Joost-up and managing the hype

June 20, 2007, 7:38 PM UTC
Fortune

Mike Volpi has been on the job as CEO of Joost, the new online video network, for a few weeks. But already he’s got his mission statement down better than Terry Semel ever did at Yahoo (YHOO). (See this interview I did last summer with Semel to get a sense of what I mean.) “We want to transform the way people entertain themselves,” Volpi said last night at a party at the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences in North Hollywood, Calif. (A fairly serious guy, Volpi also began his remarks with a pitch-perfect zinger: “My staff has told me this will be my only opportunity ever to say, ‘I’d like to thank the Academy …'”)

If you know anything at all about Joost, you know it doesn’t suffer from ambition. Founded by the two guys who started Kazaa and Skype, Joost is one of scores of companies that are trying to be the next YouTube. And yet it’s gotten a higher profile than the others, even before officially starting its service. That’s due in part to its founders and partly to early investors like Skype funder Index Ventures (hey Danny!), CBS (CBS), Google (GOOG) and YouTube investor Sequoia Capital. Nabbing Volpi added yet more cred to Joost. He was a Cisco (CSCO) bigshot for years. (Read David Kirkpatrick’s overview of Joost on the day Volpi’s hiring was announced.)

Okay, so how is Joost doing? Well, it’s hard to say. The company is still in its testing phase. Volpi told me 700,000 users have downloaded the company’s player, a piece of software to watch videos on your computer. It has signed all sorts of deals with creative types — which is why it threw a party in La-La Land. And it’s working with Interpublic Group’s (IPG) Emerging Media Lab to let IPG’s advertising clients test how Joost slices and dices both programming and user data. In short, well-funded Joost basically isn’t going for the hard sell yet, either with advertisers (whom it’s charging only nominally) or with users, while it’s trying to see if they actually like the experience Joost is pushing.

Watching Joost must be what it was like when the cable networks got going: a new video experience with a splotchy menu of shows that only a few people were experiencing. Will it break out of the pack? Way too early to tell. At least Joost seems to know where it wants to go.