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Like many of you, I attended my first virtual conference a few months ago and while the content was great, I missed the networking that I value so much from conferences. 

Now, I’m planning my second virtual conference of my own and I’m prioritizing not only implementing technology that supports networking, but making sure that I create a culture in the conference around actually using it.  What follows is some advice for both conference organizers and attendees to get the most networking out of an event.

Principle #1:  Talking heads put people into “passive mode” and they check out.

Solution: Mix up engagement models throughout the conference. 

Sure you can have keynotes and panels if you must, but then have breakout sessions where people are encouraged to talk, question and share.  Build in plenty of “white space” – time where people can engage with the networking opportunities your virtual conference has provided.  And finally, provide opportunities for both one-on-one networking and small group interactions.

My first virtual conference had built in networking functionality, but I really couldn’t figure out how to use it, and when I did reach out to others, they apparently couldn’t figure out how to respond either.  Online networking is as much a “warmware” issue as a software challenge.  Conference organizers need to not only have software that facilitates networking and collisions, but they need to train users to make sure that they understand how it all works and that using this functionality is expected of them.

I started planning by thinking about how networking happens at face to face conferences.  There were six main ways that I connect with my peers at conferences:

  1. “Collisions” where I run into peers in the hallways at events.
  2. In session connections – it can be rude, but finding someone you know and sitting next to them and chatting when appropriate.
  3. “Clusters” where three to five people meet up casually in-between sessions and chat.
  4. Meals and Cocktails where you seek out people you want to meet with and have lunch, dinner or cocktails with them.
  5. Trade show style booths are also a way to meet with vendors you’re hoping to connect with.
  6. Pre-scheduled meetings are a more intentional way to make sure that you meet up with the people you need to see at an event.

All of these are based on finding a physical space or place to connect which seems to run counter to the structure of a “virtual conference.”

When planning for my upcoming conference, I thought of it not so much as a website, but as a physical event space.  Here’s a blueprint I came up with to designate the reception and checking area, hallways, breakout sessions, plenary sessions, and vendor booths. 

By breaking all of the different ways that people would interact with each other into a physical space model, it makes it easier for conference attendees to get a feel for how they are supposed to interact in this unfamiliar virtual conference space.  As an attendee I can see the expo hall options, the network drop-in sessions, one on one opportunities and the presentation spaces.

To make this work, we ended up doing something a bit unconventional.  We used Hopin as the reception and networking areas for the conference, and Zoom for the Plenary and Roundtable sessions.

We did this because Zoom is well established and familiar to everyone.  We needed a platform that our speakers could plug into easily and that would have familiar interfaces for presenters to share their screens while viewers had the ability to connect via chat.  But Zoom means talking heads and we wanted to break out of that mold. We really like the concept of Hopin and it has some of the best networking options we’ve seen, but the Main Stage is quite difficult to navigate and getting someone backstage is tricky.  Once they’re there, sharing screens and seeing what you’re presenting is not so easy.  Rather than risk a disaster, we opted for the dual platform.

Hopin’s networking allows us to facilitate multiple types of networking on the platform, which is really great.  Here are the ways we used Hopin to facilitate connections at the conference:

  1. Hang out rooms – We created Hopin “sessions” where participants can join in with smaller groups to get to know each other.  These sessions are open during the entire conference, so attendees can stop by any time and see who’s in the rom.
  2. One-on-one Networking is a great feature in Hopin.  This zone automatically pairs participants who opt-in to be connected with each other for three minutes (or longer if they want to extend) and then the platform facilitates sharing contact information if they want to connect later.  I found this function to be fun and to be a great way to meet people in a way that I wouldn’t easily have available to me at a typical in-person conference.  It is similar to speed-dating networking sessions I’ve seen at certain events, but not typically at conferences.
  3. Wine-Down:  We’ve created an end of day small group networking opportunity for participants to grab a glass of wine, beer or cocktail of their choice and connect with others at the conference in a casual setting.  We supply sample discussion points to get things going, but those are strictly optional and people can chat about whatever they like.  We set up a wine sponsor who sent discounted gift boxes of high quality single serve wines to participants who opted in for that. 
  4. Trade Show Booths
  5. Impromptu Sessions with one or more participants

