Sramana: Tell me how you launched the business. You launched it in college to help roommates pay shared bills, and somehow it morphed into a business. What was that process like?
Vince Thomas: I launched it from my college apartment. For me it was a humbling experience. I built Billhighway by myself for the first three and a half years. I borrowed $100,000 from friends and family during that time to get the company running. The first money I got was for the website, and it took my nine months once I got the money to get the first version of the site [up and running].
Sramana: Who gave you $100,000?
Vince Thomas: I got it through friends and family through pieces. I got $5,000 and $10,000 there. The most I ever got in one check was $16,000. I went to my parents, grandparents, and friends. I took everything out in loans. I did not do anything based on equity in the business, and I paid everything back. It took $100,000 over three years.
I did this with a pure bootstrapped mentality. I did not go out and get an angel, and I did not go out and get a VC firm. I did not know where the business model was going to go. I did not want investor money tied to a specific business plan which, if the plan did not work, would force the company to fold. I knew that having the flexibility to tweak and evolve the model would be important. I did not want to get locked into an investor group that would want a return on its investment in three to five years.
Sramana: Did you have sufficient understanding of equity investing at that point in your life to make those decisions consciously, or are these decisions that are justified now that you look back on them?
Vince Thomas: I understand that community fairly well. I studied finance in college, but even more than that I am a very curious person. As these things popped up as possibilities, I took my own time to learn and understand the space. I met people who had gone through the experiences themselves. I absolutely understood what I was doing at the time, and today I am very happy that I did it how I did.
It did take a lot longer to build the business because there was not a single injection point with a lot of capital, but we have done very well on our own, and we are very profitable. We have the kind of money you need to scale a business.
Sramana: Even though it is a slow-growth business, when you do business without outside money, there is an advantage in that once you have figured out the business, you have the luxury of maintaining full control over growth.
Vince Thomas: I love the position. It’s not just the control, but the world is changing so fast. It is really hard to create a three- or five-year plan anymore. It may have been possible a few years ago, but nowadays it is so hard to do. We have the flexibility of being able to shift models and go in directions that make sense.