very brutal market and was ultimately dominated by Dialogic.

Afterwards, I went back to Atlanta and went to work for a legendary sales executive, Jerry Yeager of IBM and MAI/Basic Four fame, and that was where I really started to get excited about technology and business. He had a small software company called CompuSystems. They had enterprise resource planning software for industrial wholesale distributors and a variety of other applications. He had trained some truly remarkable sales and marketing people in his day and I was lucky enough to be mentored by him.

Angel Mehta: What specifically did Yeager teach you?

Todd Pietri: The importance of sales, marketing, building relationships with customers, and listening to the customer. I learned what the qualities of a good sales person are, and, as a manager, how to motivate sales people, how to mediate between the customer, the sales team and the systems group -- these are just critical components of building a technology company.

During that time, I got an MBA, I went to school one day a week and worked full time. That was a two-year program and I graduated at the top of my class and then decided I wanted to make a change. The software business was great, working for Jerry was great, but I wanted to learn the financial side of things and get exposure to different markets.

Angel Mehta: Is there anything you did NOT like about what you were doing?

Todd Pietri: The fact that you only heard from the customer when they were angry. The software business is often like that and it's frustrating.

Angel Mehta: So when did you leave the operating side of the software business and move into finance?

Todd Pietri: At this point I had zero financial background except for what I learned in B-school -- which I was doing while working for Jerry -- and I decided to make a switch. So I ended up working for two great mentors in the finance arena. One was Jim Callier, a very successful turnaround leverage buy-out investor.

He had co-founded Wingate Partners out of Dallas. I also worked for Mike Easterly, a successful merchant banker. These experiences gave me the exposure to the finance and principal investing side of the industry, and it lit a fire under me. That's when I figured out I wanted to be involved with entrepreneurs and helping them build businesses day-in day-out..


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