When Bill Miller received his degree in chemistry, he didn’t realize that his career path would take a very sharp turn -— first into entrepreneurship and then again into venture capitalism.
Miller is co-founder of PV Capital, a $6.5 million fund that invests in tech companies. Some of those are in Colorado Springs, but not many. He recently took some time to talk to the CSBJ about technology, career paths and venture capital.
How did you get started in technology?
I have a degree in chemistry from the University of Illinois, so I started working at a semiconductor facility, making fabrication wafers — there’s a lot of chemistry in semiconductor work. The company offered to reimburse people if they continued education, so I tried out a couple of programs. I tried physics and after a few classes, I moved to chemical engineering. I couldn’t decide what I wanted to do. And they were paying for it, so why not experiment? I settled into an MBA program, and during a class, I met two guys from Sandia Laboratories who were creating a startup. I left my job to work for them at Krysalis.
How did that first startup go?
It didn’t go well. It was a learning experience, but it didn’t go all that well. We just didn’t have enough venture capital. This was in 1987, and there was a stock market downturn that virtually dried up all the capital. We were still in the research phase, and then the CEO left. At 27, I became the CEO. We had about 70 people and a lot of debt.
What advice do you have for other people interested in startups?
Be prepared to fail. Be prepared to fail more than once. It took my third try at a startup before I was successful — and I was lucky. Don’t do it because you think you’re going to make a lot of money. You almost certainly won’t. Do it because you’re passionate about it; you’re interested in it; you will make the world better because of it. Don’t do it if you are afraid to fail. I was so young, I figured there was time for success, and I didn’t worry. Don’t be afraid to be out of work at some point; almost every entrepreneur is.
Talk about the successful startup.
It was 1997 and I was working in sales for a digital storage company. I was doing very well, so I self-financed a startup company and co-founded a storage network cloud company. We put the company in Boston. Why? Because that’s where the money was; that’s where the capital was. We were part of the Internet bubble and the capital grew fast. We suffered a little when the bubble popped and then consolidated our efforts and sold it in 2003. After that, I didn’t really have to work. It allowed me to stay home for the next decade.
So what did you do?
I started PV Capital, which I largely self-funded in the first fund. We’re on our second fund now, and altogether we’ve invested in about 20 companies. Four of them are from Colorado Springs, about eight from Colorado and the rest are from Silicon Valley. I’ve always been interested in tech startups — this allows me to invest. It’s really become a hobby for me.
What do you look for when you invest?
It has to be more than just a good idea. You have to be able to put some of your own money in it, get the company to the point where you have a successful track record. People aren’t going to invest in a good idea; they want to see your success, that you know the market, that you can fill the hole in the market. They want to see your investment. You’ll have to get started with friends and family money, which is how most people do it. For venture capitalists, you’ll have to have more than just a business plan. It can be discouraging. If you look at the success rate, it’s dismal. So few tech companies really make it. And most people have no idea what it takes.
What do you think of the Springs business climate?
The business climate is OK. It’s never really taken off, never developed critical mass like some places — Austin, Boulder. There’s just not the vibrancy of those cities. There are some successful tech companies here, but it’s never really quite gotten there.
Why is that?
There is very little venture capital here. Not very many people in Colorado Springs made their money in the technology business. They made it elsewhere. It’s not like in Silicon Valley or Boulder or Austin; they have the right critical mass of tech companies that create investments in other tech companies. I can count the people here who have created successful technology companies on one hand — and I don’t need all the fingers of that hand.