For the Roundtable sessions, we opened up Four Zoom Rooms so that each of the different breakout topics would have their own room.  With this structure, we were able to allow all participants to be able to turn on their video and microphones and actually engage in discussion.  (Of course, microphones go on mute when not speaking.)  We could host between 100 and 500 people in each of these sessions.

Plenary sessions where everyone is viewing keynote speakers or, in our case, venture capital pitches, were also done in Zoom.  This allowed us to switch rapidly between presenters and everyone was already familiar with the platform.  The key, though, is never to have more than sixty minutes with any one kind of interaction.  Keep it moving by switching up how attendees interact and their brains will be stimulated.

Final advice for attendees:  be proactive in how you approach a virtual conference.  If done right, attending a virtual conference with a good networking platform can provide you with MORE rather than fewer networking options! 

Look through the registrations (if available) and identify who you want to meet with in advance.  Learn the connection options and reach out to make connections with one or more people at a time.  Make sure you get contact information to follow-up with people you’re interested in.  If you have to miss a panel or two in order to make great connections, don’t worry.  Most virtual conferences record the sessions, so you’ll often have a chance to catch up on the content later while focusing on relationship building during the conference.

Shameless Plug:

If you’d like to see all this in action, and get great startup content about resiliency during the pandemic, be sure to check out the Colorado Capital Conference.  Even if you’re not from Colorado, this event is open to anyone and the speakers and pitches apply virtually anywhere.  We’ll have Brad Feld from Foundry Group to talk about many types of resiliency and some of the themes in his new book, The Startup Community Way: Evolving an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem  We’ll have Denver’s Mayor Michael Hancock sharing the unique resiliency the city has shown in responding to the pandemic.  Join us! 

Rockies Venture ClubAs the cost of starting a tech company has gone down, VCs have moved upstream, funding bigger and bigger deals while angels and angel groups have taken up the sub-five million funding space. Meanwhile, accelerators and platforms have also taken a place with funds to jump start companies going through their programs.  MicroVCs are venture capital firms with assets under management of less than $100,000,000.  That sounds like a pretty big fund to angel investors, but in the big picture venture capital world, these truly are micro venture capital funds.

MicroVCs have taken on a huge role in filling the gap between seed and angel funding and big scale unicorn-track venture funding.  If you think about basic fund structure, a $100 million fund will invest about half of committed capital, or $50 million into its first round investments.  The fund will want to diversify to twenty or more investments, so you might see an average of $2 million for a first round.  Then they’ll have the remaining $50 million to continue investing in the top winners from the portfolio.  $2 million is a great amount for a post-angel round, but is far less than the $10 million that an average VC deal is doing today.

The MicroVC area is more understandable if we look at what kind of entities fill this space. There are sub $25 million funds, also known as NanoVC Funds which operate very differently than $100 million funds.  Then there are the accelerators which are actually MicroVCs.  Also, more and more angel groups are creating funds (Like the Rockies Venture Fund) and are moving upstream a bit to do larger deals.  Finally, angel groups are syndicating actively, so they can move into larger and larger deals.  Some examples of the power of angel groups leveraging their investments by working in syndicates include Richard Sudek’s work at Tech Coast Angels who syndicated a $10 million raise via syndication and similarly Rockies Venture Club Participated in a Series F syndicate for PharmaJet locally.  These are not deals that we would typically expect to see angels playing in.  This means that angels, when working together can start filling the space occupied by the MicroVCs.  Rather than competing, we’re seeing angels investing alongside MicroVCs at an increasing pace.

