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Leading Michigan’s Emergence as a Tech Startup Hub: Billhighway CEO Vince Thomas (Part 1)

Posted on Thursday, Jan 3rd 2013

Vince Thomas is the founder and CEO of Billhighway, a provider of cloud-based financial management solutions tailor-made for nonprofit, donor, and member-based organizations. He developed Billhighway in college as a way to help manage finances among college roommates and in the years since the company has become the pioneer and leader in financial performance optimization for member and donor based groups. In 2011 he was named Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year. He graduated from Eastern Michigan University with a degree in finance.

Sramana: Vince, let’s start with your story. Where are you from? Where were you born and where did you grow up?

Vince Thomas: I was born in Detroit, Michigan. I come from Italian and Lebanese decent. I was born into an entrepreneurial family. Both of my grandparents had their own businesses, as did my parents. I grew up in business throughout all different kinds of industries.

Sramana: What kind of industries did your parents work in?

Vince Thomas: My grandfather was in the trucking business. On my dad’s side, my grandfather was in the corner grocery store business. My parents had been in the banquet facility business for more than 35 years. I spent a lot of time working in those facilities washing dishes, clearing tables, and working weddings. I also spent time selling parties and functions. I got a lot of that exposure at a very young age. I learned business at its roots.

Sramana: What about college?

Vince Thomas: I played a lot of sports growing up. I went to Eastern Michigan University on a baseball scholarship. My father owned a banquet facility that was not very far from campus, so I went to work on weekends when I was not in school or playing sports. I learned a lot playing sports along with my business experience. Those two lenses affect how I view running a business today more than anything else. Sports influence how I view teams and team interactions.

Sramana: You went to college at Eastern Michigan University and played baseball. How does that story lead to your entrepreneurial career?

Vince Thomas: While I was in college I was living with three roommates. We had a miserable time managing our bills together. In my junior year I created a process to manage those bills more efficiently. Within six months I had 50 friends and friends of friends using this system to manage their shared expenses. That is when I realized there was a greater need to help groups manage shared expenses. Parents loved it because they knew that what they were giving their kids actually went to bills. By my senior year of college I had launched Billhighway.co.

Sramana: What year was this?

Vince Thomas: That was in September 1999.

Sramana: The Internet bubble was raging at that time.

Vince Thomas: It definitely was. By April 2000, the bubble had burst. I had spent nine months trying to grow the site. There was no Google AdWords or social media, so I was doing grassroots efforts to get visitors. When the bubble burst, I used the initials of the company because nobody would work with a dot-com business. Everyone thought that they were sketchy, non-viable business models. It took three or four years before I could market the business as Billighway.com again.

This segment is part 1 in the series : Leading Michigan's Emergence as a Tech Startup Hub: Billhighway CEO Vince Thomas
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