Forty years ago, Phil Soran was a young junior high school math teacher in the migrant-worker town of Milliken, Colo.
“I liked teaching,” he recalled. “I made $9,950. Eight classes a day, plus lunchroom duty; coached basketball and volleyball, and taught in adult education at night. I’m a Type-A person and I like to work.
“My technique was to control the class. Establish that early. Also treat students respectfully and with humor. A relaxed relationship.”
It’s the “positive-aggressive” approach that also served Soran well in business.
This month, Soran, 63, one of Minnesota’s most successful technology entrepreneurs, will be honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the annual Tekne Awards celebration of the Minnesota High Tech Association (MHTA).
In 1982, Soran, with a young family, quit teaching. He struck out as a stockbroker. He tried IBM. He was nervous about his modest credentials. He placed first in his IBM training class, amid Ivy Leaguers and those from schools better known than Northern Colorado University.
“None of them had ever taught math to a roomful of 30 sixth-graders,” Soran quipped. “Making a sale for IBM, which was a very respected company, wasn’t that tough. It was about quality products, treating the customer right. And ethics.”
Soran is the Denver-raised son of a high school teacher, who moonlighted as a pharmacist at night and flew for the Navy Reserve to help raise six kids with his wife, who went to college in her 50s to become a counselor for a social-service agency.
After a decade with IBM, mostly in Minneapolis, Soran passed on a promotion and a family move to the East Coast, and joined a small software firm. It was sold. Soran and his neighbor, an engineer named John Guider, and a computer technologist named Larry Aszmann, set up shop in Soran’s unfinished Eden Prairie basement to build a better data-storage technology.
Margie Soran raised their four kids and taught piano lessons upstairs to bring in cash.
CEO Soran, the top sales guy and marketer, Guider and Aszmann raised money, rolled out products and Xiotech grew to a 300-employee, $100 million-revenue data-storage company targeted at Fortune 500 companies. Soran and Co. sold the company to Seagate Tech for $360 million in 2000. Soran gave up some of his winnings so most employees received something.
“What I think makes Phil stand apart … is not the fact that he built successful companies, but in the way he built them,” said CEO Jeff Tollefson of MHTA, a former venture capitalist. “Phil is one of the most genuine, caring people. Phil’s approach is not transactional, but deeply relational. And it works. He did a great job developing and supporting talented leaders. They were driven by a desire to not disappoint Phil.”
In 2002, Soran and his two Xiotech founders started Compellent Technologies, another data-storage firm, in Soran’s then-finished basement. They raised $53 million in venture funding, took the company public, created hundreds more jobs and sold it to Dell in 2011 for $960 million.
Soran then collaborated with education technologists at the University of Minnesota to start Flipgrid, for which he helped raise $17 million in 2015. They changed the focus, expanded it to 20 million users across the globe and sold in 2018 to Microsoft.
“Phil has the smarts and the confidence to surround himself with really strong leaders,” said Sven Wehrwein, who served on the Compellent board and others with Soran. “Second, he’s been able to keep his eye on the prize. There’s always lots of noise in a growing enterprise, day-to-day stuff that is important but not what makes or breaks a company. Phil figured out how to manage the daily grind while still reaching for the proverbial pot at the end of the rainbow.”
Soran went from sweating money in 1992 to millionaire in 2000 through Xiotech. His four kids saw that as teenagers.
Margie Soran, always a volunteer, and Phil, who worked his way through college, expected their children to graduate from college and pursue careers. They did. The Sorans engaged in philanthropy, particularly education programs and scholarships for disadvantaged kids.
“Our kids care about that, too,” Phil Soran said. “They are grounded and hardworking You don’t want them to feel entitled.”
Asked about a proud moment involving his kids, Soran recalls a letter his son, Kevin, 30, who had been a star high school athlete and popular guy, received a few years ago. The letter was from a young woman who wanted to thank Kevin Soran for befriending her when she had been bullied.
“I’m not the smartest guy,” said Soran. “I owe my success to my marriage, family and good partnerships in business we put together. They were collaborations. I really do believe that. I try to connect people.”
Soran spends a third of his time working with young entrepreneurs, a third enjoying life, including bicycle trips with Margie and friends on several continents; and a third on philanthropy, mostly educational charities and programs that help uplift low-income folks.
“Money gives you opportunity to help other people — or entrepreneurs or your family — that you wouldn’t otherwise have,” Soran said. “We like educational philanthropy. We invest in things that work, that catch kids and propel them forward.”
Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.