The 45-year-old Baltimore native co-founded the online payment company with three partners in 2000. The company helps Internet shoppers buy stuff online without a credit card. In 2008, PayPal, an eBay subsidiary, bought Bill Me Later for $945 million. Talbert, a marketing professional, and his partners made a lot of money and went to work for the bigger online payment company.
What got you hooked on marketing? What attracted you to the field when you were younger, and what formative experiences did you have in your 20s and 30s?
I studied finance and economics at Towson University and only took one class in marketing. I thought marketing was all about advertising and branding. I really didn't have a desire to be in advertising because I thought it was all artsy and subjective. However, I tried out a variety of different jobs while I was in school, and my last internship was as a marketing intern at Citibank in their credit card division. That is where I discovered direct marketing. Direct marketing is a science combined with art. I had the opportunity to manage direct mail programs, and I loved it. The great thing about direct marketing is that it is easy to quickly and cheaply test the various ideas.
How did you meet and come together with the guys who would end up being your co-founders for Bill Me Later? Did your team ever come close to failing?
When Citibank shut down our location in Towson, I went to business school at the University of Virginia while many of my colleagues went to First USA in Delaware. After graduate school, I joined my colleagues at First USA to launch the AOL Visa card, and ultimately this led to the start of the Internet division at First USA. By 1999, the first Internet bubble was rapidly expanding, and there were so many opportunities that a few of us left for various Internet startups. We all had different experiences, but ultimately we realized that we really liked working with the folks we had grown up with at Citibank and First USA. We shared a common culture and history. So, when the opportunitiy presented itself we got back together. … We did product development the old-fashioned way. We went and talked to consumers, merchants and payment processors and asked them, "If you could build a payment option for the Internet, what would it be?" From these early discussions, every aspect of Bill Me Later was defined. Over the next eight years, we built Bill Me Later from an idea to over $100 million in revenue, 4 million consumers and 1,000 merchants. During this time, there were at least four near-death experiences, where we were weeks away from running out of money. Each time, we pulled together and found a way to survive.
When you learned that Bill Me Later would be bought by eBay/PayPal for nearly $1 billion, what did you do that day, what did you think, and did anything change inside you?
A purchase like this doesn't happen in one day. It is the culmination of years of discussions, months of negotiations and weeks of due diligence followed by a few key decision points and further negotiation. The day that the deal was ultimately approved by eBay's board happened to be the day that the stock market had the largest one-day loss in its history. As you can imagine, that was a wild day filled with many ups and downs for us. However, even then, the deal wasn't done. It took another month for the deal to finally close. Only then was the outcome certain. Obviously, the outcome was validation for all the effort we had put into the company in the previous eight years, and we celebrated. We were very proud of our accomplishment and excited to join a company that was doing so well during those turbulent economic times. There is great synergy with eBay/PayPal. In the end, the outcome we are most proud is that Bill Me Later is contributing significant value and has been an accretive investment for eBay/PayPal.
You've gotten deeply involved in Baltimore's technology scene lately, with a big interest in helping education technology startups. Why are you so interested in improving education these days?
I view education as the highest return investment society makes. However, I consider myself a dissatisfied consumer of public education. I went to public schools for primary, secondary and higher education. Even though it all turned out OK, I never felt like I achieved my full potential in school, especially in high school. This was partly my fault, but I always wondered if I would have been more successful in a different environment. In college, I had the chance to try out a lot of different subjects, styles of teaching and professors. I could drop the classes where I wasn't successful and take more of the classes where I had success. Through this experience, I found a few professors who took me under their wing and believed in me. Their support and belief fueled my confidence and drive to succeed in college and in my career. ... Advances in technology and communications are very important pieces of the puzzle to improve education. However, improving education will take more than just technology. It will require us to reinvent the entire model of education and touching every aspect, including the people, process and technology. Ultimately, the most important thing we can do to improve inner-city schools is to change the culture. Today, too many of us accept that the current state of urban schools is just too hard a problem to solve. We need to raise our expectations. We as a community must show these kids that we believe in them and expect them to succeed, prosper and be happy. This is the gift my mother, grandparents and those professors in college gave me.
How is your life different now than when you were in startup mode? What do you do to relax and unwind?
Probably the biggest change is that I can have a little more balance in my life. In startup mode, with a lot of people (all the families of the employees we hired) depending on us to succeed, our time and life was consumed by making the company a success. I am not going to kid you, I am a doer. I can't stop pursuing opportunities, but now I can have a little more balance and put my family first more often. I realize now that the most important currency is time. You can't go out and make more time, so you have to constantly be asking yourself: Is this the best use of my most valuable resource?
As for what I do to relax and unwind, I am not sure I do. I am pretty intense and competitive in anything I do. I am probably happiest when I am competing or trying to solve really hard problems. I really enjoyed coaching my kids in sports, but I found I got too competitive, so I had to back off.