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Leading Michigan’s Emergence as a Tech Startup Hub: Billhighway CEO Vince Thomas (Part 7)

Posted on Wednesday, Jan 9th 2013

Sramana: I like your desire to dive deep into a segmented market. That is a core philosophy of the 1M/1M incubator. It pays to focus on a narrow, precisely defined segment. We have case study after case study in which entrepreneurs have succeeded by doing that. Even though it is tried and true, I find most entrepreneurs tend to ignore this important step. I think in your case it has absolutely paid off.

Vince Thomas: I think there is a misconception that even if you offer consumer products or services, that if you throw it up on Facebook you will get a lot of customers. Even companies that have done well using those ecosystems understand their customer base and those ecosystems. They still dive deep to find that success. That concept gets lost. People think that if you build it, they will come. If you just toss it on Facebook that it will happen, or that if you buy the right AdWords that you will be good to go. That is not how it works.

Sramana: What percentage of your target market have you penetrated so far?

Vince Thomas: Not a very large number. We are still in our infancy. We have between 50 and 100 core clients which represent 4,000 additional entities. Many of our clients are comprised of multiple entities. We still have a long, long way to go.

Sramana: That is good news for you because you have strong reference customers and a repeatable model for success. How do you plan to grow?

Vince Thomas: Our plans [should] evolve in a few ways. We will absolutely still grow organically and direct with target customers. We certainly are investing more energy and time into channel alliances and partnerships. We are in the beginning phases of understanding what those channels might look like.

Over the past several years we have been contacted by more than 100 different investor groups. We have not elected to bring an investor in. If we do think it makes sense to align ourselves to a partner, that is something we will consider. We certainly are evolving into lighter products which let us get our foot in the door with potential clients, which in turn allows us to get experience with clients before they buy our full enterprise package.

Sramana: What is the entrepreneurial landscape like in Michigan? I know the state has been trying to get technology companies started there.

Vince Thomas: Being in technology and Detroit makes us a big fish in a small technology pond. We get a lot of local press, which is great. Since we have started in 1999, the level of focus and interest in startups is 180 degrees from when I started Billhighway. There is a great foundation in place for startups in Detroit and Michigan as a whole. The city and state have seen unbelievable dividends so far. I think that in the next five years Detroit will be a serious player in the startup player on the national stage. We have a very affordable living environment, and it is a great place to raise a family.

Detroit, for 100 years, was the place where people all over the world came to to get their start in America. We find that there are global tentacles into Detroit. Those roots are established. There is a lot of familiarity with Michigan and Detroit, which means people are not afraid to come back. There are not natural disasters; the worse thing we deal with is snow. It’s a great place to be. There are also a lot of very well-off people here who are pumping money into the tech scene.

Sramana: This has been a very interesting story. Congratulations on your success so far, and I am excited about where you are taking this company.

This segment is part 7 in the series : Leading Michigan's Emergence as a Tech Startup Hub: Billhighway CEO Vince Thomas
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