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One of the reasons Eric Doebele likes to keep his investments small is because he believes it is much cheaper to start new technology businesses than it used to be. Tech expenses that used to run millions of dollars now cost several thousand dollars per month, and innovators can test new ideas much more efficiently than in the past. “You can get the proof of concept at a much lower cost, and the feedback comes much faster,” he says.
Doebele’s deep experience in the high-growth technology sector is as valuable as his cash to the local startups he is supporting. In addition to investing in local companies, he is mentoring the founders of companies such as the online rent payment business Paydici and the vacation home rental business Second Porch. He meets with the leaders of these companies and others regularly, sharing his experience in starting and growing ReliableRemodelers.com and selling it for maximum reward.
He is not the only entrepreneur following this path. If Doebele did well with ReliableRemodeler.com, Nitin Khanna did amazingly well with Saber Consulting. The 39-year-old Khanna became an instant multimillionaire when Saber was acquired by Ross Perot’s EDS for $420 million in November 2007.
Khanna grew up in a family that controlled the supply of coal and wood in northern India. The son of a military man, he moved constantly during his youth in India and continued that restlessness into adulthood, attending four different universities in the U.S. and growing quickly bored with his job at Oracle, leaving in 1998 to start Saber with his brother, Karan.
“Our model was rapid development and knowledge transfer. We thought the biggest companies weren’t doing these things well at all. To them rapid was three years. For us it was six months.”
Success came quickly for Khanna’s Salem-based business, which specialized in technology for election systems and unemployment benefits. “Our first-year revenue was 200 grand. Second year we did 800. Third year we did two-and-a-half million. Fourth year we did six-and-a-half million.” (Khanna is not reading from notes as he reels off these numbers and others. He knows them by heart.)
Growth became even more astronomical after Khanna and his brother tapped into private equity to buy a company three times as large as Saber in 2006. By the time they sold Saber, Khanna says they had 1,500 employees and were winning 100% of the projects for which they were bidding.
With his swashbuckling demeanor and unapologetic devotion to material wealth, Khanna would seem to hold more in common with the entrepreneurs of Orange County or Silicon Valley than Portland. But his children are in Portland, and he has decided to stay. He recently purchased the penthouse suite at the John Ross condominium in Portland’s South Waterfront neighborhood and like Doebele he has invested in five local startups. In addition, even though his days are full as he and his brother launch a global mergers and acquisitions firm called MergerTech, he dedicates a day and a half per week to mentoring local entrepreneurs, giving nine speeches over the past two months with titles such as “How to Double Your Revenue Every Year” and “Acquiring the Acquisition Mindset.”
Khanna also joined the Portland peer mentoring group Starve Ups last December, although he is far from starving.
Local entrepreneurs are thrilled to have Khanna in town. “Nitin’s support of start-ups has been second to none,” says Portland entrepreneur John Friess. “If he weren’t in town, a lot of companies would be in worse shape than they are. He is changing the entire city.”
Khanna says he has been impressed with the mentoring and support groups for local entrepreneurs such as Starve Ups, the Oregon Angel Fund, the Oregon Entrepreneurs Network and the Software Association of Oregon. But he is highly critical of the state’s shortcomings in seeding companies with potential to grow powerfully. “The angel scene in Oregon is unbelievably onerous on the entrepreneur,” he says. “The amount of work required to get as little as $25,000 to $100,000 is abominable. The things I would really like to see in Portland are an increase in angel money and an increase in the velocity of that money.”
He also wants to convince the founders of local tech companies to aim higher as they look to sell their businesses. Much higher.