The Education of Bill Maris: How One Entrepreneur’s History Shaped Google Ventures

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Joe Kraus, the co-founder of dot-com-era high flyer There are seven investing partners altogether, who have brought 40 announced companies into the portfolio, in areas ranging from antibody discovery to tools for Android and iOS developers to weather insurance. The operation’s total staff just passed 30, and is set to grow significantly over the next year; as Maris puts it, “Google is about scale.” But it’s Maris who sets the fund’s agenda and is, for now, its public face.

The words that follow are Maris’s own. I’ve abbreviated the material and rearranged it for chronological clarity. And to dramatize the parallels, I’ve put passages about Maris’s experiences at Burlee in italics. But in all other respects, this is Maris’s story.

I needed to get out of there [Investor AB] so I started a company. I thought about a lot of different ideas. There was so much growth in this Internet thing, I said that even if I am average at this, growth will be pretty good. So I used my savings and ordered some servers from Dell. I knew I was going to start a Web hosting and Web design business, because I knew there would be more websites in the future, and those would need to live somewhere. That was my moment of clarity.

I had gone to Middlebury College in Vermont, so I moved up to Burlington and rented an apartment. I had a bed, some Ikea furniture, and three servers—one small, one medium, and one refrigerator-sized, with three 9-gigabyte hard drives. And I brought in the first T1 lines in Burlington. But there was no software that you could buy off the shelf for hosting a website. I remember sitting on the floor with these manuals, on the verge of just breaking down. I didn’t know what to do.

They say necessity is the mother of invention, but I say that desperation not to move back in with your parents is the mother of invention. I had to do some scrappy things. To call Microsoft for tech support was $100 a call, but if your problem was not resolved, you could call back and not be charged again. So I became a master of choosing a macro problem like ‘I don’t know how to build a website.’ I was pretty good at convincing them every time I called that ‘This is the same problem, you have to help me for free.’ I didn’t have a lot to lose. But I recognized shortly thereafter how lonely it can be to start a business in Burlington in December.

I don’t care if it’s an app company and you’re a programmer—it’s still lonely and hard. If you are not the only one doing the icebreaking, that keeps you sane. That is why we have this thing called Startup Labs. We got a lot of calls from entrepreneurs who say, ‘Can I have a conference room,’ ‘Can I have some space.’ Google has a lot of space. So I said, let’s grab a building and use some recycled furniture from AdMob and make it available for $5 a month in the coffee can, and that will address the issue of trying to do things on your own, in isolation.

We also use the Startup Lab facility for Startup University. We have all done things in our careers, and there are 28,000 people at Google and some days it feels like all of them are eager to talk to startups. How does AdSense work? What are the Android developer tools? How do I recruit engineers? What are good questions to ask in an interview? How many interviews are useful before you’re wasting time? How much should I pay this kind of engineer? We have all kinds of data on that. We do a class every week or two, and office hours randomly.

We learn a lot from this as well, about the real issues these companies are facing right now. If you isolate yourself up on Sand Hill Road and entrepreneurs have to come to the temple to ask you questions, you might not get the same boots-on-the-ground feedback.

I had one angel investor, a really good friend of mine now, named Ray Pecor, who ran the Lake Champlain ferry company with his son. They were very prominent businesspeople in the community. He invested $1 million in the business, which was our only investment outside friends and family. When I first explained the business to him, he said ‘How much do you need?’ I wasn’t prepared for the question, so I made up a number. ‘A million dollars.’ ‘Okay, pick up the check on Wednesday, but you have to shake on it. No paperwork.’ I walked out of the office thinking, … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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