Bill Nix is one of the four pillars that make up the foundation of Greater Sum Ventures. Bill, along with Ross Croley, Lisa Stinnett, and Jon Ellison, founded GSV in 2015. In a recent interview, Bill talked about his journey from investment banking to entrepreneur to the exciting world of growth equity.
To start, talk a little about your background.
Well, I went to Auburn. I came out of Auburn and went to work with a real estate syndication firm and from there to an investment banking firm in the southeast, where I worked on corporate finance deals. I traveled all the time, and my kids were very young. I would leave on Sunday night, come back on Friday, and they would have grown a foot. I got really worn out doing that.
So, I left investment banking. One of my clients hired me to be the COO of their mortgage company – the largest privately-owned mortgage company in the country. When I left there, I had this notion to create a learning management system.
In 1997, I hired a programmer and we created a very rudimentary LMS. I had curriculum written for it, which several hospitals were using for their HR training needs. One of them in Texas called me and said, “Hey, we have content. Would you put that on there and spin it up for us?”
So, we started working on it, and the hospital sent me all these pictures of surgery to include in these courses we were making for them. It was gruesome—just really gross stuff. And of course, I had no background in learning management; I was purely learning by doing.
Eventually, I started to see a similarity in churches. I was raised in a church—I’m really familiar with how they function. I see churches at their core as educational institutions. They’ve got a message that they’re teaching. But I also saw that there was absolutely zero technology around course tracking or the delivery of the courses. The right technology would revolutionize churches. They were ripe for it, and they really needed it.
I started going to more progressive churches, and peoples’ eyes would just glaze over. I don’t think they got it at all. They kept saying, “What we really need is a website that we can maintain ourselves.” They’d have a developer in Atlanta that they’d have to fax content to, and it would take him a week to update the program. By that point, it was obsolete.
Finally, after hearing that a million times, I came back to our developers and asked, how can we do this? What came from that was a website product called E-Zekiel, which sounds a little cheesy, but nonetheless, it worked. And at the time, it was the first website product really to focus on that niche. At the time, it was considered easy to use, though you wouldn’t think so today, given how far things have come.
So, we went about selling it. I partnered with LifeWay, United Methodist Church, Church of the Nazarene, and a number of other denominational groups, that in turn, sold it to their member churches. We grew it and grew it until roughly 10,000 churches were using E-Zekiel. Through the years, I had a lot of calls from people wanting to buy the company, but most of those people were dreamers. Plus, this was at a point when I really needed to rewrite the whole platform.
Then one day, out of the blue, I got a call from a guy named Jon Ellison. I had no idea who he was. He spins his yarn of wanting to come buy the business. I told him, “You’re too late, I’m already talking to somebody, et cetera.”
The next day, I had an email from him: “The Top Ten Reasons You Should Talk to Us,” in kind of a David Letterman style. It made me laugh. So, the next time he called, I took it. Jon wanted to introduce me to Ross Croley, so I got on the phone with him, and we chatted for a little bit. Then they asked to meet in person. I said, “Well, I’ll listen, but I’m not going to talk. So, with those parameters, if you want to come, come on.”
They visited in March, and we met for lunch. Ross and I had tremendous chemistry from the moment we shook hands. When Ross sat down, the first thing he told me was, “I own SiteOrganic.” I had had no idea. SiteOrganic was one of my chief competitors, and when he said that, it changed a lot for me because it meant he knew something about the space. We were passing customers back and forth between the two of us. And so, before we left lunch, we were on our way to a deal.
When you were going through the process, how did you handle any doubts?
There were moments where I was flip-flopping between the sheer joy of “I’m about to get this off my hands” to “Is this the right thing to do?”
During a period of rethinking everything, a thought occurred to me that if Ross was really serious about me working with M&A for the business, he would invite me to go with him to meet with one of the target companies. The next morning, he called and said, “Why don’t you go with me to Pittsburgh?” That was the sign I needed to move forward.
I spent a lot of time praying, thinking, and talking to friends and advisors – you know, doing the things you do to try to make a good decision.
How has your faith influenced your business practice?
It was probably the driving force behind my starting a software company to serve churches. But certainly, to this day, continues to drive how I relate to people, work with people, and treat people. I would like to think, hopefully, it permeates everything I do. It was the driving force for why I started the business, and the direction I took it.
What have been the benefits of the sale?
Well, there’s clearly financial benefit, and that’s been great. But the thing that has meant as much to me, and is pretty overwhelming to me at times, are the relationships. I never would have, in a million years, thought I would pick up and move to Knoxville.
But the friendships that we’ve developed have been… I’m not even sure what the right word is. We’ve used the word “chemistry,” which there is, but there’s a very deep relationship as well.
Through the building of GSV everyone has just been awesome. The dynamic that we have is really unusual, and it makes us a really unusual place to work — in a good way.
Then there’s the opportunity to work with the people that we’ve bought businesses from because most of the time they stay involved. The positive energy that we’ve developed within our portfolio companies is very palpable.
It’s an amazing experience to see people come together around a common purpose. I’ve been doing this for years, and understand how unusual it is to see that kind of dynamic. Both internally, with GSV, and with the operators and founders of the businesses that come into a platform and stay with the business. It’s a marvelous thing that you don’t see very often.
What have been the detriments?
I can honestly say I can’t think of anything detrimental. The relationships, as I’ve alluded to, have been the best in my life. Knoxville has turned out to be a delightful place to live, from the people to the landscape — the mountains and the water. It’s such a great combination. My wife and I have discussed it and said, “Okay, what do we not like about being here?” And we always come up empty. I graduated from Auburn University so it’s the wrong shade of orange here, but I’ve adopted Tennessee as my second team and really enjoy watching them play.
What’s life been like since founding GSV?
It’s been the best ride ever. Not just because of the financial side of things, but the nature of what we do is fun, exciting, and it’s different every day. When we initially close and buy a business, oftentimes that’s a life changer for people, but when we get to the second bite of the apple, everyone is just delighted.
It is life-changing for a lot of folks that we work with, and that’s very gratifying to me.