There are other considerations, however.  MicroVCs will typically hold back half of their fund for follow-ons, while angels are less predictable and many still use a “one and done” approach to their investments.  Even with MicroVC follow-on investment of up to $10 million, this is still not enough to propel some companies to the scale they’re shooting for, so they’ll still need to engage with traditional VC once they get big enough.

Angel investors should help startups to figure out their financial strategies so that they can work on building relationships with the right kinds of investors from the beginning so that they don’t paint themselves into a financial corner by working with the wrong investors.  Similarly, startups need to understand the goals of any type of VC so that they don’t waste their time barking up the wrong tree.

 

To learn more about the evolving role of MicroVCs, consider attending the RVC Colorado Capital Conference.  It’s coming up November 6-7th in Denver, CO.  Visit www.coloradocapitalconference.org for more information on speakers and presenters.  This event is on of Colorado’s largest angel and vc investment conferences of the year and there are great networking opportunities.   We hope that  the audience will come away with an idea about how all these types of capital are evolving and the different strategies that companies can take in choosing who they want to pursue for their capital needs.

Peter Adams

Managing Director, Rockies Venture Fund I, LP
Executive Director, Rockies Venture Club, Inc.
 Buy Venture Capital For Dummies on Amazon

 

alternatives to venture captialVenture capital is a great solution to many startups’ finance problems, but it’s often not the best solution and, even when it is the best solution, it often works best as a part of a suite of financial solutions rather than a silver bullet that solves everything in one move.

Venture capital, including angel investment, is the most expensive type of capital out there. So why would so many people be intent on going for the most expensive option when others exist?  A typical VC is looking for a return of 60% or greater on their investment – compounded annually.  That means that at three years they want 4X. At five years it’s 10X. At seven years it’s 25X and at 10 years it’s a whopping 100X return on investment.  All of these are 60% compounding returns.

Venture capitalists need big returns to help offset their big risks.  About half of their investments might result in a complete loss of invested capital, so they need to have investments capable of being home runs in order to pay for all the losers.

There are different ways to create a capital strategy for startups who want to both grow fast, but minimize dilution and reduce the cost of capital.  Rather than using just one very expensive type of capital for their startup, they may use a suite of different sources that are appropriate to the phase of development.

Early Stage – Before VC

Early stage companies have many sources of capital available to them, even if they don’t know it.

SBIR (Small Business Innovation Research), Advanced Industries Proof of Concept and many other federal and state grants are available for early research and proof of concept.  Often these are expensive research projects whose risk is much greater than can be justified even for venture capital.  Startups that use these sources of funds can increase their value and decrease their technical risk without any dilution to the founders.

Another source of early stage funding comes from specialty service providers.  Attorneys and CPAs will often defer compensation or work out an equity deal in exchange for early work.  You might be able to get your patent filed for zero out of pocket costs using this kind of deal.

In Revenue

Companies that are in revenue have lots of new non-VC sources of funding available.  Consider accounts receivable finance to cover your rapidly growing need of cash to carry AR through thirty to ninety days before it gets paid.  Some lenders will even lend on purchase orders so you can get the capital you need to buy the components you need to build your product.

If your product is a SaaS (Software as a Service) platform, then your cost of goods is going to be people, not product.  Consider using Equity Compensation for all or part of your payment to your developers.  There are both individuals and development companies who will swap a portion of their compensation for equity.  You’ll need to have a good handle on your valuation, but why not give equity directly to your developers rather than give it to VCs who give you cash which you then turn around and give to developers?

So, there are many more types of finance options available to you than can be described here.  The main point to remember is that you are not required to use just one mode of funding.  Look at all of the available sources and design a suite of solutions that provides the best solution to your situation.

To learn more about how to use creative funding along with venture capital, or instead of it, consider attending the RVC’s Colorado Capital Conference November 15-16, 2016.  If you’re not in Denver on those days, you can register to participate in the conference via live-feed.

