This year, Jim Gibbs had an epiphany composed of two parts.
The first happened around the turn of 2021/22, when he had a meeting with venture capitalists. He was raising a $2.6 million seed extension round for the Pittsburgh-based company he co-founded, Meter Feeder.
“They treated me like they were so much smarter than they were,” he said. “I’ve been writing software since 1983!”
This spring, in the first part of his epiphany as the CEO of one the city’s most promising Black-led startups, he finally asked himself an important question: “Why am I begging to make these people money?”
Gibbs has a way of speaking lightly when you expect him to be a little bitter about how much harder his path as an entrepreneur has been. I interviewed him at the office of Innovation Works in Pittsburgh, as part of a reporting project: Deep Dives into Secondary Cities, sponsored by Armory Square Ventures (ASV).
In 2008, John Doerr talked about how easy it was to fund (white) college-drop-out entrepreneurs in the early days of Silicon Valley. Jim Gibbs, the son of a painter and a secretary from Long Island, eventually dropped out of Carnegie Mellon for a lack of cash. Along the way, as his parents tried their best to help, he did break dancing for money to buy his books.
“We ran out of money real hard, real quick,” he says.
For years, he took data input jobs and coding jobs in between semesters at school. “For some strange reason, I couldn’t get software development jobs,” he says, again lightly. Eventually, when he did land a job building medical software, he dropped out of school. He built a long career in software and started a family; he and his wife have five sons, ages 5-11.
Gibbs and his co-founder Daniel Lopretto —- they had worked together — started Meter Feeder in 2015 after winning a hackathon. It’s been a long haul in Pittsburgh. The upside of the city is that it’s inexpensive and the scene is small, so that entrepreneurs can keep a low burn rate and stay focused. The downside is a much-discussed shortage of venture capital firms.
Meter Feeder went through Y Combinator in 2016, and got $100,000 from the Google Black Founders Fund in 2021. Those are two of the crowing startup achievements in the country. Meter Feeder, which has 15 employees, already generates revenue in the millions. Nevertheless, for years, Gibbs had been hearing from white investors that he needed to be “more confident,” or that he was “underselling.”
This spring, he realized two things:
First, he didn’t need to change. He just had to recognize that what he had accomplished and what the team had already built at Meter Feeder was a good sign that the company is going to succeed – and succeed big. He’s in conversations with car manufacturers and the federal government about possible applications of Meter Feeder’s API, which allows Internet-connected devices to transfer money.
Not too long from now, he may be taking meetings from the investors he’s pitching now. “When I met investors, I had to start asking myself, would I be an L.P. in their fund?”
In other words, he is in the driver’s seat: Which investors does he want to make money for?
Investors in Meter Feeder, which has raised a total of $4.1 million, include Paul Buchheit, the state’s Innovation Works, Mountain State Capital, Precursor Ventures and Trucks Venture Capital.
The second part of his epiphany, which happened in the spring, was that he needed to find the believers. Meter Feeder already has a solid business model. It enables vehicles – think FedEx or Amazon trucks – to pay for parking via an integration between the vehicle and a city’s metering system. Some investors instantly get how important this could be. The conversation can turn to how the company might grow or which markets to pursue.
But others want to argue with him. In those cases, he walks away as fast as he can. “You know, maybe later,” he tells them.
“Find the believers,” he says. “That’s a much better conversation.”