In building his own booming software company, Bill Bice made his share of blunders.
There was, he says with a quiet laugh, a “whole, 15-year series of mistakes.”
But the Albuquerque native obviously did a whole lot right, too; his ProLaw system, a tool that helped law firms automate and manage their operations, was acquired in 2001 by what is today Thomson Reuters.
Having survived and thrived as an entrepreneur, Bice has spent the past decade guiding others pursuing their own dreams. He shares his expertise through his partnership in Verge Fund, a venture capital fund that has raised $37 million and invested in 20 New Mexico companies, and through his role as chairman for the ABQid accelerator.
“This is our way to change the economy of New Mexico,” he says from an office he now keeps at BoomTime, a Verge portfolio company that resides on the garden level of the Verge Building in Downtown. “We all know what the problems are. I think what’s much more interesting is what’s the solution? And the solution is for us to grow it ourself. … Fortune 500 companies just don’t move their headquarters around. If they do, it’s on the front page of the Wall Street Journal because it’s a very rare event. So where are Fortune 500 companies headquartered? They’re headquartered where they’re built. … So how do we solve this problem? We grow our own companies.”
Q: Describe yourself as a teenager.
A: Well, I was your absolute, stereotypical geek. And I spent as little time going to school, which was Eldorado, as possible. It’s actually what started me in business because, if you’re familiar with Eldorado at all, it backs up into a strip mall. Back in ’84, there was a little conglomerate of sports stores in that strip mall that were owned by Tico and Marge Navarro. They had a business called Sun Sports and, when I would climb over the fence to leave school, I’d drop into the back of Sun Sports. Like a lot of people at the time, Tico had bought a brand new PC and didn’t know what to do with it, and here’s this kid who’s just walking through his back door, and so I made a little business out of making his computer do things and actually started my first business with Tico, which was Sun Sports Racing Systems. That was when I was 14 and, with Tico’s help, he helped me do exactly what I wanted to do, which was be an entrepreneur, and we put on road races. Tico and Marge started the Duke City Marathon and my little side business he helped me create is what actually did the work behind putting on the races. We’d put the brochures together and distribute them, and get the registrations and keep track of who was in the race. Then I took that computer, which was an Apple II, and wrote the software on it that kept track of the runners and the races, and every time a runner would come across the finish line, hit the button with the joy stick and recorded the time. And then, the end result is you found out (in the) women’s 50-54 age bracket, here’s who the winners were.
Q: Were your parents into computers?
A: My mom helped build the data center out at the fab at Intel. She used to work at IBM.
Q: So your interests growing up were mostly computers?
A: I was running a business at 14 and that grew into a computer consulting business where, exactly (like) what I did with Tico, (I’d go) around to different small businesses around town and help them make their computers do something useful. I had five or six employees when I was 17.
Q: Did you have a traditional first job?
A: Well, my very first job was a lawn-mowing business that my dad helped me get going and it was a great business because I was mowing 20-30 lawns a week at $10 or $15 per lawn at age 10 or 11. That was how I supported my computer habit. I learned from my dad very early to just go out and get customers, and provide them with great service and make money. And then I got the computer side from my mom and was very fortunate to run into Tico, who then helped me make the next jump. And that consulting business turned into my first really significant company. … I went to UNM and came in basically as a sophomore and dropped out after my sophomore year, which basically was my first year, because I had been building a business that turned into ProLaw software while I was at UNM. The business really started to take off and, frankly, what was being taught in computer science classes at the time just wasn’t relevant to what was happening in the industry. So, it didn’t make a lot of sense to stay in school and I had a great business that was taking off.
Q: If you weren’t learning anything through school, how did you learn software development?
A: Most great developers just learn it on their own. You might go to school to get some foundational elements but, quite frankly, the best developers that I’ve hired have always learned it on their own because they’ve got the passion and desire to do it themselves. If you go out to learn it yourself, you’re going to learn (about) the latest tools and techniques, and if you go to a four-year college, I guarantee they’re not going to be teaching you anything that’s anywhere close to what is the latest and greatest in the market. Now the coding boot camps are a little bit different – like what CNM is running, you know that they’re very light on their feet. They tend to be much closer to what’s actually happening in the market.
Q: What happened after ProLaw was acquired?
A: We sold ProLaw to the west division of Thomson, which is now Thomson Reuters, and we continued to build and grow the company right here, which is the perfect example of exactly what we need to do over and over again in Albuquerque, which is grow a business large enough that, when you sell it, it just doesn’t make sense to pick it up and move it somewhere. When we sold the business, we had 120 employees, and it was just easier and more cost-effective to hire more people here, and it didn’t make sense to pull up that significant of an operation and move it to Minneapolis, in this case, and I consider that hitting a double. You grow a business large enough that, when you sell it, you get good financial returns for the investors, but you also built something that’s lasting. If you go drive in the Jefferson (Street) district and drive down Masthead, you’ll see a big building down there that has the Thomson Reuters logo on it. This is now 15 years later and that business that I built when I was a teenager is still here in town. That’s ProLaw.
Q: How would you describe the city’s startup culture today versus when you started?
A: Well, there wasn’t a culture when I started ProLaw. There was no gathering of entrepreneurs. Today, we have a really rich environment and it’s really the last 10 years when you see this amazing growth of the startup culture here. We’ve gone from a disbanded, disjointed sort of random set of events to something that is really focused, where we bring the community together over and over again. We’re sitting right here a block away from Central and Broadway, and this is a really amazing place. This is the center of New Mexico and, within three blocks of that intersection, you’ve got Innovate ABQ, FatPipe, Verge, WESST, CNM; we’ve created this really amazing concentration of startup activity. I would encourage anyone and everyone in Albuquerque that is thinking about building a startup to come and do it right in this area. I understood it intellectually, the concept of “random collision,” but when you actually see it happen, when you see people able to build businesses because they’re in this environment, and they meet the right people and get the right advice, (and) they’re able to make a huge jump in their ability to build a business, then you really believe in random collisions and you understand why that concentration is so crucial to creating a startup environment. And now we’ve got it.
Q: What is your biggest regret?
A: I just don’t think that way. I don’t have any regrets. Most entrepreneurs that I know don’t. Even if they could come up with an answer for that, I don’t think they honestly feel regret, because it’s really tough to take the risks that are necessary to be an entrepreneur if you spend very much time feeling regret.
Q: Besides mountain biking, what are your passions away from work?
A: I’ve always loved animals, but my wife Sharon has instilled a very deep love. Her passion is to bring spay and neuter (programs) to New Mexico, so that we stop killing dogs and cats. And so that has become my passion, too.
Q: What are your pet peeves?
A: I think my biggest pet peeve (is) people who live in New Mexico, but don’t appreciate being here. There’s a lot of people who have done quite well who have come to New Mexico to escape, so my pet peeve is the people who have the ability to make a real impact, but have not chosen to do so.
Q: What is one food you can’t live without?
A: Red chile.
Q: Do you have any guilty pleasures?
A: I’ve got a lot of guilty pleasures. I have long been addicted to Dr. Pepper 10, which is a guilty pleasure that I’m trying really hard to get rid of.
Q: What would you do with an extra hour every day?
A: I would read – just everything. I love to read and I never get through my reading list. If you gave me more time, almost undoubtedly I would be reading.
Q: How would you describe yourself in three words?
A: Analytical. Driven. Aptitude.