When Bob Parsons's buddy asked him during his senior year in high school what his plans were for the following year, he answered truthfully: "I think I'm gonna still be in high school." It was indeed touch and go for a while, but somehow, Parsons got his diploma.
From there he joined the Marines, trained at Parris Island, shipped out to Vietnam, saw combat, was seriously wounded, recovered, completed his tour, enrolled at the University of Baltimore, graduated magna cum laude with a degree in accounting, taught himself how to write code, and subsequently founded (and sold for transformative sums) two iconic tech companies, Parsons Technology and GoDaddy.com.
It's a life story that draws raves, especially when Parsons tells it to a roomful of fellow military entrepreneurs, as he did Wednesday at the 2014 Inc. 5000 conference in Phoenix.
Parsons is gruff, plain-spoken, and a classic bootstrapper. His only partner when he founded his first company, Parsons Technology, which sold home accounting software, was his former wife. He never had any investors and he never borrowed any money, and when he sold the company to Intuit in 1994 for $64 million, he said, he "got to keep most of it." (His ex-wife made out pretty well, too.)
GoDaddy.com, a domain registrar and Web hosting company, was the same deal: No partners, no investors, no loans. When Parsons sold 72 percent and stepped away from active involvement in 2011, the company was valued at more than $2 billion. He's still its single-largest shareholder.
Parsons said the Marine Corps taught him many things that helped him as an entrepreneur. Among them: discipline; responsibility; that not all tasks are fun (but you have to do them anyway); and that there's a right way to do things and a wrong way, so do it the right way. He said combat is similar to entrepreneurship in some respects--they're "both a little spooky….You're taking risks, and it's lonely"--and different in others: "In entrepreneurship, if you have your head up when it's supposed to be down, at least you're still alive."
GoDaddy, like Parsons's high-school career, nearly ended in failure. He invested $35 million of his own money to start the company, and spent it all the way down to $6 million. He was contemplating a career as either a professional car-parker or a craps dealer, he joked, when the dot-com bubble burst. Suddenly GoDaddy, because it was still solvent, was one of the few Internet companies that could buy advertising and pay its bills. "People noticed our deals for the first time." Parsons said. "All the noise went away."
That doesn't entirely account for GoDaddy's success, of course. There were also the company's controversial Super Bowl commercials, for which Parsons made no apologies. "Guys like a really good-looking woman that is well endowed," he said. "When there is one around, I know that's where their eyes are gonna be. So that's where I put the name of my company."
The first of the racy ads drew widespread condemnation. It also spiked GoDaddy's global market share from 16 percent to 25 percent, almost overnight. "I was happy to take a beating," Parsons said.
After GoDaddy, Parsons went on starting companies. He's founded too many to list, and collectively they're adding $100 million a year to his fortune, which he's busy these days distributing to worthy causes. Among his favorites is the Semper Fi Fund, which supports post-9/11 veterans from all branches of the military. Parsons started out "poor as a church mouse," he said, and has no desire to die with lots of money. "By the time I move on to the next life," he promised, "I will have given it all away."