More information and registration at www.coloradocapitalconference.org

Colorado Capital Conference

 

 

 

Peter Adams

 

Peter is Executive Director of the Rockies Venture Club, Managing Director of the Rockies Venture Fund and teaches in the Colorado StaVenture Capital for Dummieste University MBA Program.  Peter is co-author of Venture Capital for Dummies, (John Wiley & Sons 2013) Available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble and your local book store.

 

 

 

You think you can sell your company? Learn from those who have done it at 2013 CCC next week!

 

The entrepreneur’s dream: starting from scratch, building something significant, and creating value for everyonesuccess-next-exit on your side. Maybe that means holding on to a business you could retire on or pass down to your family. If you’re in the VC world, taking on investors means you are expected to cash out, hopefully for far more than was invested. Acquisitions and IPOs are great, but why doesn’t it happen more often? A successful exit can be a rising tide that lifts the boats around it – why do so few entrepreneurs actually make it? Beyond a little luck, what does it take to get there?

I don’t know all the answers to these questions. If I did, I might be taking a yacht to the island I just bought to relax for the rest of my life. More likely, I would be looking for the next masochistic opportunity to work really hard at something for no cash for years, in order to do it all over again. I haven’t exited a company (yet) so I can’t tell you the secrets from experience. Thankfully, a few serial entrepreneurs who have been through it all will share their minds on the subject at the Colorado Capital Conference November 6th and 7th.  This year’s theme is “begin with the end in mind” – Habit #2 of Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

Here are this year’s speakers, who together have built billions of dollars in value in Colorado:

Ryan Martens, Founder and Chief Technology Officer of Rally Software. The Boulder Colorado-based company, which specializes in agile project management software, priced its 6 million shares at $14, raising $84 million at a valuation of $315 million which has more than doubled since it’s IPO earlier this year.

John Spiers, CEO and Founder of NexGen Storage. John Spiers story of entrepreneurial lightning striking twice, first with his sale of LeftHand Networks to HP and this year’s sale of Nexgen to Fusion-IO for $119 million.
Kevin Reddy, CEO of Noodles & Co.   Noodles started with $73,000 in personal funds from founder Aaron Kennedy and raised $200,000 from friends and family.  The company grew to $300 million in sales and had an IPO that more than doubled in its first day and has continued to grow since then to a market cap of over $1.3 billion.
– Steve Georgis, CEO of LineRate.   Louisville based LineRate received early venture backing from Boulder Ventures and wroked in stealth mode with its Software Defined Networking product that increases speed and efficiency in data centers and just ten months after their product announcement achieved success with an acquisition by F5 Networks in one of the largest acquisitions in the Boulder area in the past several years.

Jared Polis, Congressman and a two-time successful entrepreneurial exit success story! His first exit with BlueMountainArts.com for $780 million and then ProFlowers for $480 million.

– Morgan Rogers McMillan, Executive Director of Entrepreneurs Foundation of Colorado (EFCO). EFCO brings together local venture capitalists and start-ups to set aside 1 percent of their profits to charity.

Register here for the 2013 Colorado Capital Conference. The opening Gala in Denver is the evening of Wednesday November 6th, and the full day conference in Golden is Thursday the 7th. Hope to see you there!

The Rockies Venture Club has announced the companies that will pitch at the Colorado Capital Conference. On Thursday, November 7th, the following 12 will give investor presentations:

 

 

These companies are now working with their volunteer individual ‘pitch mentors’ from the Rockies Venture Club. RVC will also provide volunteer ‘deal mentors’ experienced in startup financing to help entrepreneurs navigate investor term sheets and the post-pitch process.

 

This year marks the 25th annual Colorado Capital Conference and will be hosted in Denver and Golden on November 6th and 7th, 2013. It is one of the biggest events for early stage companies and investors in Colorado, and features a great speaker lineup this year. Register here if you haven’t already!