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The Next Big Idea: A Successful Founder Turned San Diego Investor

The Next Big Idea: A Successful Founder Turned San Diego Investor


Mark Bowles, co-founder, ecoATM


The $350 million sale of ecoATM in 2013 was one of San Diego’s biggest tech exits in years. The former startup was behind the now-ubiquitous mall kiosks that pay users cash for their old smartphones and helps recycle them.

It was the most successful company yet for co-founder Mark Bowles, a former executive at Motorola in the early 1990s.

“A Motorola business card was magic back then. It let you get a PhD in Silicon Valley,” Bowles said. “Everyone needed Motorola product. It was a golden ticket to just get exposed to the back lab of every company.”

Bowles saw a lot of startups with that exposure and decided that world was more attractive than a traditional corporate career.

“They were having way more fun, and they had a lottery ticket, too,” he said.

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Bowles has raised more than $250 million for the half-dozen or so companies he’s helped found, but none were as lucrative as ecoATM. While one had a buyout offer in the hundreds of millions, according to Bowles, he turned it down in 2000, right before the tech bubble burst. Bowles and his management team ended up selling the company’s assets 18 months later for $3 million to help retire $2 million in debt.

“I’ve left two different $80 million, six year, hundred engineer smoking holes in the ground. Those hurt,” Bowles said. “But it’s part of the journey.”

Bowles has focused more on investing his own money lately, given his ecoATM windfall. He likes to invest in local startups, but he rejects the idea that San Diego startups have a tough time raising money even when compared to the Bay area. San Diego startups raised $1.9 billion in venture capital funding last year, the sixth highest investment total per capita in the world.

“We’ve got to stop beating ourselves up in San Diego that it’s somehow the backwoods and you can’t get money here,” Bowles said. “That’s an excuse for people who have failed at going and doing what a lot of people do.”

Bowles joins KPBS Midday Edition’s series The Next Big Idea to discuss how he learned from his failures and the basic skills some founders lack.


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