Stellar Start-Ups: Hi-tech drill sergeants

Like in school or the army, companies get tested on their presentation prowess.

By DAVID SHAMAH
March 22, 2009 09:31
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hitech88. (photo credit: )

 
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It's a cold, cold world out there these days. Times are tough; you've got to be tougher. Anyone who wants a little piece of the pie - much less the brass ring - is facing challenges unheard of just a short while ago. When it comes to hiring, investing or any other money-related issues, employers and investors are more conservative - with a great, big C - than ever. Makes you want to run home and hide under a blanket, doesn't it? I want my mommy! Unfortunately, mommy isn't going to be much help in this economy, if you're a start-up seeking funding. You may have a fantastic idea, an excellent product, and a valid business plan - but investors are in no mood for "wow" factors today. The most important question during normal times has become the only question now: What's the bottom line? If you can answer that question you have a fighting chance of getting some VC or angel money. To that end, you need a "daddy" to guide you to hi-tech investment success - or rather, a drill sergeant, such as one would have at an army boot camp, to toughen you up and ready you for the battle. And while his pleasant demeanor is nothing like an army officer's, Ed Frank's Bootcamp Ventures (www.bootcampventures.com) toughens up hi-tech CEOs and marketing people, preparing them for the all-important presentation, where they either impress the money people and get the funds they need to develop their dream - or go home with a great idea but no money. "Bootcamp Ventures is about helping companies tell their stories in the most effective way possible," says Frank, whose company is about two years old. "Most of the companies we work with are very bright and have great ideas. But they don't necessarily know how to present themselves in a manner that investors will be able to relate to. We teach them how to clearly present themselves, so that investors can understand what their bottom line is." So what's the measure of success? How does Frank know a company is ready for prime time? They're ready if they can handle the "five-minute rule," he says. "The pitch has to be clear enough for investors to 'get it' within five minutes. If they don't, they're not going to bite." Like in school - or the army - companies get tested on their presentation prowess. After weeks, or months, of sessions where they learn the art of presentation, answering questions, dealing with objections and perfecting the other tools necessary to successfully give a real-life presentation in front of investors, company CEOs do just that, making their pitches in front of more than a dozen angels and VC people, including several from large funds. Call it "the finals"; if a company does well in this forum, chances are they'll find the funding they need, even though available money is scarce. And indeed, sessions where the companies do a for-real presentation can be grueling, with a team of judges commenting on the idea, how it was presented and what, if anything, the presenter needed to do to improve his or her chances of getting money. At a session I attended recently, six companies gave a presentation of about eight minutes each, including time for questions by potential investors. The session is clearly grueling for the presenters, with several nervously sweating as audience members critique their ideas and method of presentation. Nothing is off limits, with comments from listeners on any and every aspect of the pitch - content, manner and moneymakng potential. Needless to say, there are several disappointed faces among the presenters. That's not all bad, because it gives the companies an opportunity to continue to work to improve their approach, Frank says, adding: "In today's economy, they really have no choice. If they can't make an effective case for what they're doing, their chances of getting funding are slim, if any." It became clear to Frank that such a service was necessary when he was working in a unit of IDT that helped start-ups secure financing. "After many years in manufacturing and sales," he says, "I got involved in helping raise capital, and I was struck by how many companies 'struck out' among investors because they didn't know how to present effectively. We would go to the trouble of setting up meetings with major capital people and end up being embarrassed, because our client did such a poor job." Frank eventually hooked up with his partner, Esther Loewy, who had worked with companies on presentations as well, and the idea for Bootcamp Ventures was born. And it proved popular not just with start-ups, but with investors as well. "At first, these presentation sessions were practice only, with our staff and some outside commentators evaluating our clients' performance," Frank says. But investors got wind of what he and Loewy were doing, and seeking out good, qualified leads for investments, they asked to join in as well. "As it's turned out, we're offering service not just to the start-ups, but to the investors as well, who are looking to us to qualify the companies that present and for us to ensure that they don't waste their time," he says. Not every start-up makes the cut for a presentation session in front of investors, Frank says. This round, several dozen companies asked to join, but only six were chosen. "We have several criteria for deciding who gets to present," he says. "Basically, we match the start-up's projects and financial needs with the members of the audience who will be attending the session." In the current atmosphere, Frank says, VC's are looking for companies that can get out and start selling a product or service right away, and who need smaller amounts of money than in the past. In fact, according to the spec sheet on the presenters, the vast majority were looking to raise sums of less than $1 million - with one company asking for only $400,000, a mere pittance "back then," but a respectable start-up sum nowadays. In it's relatively short history, Bootcamp Ventures has had some major successes, with at least one company going on to "Internet stardom." Frank says there are several deals current and former clients are working on, despite the near standstill in investment. And the company's fame has spread so far and wide, start-ups in Turkey, of all places, are using Bootcamp Venture's services too. But Israel is home, and there is plenty of room for growth. And when the investment mood swings - as it most definitely will - Frank and Loewy will be there, to help Israeli companies get their shot at "the big time."

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