How I Made It

Bob Inman puts his mouth where his money is.

When an entrepreneur approaches me to invest in a high-tech start-up, I ask lots of questions: What is the idea? What market is it aimed at? If I’m not interested, I say, “Thank you very much,” and think of other investors to send them to. If I’m interested, the dialogue goes on for a while. Is the technology base still conceptual? Is it working? If the answers keep my interest, I say, “Tell me about yourself.” I look for some degree of experience and evidence that he or she has dealt with the facts of life—failure, for instance. You learn a lot from it; it rids you of your illusions. Then I ask, “How committed are you?” I probe to find out if the person really has what it takes to stick with the idea when things get tough, both from lack of money and from the market’s lack of passion about the concept. Is the person flexible enough to refine it according to the initial response?

The success I’ve had has been at keeping my focus on wanting to build companies. I’m not particularly drawn to money or concerned with what sort of multiple I’ll make over what time frame. I care about technology, people, and capital (not enough for them to go swimming in but enough to keep them alive). And I pay attention to what’s missing in every dimension of an entrepreneur’s plan. At the beginning there’s a draft plan, and it’s someone’s dream. I remind them again and again that it’s just that: a dream. Over time, I try to help them shape that dream into reality.

It’s often my experience that people who create new technology and want me to invest in it think that just because they’ve built a better mousetrap, everyone will seek it out. The truth is, in almost every instance, you have to find customers; they don’t find you.

Bob Inman was born in the East Texas town of Rhonesboro. A graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, he served more than thirty years in the United States Navy, eventually earning the rank of admiral. He is a former director of Naval Intelligence, director of the National Security Agency, and deputy director of Central Intelligence. From 1983 to 1986, he served as the chairman and CEO of the Microelectronics and Computer Technology Corporation. Subsequently he was the chairman, president, and CEO of Westmark Systems, an electronics industry holding company, and the chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. Today he is an Austin-based investor in high-tech start-ups, and he sits on the board of directors of several companies, including Xerox and SBC Communications.

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