In the Internet world, Jeff Pulver is a man of many hats.
His mini-empire includes running conferences, an Internet telephony service with 500,000 subscribers, a popular blog, and Web sites selling telephony equipment and virtual phone numbers. Then there's his Internet radio station and ambitions to be a professional poker player.
The 42-year-old's jam-packed schedule takes him to Toronto this week for VON Canada, a three-day conference featuring keynote speakers such as Skype SA co-founder Niklas Zennstrom and companies displaying the newest Internet telephony products and services.
The VON conferences, which are also run in the U.S. and Europe, have become a key event for industry executives, investors and customers to talk business and deals. In the process, they have also become big and lucrative vehicles for Mr. Pulver.
While he is arguably one of the most influential figures within the Internet telephony field, Mr. Pulver sees himself as an “accidental tourist” because he never set out to become an expert or entrepreneur in what is becoming a major and disruptive technology trend.
“I wasn't looking at a new telecom trend but the evolution of a new, self-sustaining eco-system where consumers would be able to communicate without the need for traditional service providers,” he said. “It turns out along the way, I found out something I was good at: building companies, sharing ideas and bringing interesting people together. It's fun for me.”
Telecom consultant Jon Arnold said Mr. Pulver is a classic serial entrepreneur who brings a sense of “why not” to the Internet telephony business.
“What makes Jeff interesting is he doesn't come from the telecom world. His background is ham radios,” he said. “He had the luxury of stumbling into the business without knowing too much about it. He's a fearless entrepreneur who has a spirit that anything can work if it works.”
Mr. Pulver, an avid ham radio operator as a teenager, got into the Internet telephony market while home sick from his day job running Cantor Fitzgerald's internal computer network. He downloaded a software program by VocalTec that let him make calls over the Web to people also using the software. To his surprise, many were the same ones he had met during his ham radio days.
In 1995, he plunged into the Internet telephony business by launching Free World Dial-Up — a free service that made it easy to make phone calls over the Web. This eventually thrust him into the spotlight when a petition was filed with the Federal Communications Commission to ban the sale and use of Internet telephony in the U.S.
Unfamiliar with the world of telecom regulation and not sure what to do, Mr. Pulver began to receive lots of unsolicited support. This led to the creation of the Voice on the Net Coalition, whose members included Netscape Communications Corp., Intel Corp. and VocalTec to keep the fledgling service unregulated.
His conference business also has modest roots. It began when he was invited to an Internet telephony event in London. Mr. Pulver said the organizers clearly did not understand the emerging industry's culture or technology. This prompted him to hold the first VON conference in New York.
In late-2001, before the telecom boom went bust, he sold the conference business to Key3Media.com for US$60-million. Less than two years later, he bought it back at a fraction of the cost just before Key3Media filed for bankruptcy protection.
“To some extent, he put VOIP on the map and created one of the largest gathering places in the world for VOIP minds to get together and push the agenda,” said Gerry DeHaven, president with Broadvox Ltd., which sells wholesale telephony services.
Mr. Arnold said if Mr. Pulver did not organize conferences, he would still be an important industry player because he personally invests in many companies.
“It is almost like he is the Bill Gates of VOIP,” he said. “When you look to an industry, he is a Steve Jobs kind of guy who created something from nothing.”
Mr. Pulver's other claim to fame in business is his role in the founding of Vonage Holdings Corp., which is now the world's largest Internet telephony service provider with more than 600,000 customers. Vonage's roots go back to Mr. Pulver's idea to create a commodity exchange where telephony minutes could be traded like orange juice futures. After starting Min-X.com, he went looking for financing in mid-2000. One of the investors he pursued was Jeffrey Citron.
Eventually, the idea of an exchange failed because there just wasn't a big enough market to sustain it. Min-X, however, morphed into Vonage to go after the consumer telephony market. Mr. Pulver said he has a “watered down equity stake” in Vonage but no other involvement after leaving the board in 2002.
As the Internet telephony market grows, one of his frustrations is the technology is being touted as a substitute to traditional telephony service and heavily sold on price, rather than the new and different services that can be offered.
“There is the opportunity for a lot more to be there but a lot more hasn't happened yet,” he said. “To the extent people are competing on price, I don't believe is a sustainable business.”
While Mr. Pulver plans to expand his conference business and continue his other endeavors, his new passion is poker. Like many of the things he has become excited about, his fledgling poker had a rather innocent beginning. While running a VON conference, he was temporarily US$12,000 short to pay a band that had performed at the event.
Before he could make banking arrangements, he was tapped on the shoulder by Phil Hellmuth, a friend of the conference's audio-visual systems who explained that part of the poker culture was lending each other money. This led to Mr. Hellmuth, the 1996 World Series of Poker winner, taking Mr. Pulver under his wing.
Mr. Pulver, who recently played his first competitive tournament, said he hopes to play in the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas later this year. “If I have my druthers, I will find a way to mix life on the world poker tour with VOIP and a little bit of music thrown in,” he said.
© National Post 2005