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Silicon Prairie's King Maker

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Sitting on the edge of a black leather chair, Bill Fisher oscillates slowly back and forth like a portable fan. He's in a conference room in the squat Omaha office building where in any given month he makes hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of investment decisions affecting hopeful financial technology startups, and he's pondering a question about how he arrives at those decisions.

The swiveling suddenly stops. He puts his hands under his thighs, finally resigning himself, it seems, to say what he was thinking.

"I'll get someone who shows up, and they want to raise $200,000. And this is going to be the deal: They have no money in it, and they can't put any money in it," he says, disparagingly. "I don't have any room for a guy like that."

You have heard of the Oracle of Omaha. Well, Fisher, the founder of Treetop Ventures, a consulting and investment firm, is the patriarch of the city's burgeoning tech scene.

Fisher, in his mid-60s, is an unlikely kingmaker in this city known more for thick steaks than high stakes.

At 5 foot 7 inches, he often jokes about his height. He's nearly bald, but still makes regular visits to his longtime barber, who now rents a chair in a woman's nail salon, to trim up the sides and his beard.

And even though he predates desktop computers by decades, energetic entrepreneurs young enough to be his grandchildren seek him out as much for his wisdom as his wallet.

"He is almost a required stop" for early-stage companies, says Danny Schreiber, a founding editor of Silicon Prairie News, a blog that covers the region. "People want to go and speak with Bill Fisher."

 

OMAHA BECKONS

Omaha is a perfect place for processors and payments technology companies.

The underpinnings of the city's tech scene go back to the 1950s, when the Strategic Air Command was relocated south of the city at the Offutt Air Force base. With it, the Air Force brought the infrastructure that eventually attracted technology specialists, including Fisher himself.

The talent bolstered local tech companies in the 50s and 60s, including then-Omaha based payment processor First Data and transaction software company ACI.

And it created a runway for current companies that now operate in the area, such as eBay's e-commerce arm PayPal.

Despite this rich history, fintech startups only began appearing in Omaha roughly two years ago, says Dusty Reynolds, the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce's director of entrepreneurship and innovation. Around the same time, investors began appearing.

Currently there are several venture capital firms investing in companies in the city, and at least one angel investment group, says Reynolds. They include Jeff Skoll's Capricorn Investment Group, which plans to open an office in Omaha later this year, according to reports. Skoll, a billionaire, is eBay's first employee and its former president.

Midwestern modesty is one reason why Omaha has been largely under the radar compared to other tech hotbeds on either coast. "Ask a rancher how many cattle he has," says Reynolds. "He'll knock you out."

There's a saying that Fisher and his disciples are fond of: 'Big Hat, No Cattle.' In Omaha, you hate failing, but you don't flaunt your success.

That makes his company - called Treetop, because that's the word his sharecropper father would use to describe a cup filled to the brim with ice cream - hard to peg down.

If you ask Fisher, he'll tell you he's an angel investor. He doesn't invest enough for control of a company, and he typically brings other investors in with him. There are about 70 active angels that follow his lead.

Treetop's office - half incubator, half shared office space - is filled with small companies that are interlinked. Some Fisher has invested in. Others provide services to the companies he invests in.

There are personal financial management software company Lodo Software; subprime auto lender Prairie Finance; independent sales organization USMPS, which is run by the oldest of his three sons, William; and Hatchbox, a Web and graphic design company that is run by his middle son, Tom.

Fisher invests in other fintech startups that are not housed inside Treetop's offices.

"I would actually categorize him as a friend and family on steroids," says Craig Page, chief operating officer and co-founder of the MeNetwork, one of Fisher's investments that has created a merchant loyalty smartphone app.

Fisher often continues to take meetings with companies he turns down for an investment.

Roughly a year ago, after exchanging a series of messages on LinkedIn, he met with Matt Medlock, a former banker who founded PaySAFE in mid-2011 to offer Internet escrow services.

"He's the type of guy that will tell you your baby's ugly," Medlock says.

Fisher told Medlock, "On a scale of one to ten, you have a nine idea and a three business model."

Fisher has yet to invest in PaySAFE, but Medlock, who initially imagined his Omaha company as a money transmitter like PayPal, changed his model based on Fisher's suggestions. Now PaySAFE focuses on closing transactions through escrow services.

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