Three decades ago, when new University of Minnesota graduate James “Jay” Perrill decided to invest his time, savvy and money into the fledgling internet, he had to brush off the skeptics.

Soon after earning an MBA in management information systems from the U’s Carlson School of Management, Perrill left his job as a business analyst for McKesson, a Fortune 500 company, to start his own web design company.

When he told people about his plan, they scoffed.

“He told me that they told him he was crazy,” recalled Marc McDaniels, vice president for business development at the Perrill Agency. “They said the internet was a fad and that it wouldn’t last.”

The tenacious young man launched the Perrill Agency in 1993 and developed it from a one-person startup into one of the Upper Midwest’s most recognized digital agencies.

Perrill, of Plymouth, died of what appeared to be a heart attack at his home in Plymouth on May 7. He was 53.

“He was an innovator,” McDaniels said. “He was always looking ahead. He was the first one in the metropolitan area building websites.”

Perrill had to convince prospective clients that the internet was the wave of the future.

“The internet then basically was used by the military and educational institutions,” McDaniels said. In 1995, 1 in 5 U.S. homes had a computer, but internet use by the general population was nearly nonexistent.

“He told them, ‘This is where it’s going,’ ” McDaniels said.

As internet use grew, so did Perrill’s business. From 1997 to 2000, the percentage of U.S. homes with internet access increased from 18% to 41%.

“The word spread and his business grew,” said McDaniels, who knew Perrill for 11 years and went to work for him in 2019. “I think it’s because he always did what he said he would do and always delivered 100 percent.”

Perrill was born to John and Irene Perrill on Nov. 1, 1966, in Milwaukee. He was raised in Waconia. In high school, he competed in basketball, football and track. As a senior, he was the Wildcats’ starting quarterback in football and homecoming king.

He earned a bachelor of science degree in finance from the U in 1991 and an MBA in 1993.

“I think Jay got up to speed from the lessons he learned at the U, which was a big player in the early days of the internet,” said his younger brother Dave Perrill of Eden Prairie. “Jay got his entrepreneurial spirit from our father. My father was an electrical engineer by trade. He worked at JPL [the Jet Propulsion Laboratory], NASA and Boeing. He started his own company [the Wand Corp.] in his 50s, which is relatively late.”

Dave Perrill said his brother “had integrity and smarts,” but what really stood out was that he was “the most open-minded person. He didn’t have a judgmental side.”

McDaniels said Perrill never changed his business approach, even in challenging times.

“When the chips were down or someone else in business treated him wrong, he always took the high road,” McDaniels said. “He’d say, ‘You do what you can do,’ and he always said a positive attitude is everything.”

In addition to his brother Dave, Perrill is survived by his wife, Amy; two sons, Dylan and Colton; a daughter, Bryn; two other brothers, Greg of Orono and John Jr. of Chaska, and his parents, John and Irene Perrill of Waconia.

A private service will be held Saturday.