This is the story of the Italian venture capital. And this is why it has not taken off yet. P101 interviews Elserino Piol
“We choose to inaugurate the new course of our website and of this blog with an interview to Elserino Mario Piol. Those who deal with innovation or venture capital have surely heard about him: Piol is without a doubt the first Italian venture capitalist and is, above all, one of the great Italian innovators. To talk about him is no nostalgic operation: we look to the future and to the developments that our industry, we hope, will have, as venture capital is finally getting the attention it deserves in Italy for its key role of propulsion of tomorrow’s economy. We look to the future, but we have not forgotten that in the 1970s, in this country that today seems suspended in its granite beauty, there was a buzz from which the innovation miracle of Olivetti was born – the first portable computer ever created in Italy, to which Piol is strongly connected. That computer was named P101: our name is openly inspired by that world, with which we share a creative mindset and spirit: we want to participate and actively contribute to a transformation of production and society, which needs technology and digitization, two things that deeply involve us. Not follow this wind of change is the same as choosing to suffocate.
There is finally another reason, more personal, that connects us to Piol: our path began under his protective wing and we have learned all that we know as a venture capitalists from him. In fact, in a way we feel like we are his material as well as spiritual heirs, and we hope that with our daily activity we will be able to continue his pioneering work, shaping it around the same ethical values and aspiring to have at least a blur of his foresight.”
Andrea Di Camillo, Managing Partner of P101
Forefather of the Internet, hi-tech guru, pioneer of the Italian venture capital. Halfway between Warren Buffett and Steve Jobs (according to Pier Luigi Celli, former general manager of Rai and Luiss and former staff manager at Olivetti). Descriptions of Elserino Mario Piol are countless. Born in 1931 in Limana, Belluno, he is the mentor of Italian innovation. In which of these descriptions do you recognize yourself more? “I’d say they’re all a bit exaggerated,” he replies. Piol speaks to us on the phone with words that do not sound antique – as one would expect from a gentleman who has reached the remarkable age of 86 years old – on the contrary, his words are strongly projected into the future.
Piol’s name is linked to the famous company Olivetti, where he started working as a 21-year-old industrial-level programmer, he would later graduate in engineering and also receive honorary degrees. Rough genius in red braces (according to another epitome that describes him perfectly), Piol was the manager who first understood the potential of mobile telephony and made an essential contribution to the foundation of Omnitel. Also, he was the first person who supported (with his trust and money) the idea of a young and unknown Federico Marchetti of mixing fashion and e-commerce. Yoox, the first Italian start-up and the only Italian unicorn to date, was born thanks to him.
You cannot deny that you are the founding father of Italian venture capital…
That’s okay, I admit it. But this is how it happened: in 1980 Olivetti wanted to monitor the progress of technology so that it could benefit from innovation. I was sent to the USA to hunt for innovation in Boston and the Silicon Valley. There, I got in touch with venture capitalists: between 1980 and 1995, Olivetti closed 63 operations in the United States, investing $ 138.7 million. This is how venture capital came to in Italy, where it was almost unknown before.
Many years later, you left Olivetti and decided to devote the last part of your career to venture capital funding. Would you tell us how that happened?
My first Italian investment dates back to 1998: two million euros in Tiscali, which was back then an unknown company. In 2001, when I sold it, it was worth 500 million. In 1998 I founded and became president of Pino Venture Partners, which was in turn partner of the fuds Kiwi and Kiwi II. I was then a venture capitalist: I invested in Vitaminic, Click.it, Elitel, Blixer, Cubecom, Venere.com. And Yoox, of course.
Federico Marchetti always says that he told you about his idea in an informal way and you welcomed it easily…
Marchetti came to me to pitch his idea, and yes, it was easy. He presented his project and I found it interesting. I joined in and the whole thing started. There were other fashion initiatives in Europe, but this had the numbers to actually work.
Didn’t it sound to you like a crazy idea?
The idea behind Yoox was pretty regular when compared to the investment standards I was used to in the United States. For the Italian market, yes, it was definitely unique. I knew that there was a risk there, but in the end you invest in a person more than in an idea, and Marchetti was a serious, prepared and passionate businessman. He deserved it. And I was right.
You speak about it almost as if it were a mission: yet, in Italy, venture capital is not taking off. What is missing?
I see that something is moving, some operators are doing important things, but I see a bit of hesitation. There is certainly a lack of money: venture capital investment is very limited, we are far from the numbers of the UK, just to make an example of a country that is close to us. There is, also, a lack of venture capital culture: something is being done, but it’s not enough.
What would you do?
In my opinion, action must be taken: if you get positive results, then success calls for other successes. And above all, people need to be valued.
People versus Ideas: What’s the most important thing for a project to succeed?
The idea is a necessary but not enough. If the idea is valid, and the person who will turn it into a company is valuable, then the ingredients are all there. If the manager is not valid, the idea alone will not do any good. It’s the entrepreneur who makes the business.
Can we say that this is a golden rule of venture capital? Select the right people before you select the best ideas? What are the other rules?
I have another fundamental rule: you have to invest in companies that are strongly innovative. Innovation is the gasoline that makes a company grow. I like to say that you need to invest in “children” companies, that are small but destined to grow, not in “small” companies that are small and will remain so. It is necessary to choose projects that have the potential to face the market and its changes.
Mr. Piol, we still need you and your Olivettian philosophy: don’t you miss venture capital?
Oh no, I do not miss it. I follow everything that happens from afar. And I enjoy my rest!