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's short and 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 sparse 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 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.
"I had ideas for different add-ons, benefits for the service and what it did," he says. "After that meeting, I just took some of these fray benefits that the website and the service would offer and collapsed it down to just offering an online closing service."
Medlock says the number of PaySafe customers is doubling every week. He has five full-time employees and an equal number of part-timers. He gives Fisher some credit for this success.
Fisher meets with so many people, and has his fingers in so many companies, that keeping track of it all has become something of a serious hobby for him.
A bomb scare on a plane trip in 1985 got him started on the detailed record-keeping. "The only thing I could think of is there isn't anyone in my family that is going to figure out my financials," he says. "Ever since then I have been religious on keeping my life book."
The binder is in a bureau in his palatial home that abuts a golf course on top of a hill in west Omaha. It's accompanied by an encrypted DropBox account that only his family can access through a series of security questions and a PIN code.
Fisher's investments come with conditions.
"This is my term sheet: I'll make an investment of this amount of money for this amount of shares, and I want a board seat," he says.
In addition, if a company that's taking his money wants to hire a lawyer, it hires his in-house guy at a discount. If it needs an accountant, it goes to Treetop's as well.
"It's a shared office space," Fisher says. "And it's my money. So, if you hire an accountant, and you hire a lawyer, then you are going to use your money a hell of a lot faster than if you hire [mine]."
His approach, however, hasn't always been free of failure.
Last year he lost more than $250,000 after a timeshare company that focused on real estate in travel destinations such as the Bahamas folded.
In this case, the trouble was not with the idea, but with the person running the company.
"Probably the toughest logic is realizing your CEO, or your leaders, aren't the people for the job, and then figuring out a way to get them to step aside. They take it personally when I say 'you are not a forward thinker,' or 'you are not very strategic,'" he says. "That's what happened with this company."
Fisher's biggest fintech splash might be still to come.
He's currently working on a $50 million secret project with several other investors and banking software entrepreneurs that would create a private cloud for the banking industry. It'll target the largest 200 banks.
"This is core applications, best of breed," says Fisher, who smiles slightly and perks upright in his seat, giving away his excitement about the potential for this idea. "I'm 66 years old, I'll be careful about the next two or three things that I'm going to put my time into. But if I bite off something like that, I'll put time and effort into it."
Fisher — or Fish, to those who know him — initially gained fame in Omaha for helming one of the city's largest companies, Applied Communications Inc. (ACIW). He was CEO of the payments software giant for roughly a decade, except for a yearlong interruption, the first of several would-be retirements that didn't take.
In the fall of 1989, two years after he jumped from Omaha payment processor First Data to become ACI's chief operating officer, he helped organize a senior management coup that convinced ACI's then owner, the telecom US West, to sell the company to Tandem Computers (now a unit of Hewlett Packard).
The deal was completed in 1991, at which time he became the company's president and chief executive.
Tandem founder Jimmy Treybig offers an anecdote about Fisher's unique style.
At the close of the Tandem deal, ACI executives flew to the new parent's headquarters for a series of meetings.
At the beer party celebrating the acquisition, Fisher introduced Tandem to a game popular with ACI employees. Called "bun darts," it involved, holding a quarter between your buttocks — with pants on, of course — and dropping it into a cup.
"We were better at it at Tandem than the ACI people," Treybig says with a big laugh.
Tandem was a temporary stop. Two years later, in 1993, Fisher sank $1 million of his own money into a management buyout of ACI. The complex deal included a total of about $5.5 million from ACI executives, but most of the funding came from investors backing Transaction Systems Architects — the last private owner of ACI.
The move paid off for Fisher. He got back quadruple the amount he put in when he took ACI public in 1995, with a market cap of roughly $400 million.
After finally leaving ACI in 2001, Fisher went on to other ventures, including in 2007, co-founding Sojern, which now has agreements with all the major airlines to provide the advertisements printed on boarding passes, and in 2009, starting Treetop. He also began investing in tech newcomers.
Fisher says, over his lifetime, he has disbursed more than $100 million of capital to startups. He has investments, or board seats, in Sojern, FTNI (a corporate portals company), the MeNetwork and Lodo Software, among others.
All these years later, there are still traces of ACI in his business dealings.
Two friends from ACI are part of Treetop: Tom Boje, who was chief information officer, and Dwight Hanson, who was the chief financial officer.
Fisher has been involved in computing since near its commercial inception. He was a computer operator in the Air Force during Vietnam, when the machines were programmed with punch cards. He used that skill to keep himself employed and support his family while he attended college in Indiana and then graduate school in Omaha.
Now he's been at the fintech game for than 30 years, and in the conference room, he returns to swiveling as he explains why it never gets old.
"I don't know if it's the thrill of the hunt, watching these things turn into something, that makes me invest capital and chase these opportunities," he says. "I think it's because I like seeing stuff grow, and I like to see winners and I like to be a part of building it.
"I just like working."