Buddy for the Long Haul

FRAMINGHAM (07/06/2000) - COMPANY: PNV Inc. LOCATION: Coral Springs, Florida.

PRODUCT/SERVICE: PNV.com provides news, tools, community and e-commerce to the trucking industry LAUNCH: October 1999 REVENUES: FY 2000, 3Q: $4.7 million funding: Public greatest challenge: "Convincing Web designers that trucking is sexy. It was difficult to lure talent." -Steve Yevoli, President, PNV.com JUDGE'S comment: "Everything a truck driver needs to do the job and stay connected: e-mail, calendar, classified listing for equipment and career columns. Overall, a comprehensive and sophisticated resource."

Mark Nelson used to feel a wave of anxiety every time he pulled his 18-wheeler onto Interstate 10 in San Antonio, hitting the open road for months at a time.

With only a calling card to connect him to family and friends, Nelson played a continual game of phone tag with his daughter and parents. Today those games of frustration are over, however--thanks to the Internet and his favorite trucker-oriented website, he's able to check his e-mail throughout the day. n With a laptop by his side in his shiny red cab, Nelson feels as close to home in Troutdale, Oregon, or Tuscaloosa, Alabama, as he does in the Lone Star state. Although he uses a variety of sites, Nelson is particularly faithful to PNV.com, a portal designed to improve the working lives of the country's 1 million long-haul drivers. "The beauty of PNV.com is that it takes almost everything a driver needs and puts it in one place," says Nelson, a company driver for Contract Freighters of Joplin, Missouri, who often travels with his wife, Jo Ann, their Boston terrier, Bogey, and his and her laptops. "The Internet helps us cut the stress because we don't feel so isolated."

Before the Internet, mapping the quickest routes across the country was a guessing game that often led Nelson into winter storms and traffic jams. Today he finds up-to-the-minute weather and traffic reports at PNV.com, trimming days off of his trips. His company doesn't pay for the laptops or Internet access, but Nelson, 42, with closely cropped dark hair and Popeye arms, says his investment has already paid off in increased efficiency. Another bonus: He's shaved his phone bill in half.

NOT JUST TATTOOS, THANK YOU debunking a myth that truckers would rather jabber over CB radio than surf the Net, PNV Inc., a telecommunications company that wires long-haul truckers for telephone, cable TV and Internet service, launched PNV.com in October 1999 to create a one-stop website for truckers. By the end of 2000, PNV expects to install 500 Web kiosks in truck stops across the nation, providing Internet access to a population more often associated with tattoos than technology. "There is a horrible misconception that truckers are technologically incompetent people," says Robert P. May, PNV's CEO. "In truth, they are independent, smart people who like to figure things out." In fact, May says, close to 25 percent of the country's truck drivers have their own laptops and 50 percent have computers at home.

More than 23,000 truckers have already signed up for free e-mail and trucking news at PNV.com, which has received over 21 million hits since its launch. For those with laptops in their cabs, Internet access is available through PNV telephone jacks located next to rig parking spots at truck stops across the country. Drivers can also use the PNV kiosks, where they pay for Internet service by the minute. The site offers classified listings for trucking equipment, headline news, navigation tools and dozens of other features that allow big-riggers to do their jobs and stay connected to family and friends. A handy application helps drivers plan optimal routes, schedule fuel stops and log miles, while another area provides advice on rig maintenance. Truckers can even send online greeting cards with tunes (jazz and popular music, but no Willie Nelson).

EASING THE DRIVE PNV is already a familiar name to most of the nation's truckers. Formerly known as Park N' View, the company was founded five years ago to bring cable TV to long-haul drivers. When May joined the company last year, he immediately saw a demand for a website that would bring together news and useful tools for an industry on the go. "It was simple logic," May says.

"There were no telecommunications or Internet players in this sector."

May, a former Federal Express executive and chief operating officer at Cablevision Systems, tapped Steven Yevoli, the former head of Cablevision's new media division, to lead the PNV.com New Media Group. In August, Yevoli, now PNV.com's president, recruited four buddies to help him develop the site. The team spent 16-hour days working out of his one-bedroom town house in Woodbury, N.Y. Yevoli and his team also traveled to truck stops around the Northeast to find out what truckers wanted from the Internet. They discovered that truck drivers were most interested in running their business online.

The race to finish the site ended in October, just before PNV had its IPO in November. The development team moved its headquarters to a Manhattan office building and increased its staff to 14. Yevoli's challenge is to keep up with the changing needs of drivers who are on the road up to 20 days a month. "The best thing we can offer is a single destination for content," he says.

"Truckers don't have a lot of time, so instead of offering links to the outside, we aggregate all of the content inside one domain."

PNV.com isn't likely to ever replace the CB radio, because truckers like to talk while they drive, but it aims to become a primary communication tool for the $450-billion-a-year trucking industry. While PNV.com's main revenues initially came from advertising, the site is starting to make inroads in e-commerce--selling truck parts and accessories and PNV services such as PNVJobs, where truckers create and post their rsums for fleet owners recruiting new drivers. May would not share revenue statistics, but he hopes the site will soon represent 15 percent to 20 percent of PNV's total revenues. The site will be a success, he says, if membership continues to grow at 20 percent a month for the coming three years. Content-sharing deals, including one PNV recently signed to provide content to the trucking and logistics section of America Online's Workplace channel, will also be important in driving traffic to PNV.com.

KEEPIN' THE LOADS COMING PNV isn't the only driver on this increasingly crowded road. Dozens of trucking sites are popping up, threatening to create virtual gridlock with a slew of freight exchange offerings and other trucking services.

All the sites face an uphill battle in luring truckers to the Internet en masse. On a breezy spring afternoon, drivers shuffling through the TravelCenters of America stop in Willington, Conn., had Dunkin' Donuts coffee, cigarettes and conversation on their minds, not the Web. During a three-hour period, only two drivers gave the PNV kiosk anything more than a curious glance.

One of them, Bruce Fritzsche, a flatbed truck driver from Chester, Maryland, was using the kiosk to search for freight loads. He logged on to his company's site, Landstar.com, which lists several available loads he can take from New England back to Maryland. "On the Internet, I can plan an entire week in advance," said Fritzsche enthusiastically.

PNV plans to launch its own freight-matching service this summer, which will generate revenue for PNV through transaction fees. Freight-matching, a popular feature on many trucking sites, allows both independent and company drivers to find loads when they are returning from a trip. Without computers, drivers have to call dispatchers to find loads, losing time and sometimes missing out on the best deals. "The sites that are going to succeed are those that solve business processes and also help the independent operators in day-to-day business," says Geoffrey Bock, a senior consultant and analyst at the Patricia Seybold Group in Boston. "If truckers can find loads easily, the site will appeal to them.'' Some who have made the road their home would certainly agree. "Trucking is a competitive game," Fritzsche says as he slides another dollar into the PNV kiosk. "The Internet gives me a clear advantage when it comes to staying connected and making more money. A lot of guys may be resistant, but they'll have to catch on eventually."

Senior Writer Susannah Patton hates driving but thinks truckers are pretty cool. She can be reached at spatton@cio.com.

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