Network: The Digerati: `Hang on. We're on the edge of a revolution'

For Rob Hersov, Sportal - a Europe-wide cable TV portal to sports channels - is a dream come true
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The Independent Culture
Rob Hersov always dreamt of great things. As a child growing up in South Africa, he constantly daydreamed about "crazy stuff - like flying, leaping tall buildings and wrestling dinosaurs. I was a bit like Walter Mitty". Simultaneously, his parents taught him the creed of daring - "not to be afraid of anything and not to give worry any strength or force".

A risky combination; but one that means the excitement has never let up. Moving to the United States as a young adult, Hersov completed an MBA at Harvard and then worked for Rupert Murdoch in general management and business development. After that, he came to Europe to run Telepiu, the Italian equivalent to BSkyB.

It was in Italy, his home for several years, that he learnt about "the most exciting job in the world" - being an entrepreneur. "Italy is far and away the most entrepreneurial country in Europe.

"I learnt that Italians develop a service and immediately take it international or export it. They're very outward-looking."

Hersov's upbringing in South Africa nurtured an early drive to succeed on a world stage. "Growing up in a place like Africa, where you're in such a small economy, you're always looking out, always watching what the Americans, the Brits and the Germans are doing. We were always aspiring to the style, the culture, the economy."

Other inspiration came from the great sci-fi writers and thinkers of the 1950s and 1960s, people such as the Arthur C Clarke and Nicholas Negroponte. His father bought the books and the young Hersov would avidly take them with him as holiday reading. "They saw the future, absolutely."

Making the transition to become an entrepreneur himself is, he says, the "pinnacle" of his career. But it's more a vocation than a preference. "There are three types of people in the world: people who make it happen; people who let things happen; and people who say, `What the hell happened?'"

For him, a rugby match in 1995 was the epiphany he needed. "I remember watching on television a Rugby World Cup semi-final when the Springboks were playing France. With two minutes to go, Time Warner Cable turned off the signal. I just realised that that was not the future - that each individual had to have their own channel.

"The Internet was coming into being and the idea of being connected one-to-one had to be the future, where you had your own channel - the news I wanted, written by the journalists I liked; the cartoons I wanted; the results I wanted, live and fresh," he says.

With this mindset, he has eschewed making assumptions about what kind of information individual Internet consumers want to access. This led to his developing a "vortal" - vertical portal - which allows the user to access sports both by country and by sector. "The passion that surrounds sport is very different from something like fashion. With fashion, people want to see everything. People consume sport in a different way. They are passionate about a team, and they might have a global interest in golf.

"The original idea was that because the Web was confusing and offered so much, a portal would be an entry point and provide a range of services from which you could choose. These have evolved because they've added content and services and - most importantly - customisation tools. We've created what's horribly known as a vortal, which enables you to pick and choose what you like, and pull that into your personal portal. We believe focus is important; we don't believe one size fits all."

At the same time, he recognises the changes that have been wrought by the IT revolution as a whole. "Has the Internet been over-hyped? Absolutely not," he says. "There have been four or five paradigm shifts in history, and they have been enormous, incredible, unparalleled. The difference is that they took 500 years to happen. I can stand up now and honestly say that e-commerce is going to change the world, beyond anyone's imagination.

"I think the biggest excitement is connecting the world, so that, for example, an architect in Bombay can compete just as effectively for a contract as an architect in Buenos Aires or Sydney or New York. It's down to talent, creativity and, of course, price."

When asked to pick a rising star to put his money on, he declines. "The problem is, there are so many. I'm an evangelist for change, but what excites me is that I can meet someone who has come up with an idea, and they can do it. They come and ask for advice, and that gives me such a buzz.

"Every other week, there's a new star, but I'm looking forward to someone becoming Europe's first Internet billionaire, which I think will happen in the next 24 months."

Being an Internet entrepreneur is possibly the most demanding occupation in the Western world at the moment. Hersov concurs: if he wasn't doing this, he'd be pursuing a career as an actor and learning to play decent tennis.

"At some point, I would like to sit on the beach for two days with my wife and family. But I ask people at Sportal every day, `are you having fun?' When we get stressed, we sit back and say, hang on, we're on the edge of a revolution."