Multimillionaire software entrepreneur and philanthropist, Tim Gill is considered the 5th most influential gay person in America, according to Out.com. He founded the Colorado-based Gill Foundation in 1994 to advance LGBT equality by providing large-scale financial support to like-minded organizations. He also established Gill Action in 2005 as an issue advocacy organization to secure equal opportunity for all people regardless of sexual orientation or gender expression. He is the founder and former chairman of the publishing software company Quark, and he is also the webmaster behind the social networking site Connexion.
Tim was nice enough to take time out of his evening to chat over dinner about finances. Some of his answers were rather surprising… so read on!
1. How did you turn a $2,000 loan from your parents into a company that made you a multi-millionaire?
That money went to buy a printer to print manuals for our first software product, Word Juggler. It was a word processor program for the Apple III. Surprisingly, Apple shipped the computer for 6-9 months without a word processor. All we had to do was send letters to Apple dealers to let them know about our product, and we immediately had 100% market share. I paid my parents back in 2 weeks and we eventually made several million dollars from it. That was just the start. It was QuarkXPress that became the cash cow for the company.
2. How did you develop your business and financial sense? Did you have a mentor of sorts or learn through experience?
I have no formal business or financial training. I did some financial programming on an HP desktop calculator. That involved working with a CPA to understand the accounting principles. My work caught HP’s attention. They hired me to work part time for them while I finished college and full time after graduation. Outside of that, the closest person I had to a mentor was my business partner, Fred Ebrahimi. We each owned 50% of Quark and I would notice his sales tactics, his marketing, and his public speaking. I learned those techniques from watching him and then created my own style.
3. In order to be successful, one often has to give up other parts of his or her life. As you were building Quark, Inc., what parts of your life did you have to put on hold?
Looking back I guess you could say that I didn’t have a social life, but I never felt like I was missing out. I had a boyfriend, I loved writing code, and it worked. Even now I still have to curb my interest in programming to spend time with my husband, Scott. When he goes out of town, I find myself staying up until 3 am working on code.
4. When did you officially come out, and how was the news received?
I came out as soon as I got to college. I was office manager for the campus gay group and spoke to psychology classes about what it was like to be gay. I told my parents 3 months later. They took me to see a psychiatrist who said he’d help me change if I wanted to or that we could just work on my parents. I said we should work on my parents.
After Colorado’s Amendment 2 passed [which targeted the gay community] I came out very publicly. One of the statistics I’d heard was that 70% of people in Colorado claimed they didn’t know anyone who was gay. Clearly, the problem was that the gay people they knew just weren’t coming out to them! So I felt I had to be very public! I would give speeches to large audiences in the publishing industry and declare that I was bi… because I used both PCs and Macs, but mostly Macs! Everyone laughed and they all knew what I was really talking about. Beside that, though, there were many opportunities – such as the Q&A sections after my presentations – where I could bring it up. If the media asked personal questions, such as which newspapers could be found at my doorstep, I would mention which ones I read and which ones my husband read. If you don’t make a big deal out of being gay, no one else does. But you really should come out at every opportunity. It lets the public know who we are. It’s much harder for anti-gay institutions to portray us in negative ways when more people know us.
5. You began using your financial power in the 1990’s to promote LGBT visibility and equality through personal donations to political causes, establishing the Gill Foundation, and founding the Gay and Lesbian Fund for Colorado. More recently, you founded Gill Action. What are the most satisfying changes you have seen that were influenced by your philanthropic and political efforts?
Anything that creates turmoil and chaos for the opponents. I’m serious! For example, The Gay & Lesbian fund for Colorado only funds non-gay projects. One such project was in Sterling, CO where an organization was trying to preserve a number of large public wood carvings by casting them in bronze. When we funded one of the carvings and our name was on the plaque, the mayor and a few conservative members of the community were horrified. Some of them started a letter writing campaign against us and told the organization to give the money back. The organization responded by mentioning that there were more carvings to be preserved, so if they wanted to donate and have their own plaque, they could do so. How much money did the opponents raise? Nothing. But this was an educational process for all who were involved. It’s part of the dialogue that makes people more moderate over time.
6. You established Connexion.org as a vehicle for engaging the LGBT community in political activities. You also continue to be its main webmaster. Has this site fulfilled your original intentions?
Connexion is fun, but it takes a lot of work to do it well. I was inspired after going to Focus on the Family for the first time and seeing how much public outreach they did. I wanted to establish something that could do that outreach using the internet. Now there are lots of of organizations with good online networks: HRC, Lambda Legal, Victory Fund. So now we just do free nonprofit ads and leave the political activism to others that have that core competency. Connexion has become more of an experiment in networking, Internet technologies, and human psychology.
7. The Gill Foundation, the Gay & Lesbian Fund for Colorado, and – I assume – your personal income, are largely dependent on investment returns. In this down economy, how are you protecting your assets and continuing to grow your investments?
The Gill Foundation won’t last forever, and it was never designed to. Its mission in life is to spend down the assets in my lifetime. How soon that happens has less to do with the economy and more to do with the opportunities that arise in a given year. Spending may very well go up and shorten its duration. But there should be some other gay entrepreneur that replaces me over time.
My personal spending is quite small compared to my assets. Like with everyone else my assets went down with the market, but they’re coming back. I live relatively modestly and don’t have a lot of personal spending requirements so I’m not liquidating a lot of depreciated assets. Now is a great time to reorganize your portfolio. You can see which assets didn’t perform well and have little likelihood of recovering. Then it would be best to switch to different assets.
8. What financial issues, if any, do you think are unique to the LGBT community?
Since we can’t get married in a way that’s federally recognized, we have to simulate marriage in different ways. If a straight couple is married and there is a difference in net worth between the two, it’s easy for them to transfer assets tax-free. Their finances are shared. For a gay couple, you need asset transfer vehicles such as life insurance, trusts, and relevant estate planning. Those are expensive to maintain. Even asset transfers of a home that is bought together is different and more costly.
9. What financial advice would you like to give the readers at Queercents?
You mean other than credit cards are bad? Using credit cards means you’re buying stuff at a negative discount. You could spend 50% more than the ticket price! It’s much better to avoid them unless you can pay them off each month. As for other advice: know how you spend your money. Even if it’s just in your head you have to have a budget. And some of it has to be play money. It’s just like a diet – you can still lose weight while allowing yourself some ice cream. You’ll lose weight faster if you restrict yourself more, but you’re much more likely to miss your budget if it’s too tight. If you give yourself play money you’ll stick with it better.
10. What do you see as your next big challenge?
Retirement. I’ve tried already but I’m not good at it. Kinda did that already with Connexion and see what that turned into? A full time job! So much of my sense of self-worth is based on making something and pointing my finger to say ‘this is what I did’. I love the philanthropic work and I love writing code even more. Someday I’ll have to come up with something to do that’s not tied to my programming.
Read other Queercents interviews in the Ten Money Questions archive.