The Dot-Com Congressman
One of the fringe benefits of selling your company at the height of the dot-com bubble is that you can finance your own campaign for Congress. Jared Polis actually sold two Internet companies -- both in nine-figure deals -- before he won the Democratic nomination for U.S. Congress in Colorado's 2nd district. On Nov. 4, the 33-year-old Polis carried the traditionally Democratic district, which will make him the state's first openly gay representative.
Polis' move into politics is the second chapter in his career. In 1999, in an act of exquisite timing, he unloaded BlueMountain.com -- an unprofitable but popular electronic greeting card company he'd spun off of his parents' modest ink-on-paper card business -- to Excite@Home for $780 million in cash and stock. In 2006, in a less overheated business climate, Polis sold another entrepreneurial venture, ProFlowers, to Liberty Media for $470 million.
Polis has used his financial freedom to pursue a wish list of other entrepreneurial projects in the for-profit, nonprofit and public sectors -- from a chain of Spanish-language movie theaters to an aquaculture venture fund to a charter school for homeless kids.
He won a seat on Colorado's Board of Education in 2000 and spent more than $5 million of his own funds on his House campaign. Inc.com spoke with him about how his entrepreneurial endeavors have prepared him for his move into politics.
Were you born with the entrepreneurial bug?
I actually got started in high school. I would purchase scrap metal from the Department of Defense and resell it to recyclers. I'd arrange for transportation and trucking. Then I started an Internet access company when I was 19, in 1994, called American Information Systems -- it was just two college friends, basically operating out of our dorm rooms with a server and a few modems. We raised about $1.5 million in venture capital in 1996 and then we sold it in 1998 for about $23 million to Exodus Communications.
How did BlueMountain.com get started?
My mother's a poet and my father's an artist, so they publish calendars and books and cards. They have a greeting card company called Blue Mountain Arts. In 1996, I launched BlueMountain.com as a spin-off, but a totally different company. It was an electronic greeting card site where people could send cards online. We licensed content from other companies and artists. We had no idea it would be the success that it was. By 1997 we saw that this had enormous traffic and more potential, so I went over to that full time.
How big did it get?
I think during its height it was the sixth-largest site on the Internet. We were monetizing it through advertising revenue when we sold it, but it was not profitable. At that time Internet companies were being valued based on eyeballs, and obviously the sixth most popular site had great demand among Internet companies that wanted to increase their traffic. That was a great time to have an exit for an Internet company. We had multiple suitors, and we also had the potential to go public. Ultimately we chose to work with Excite@Home.
Excite@Home is long gone. What happened to BlueMountain?
They sold it to AmericanGreetings.com, who charges an annual subscription for use. The paper card company is still online at sps.com.
Meanwhile, you grew ProFlowers in a much different climate...
That one we had to build up the hard way, over eight years, before I sold it in 2006. We raised capital and went public in 2003. When we sold it, I think we had around $400 million in sales. We were actually No. 7 on the Inc. 500 in 2003. It's now the third-largest flower company, after 1-800-Flowers and FTD.
That had to be a tough market to break into. Students of e-commerce history know that FTD invented "flowers by wire" almost 100 years ago. How did you compete?
We invented a new way of doing it. We didn't work with florists -- we sent flowers direct from the grower. The flowers would arrive several days fresher, and we cut out that overhead, so they were less expensive.
Where did Cinema Latino come from?
There is this large Spanish-speaking marketplace in the United States. There is Spanish-speaking radio, Spanish-speaking television, all very successful, but there weren't any Spanish-speaking movie theaters. So we entered that business. We had four movie theaters in Arizona, Texas, and Colorado. We would find a vacant or a failing theater, some of them were second run, take over the leases, and change the format over to Spanish -- with both dubbed English-language movies and movies made in Spanish. We saw great turnaround in their operations. I just sold that company [to company managers], in a management buyout.
Where does the aquaculture fund fit in?
Aquacopia Ventures is early stage venture capital firm that invests in the capacity to use our seas in renewable ways to produce food. One of the problems we have to deal with globally is the over fishing of our seas -- we have to reduce our demand on the wild catch. We've made four investments in this area. One is a company that is working to convert the effluent from beer breweries into fish feed. I started the fund, but I'm not involved as a managing partner or in any decision-making role.
Did you also open some schools?
I ran for and was elected to the state Board of Education. In the civic sector, I've started several charter schools that serve at-risk youth. New America School, a charter school that I started and served as superintendent of for a couple of years, works with 16- to 21-year-old, new immigrants, and helps them learn English. We now have over 1,000 students in four campuses in Colorado, with plans to expand to New Mexico. I also co-founded a charter school for homeless youth in Denver called Academy of Urban Learning.
What's it like to run a school?
It's very different than a flower business or a movie theater because over 90 percent of the revenue in the school business comes from the government. There's a lot of extra paperwork and bureaucracy. It's hard for small companies to play that game because they don't always have the staff with expertise.
So you'd been on the Board of Education. Did that lead to the run for a U.S. House seat?
Mark Udall left his seat to run for Senate, so it created an opening. As I thought about the issues that most affect our future, I felt that this would be a good time to start giving back in a meaningful way at the national level.
You're openly gay. Did this come up in your campaign?
We'll, I ran on being a different kind of Congressman. Not the typical career politician. Being gay is not a huge issue, but its part of the face of being a different kind of Congressperson. I think there's a lot more to me than [my sexual orientation], whether it's success in the private sector or running schools. Certainly it wasn't an issue to the voters in my district, and I think most Americans really have gotten past that and pick candidates on their merits, not on their race or gender or sexual orientation.
Was running a campaign like running a start-up?
The work ethic is similar. It's a start-up environment, a scrappy group of men and women that are getting the word out. So, culturally, I was very much at home. You're working from seven in the morning until midnight. The substance of the work for the candidate is a lot more monotonous than a start-up, because it consists of repeating myself a lot and trying to sound equally enthusiastic all 30 times over the course of the day I talk about my health-care plan or my plan to end the Iraq war.
So is politics just like the Web -- who can get the most eyeballs?
I applied my expertise in new media by using Facebook and MySpace to reach out to younger voters. That's something my opponent didn't do and one of the reasons we were able to win. It's mostly an exercise in marketing and sales.
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