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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! 

If you are a startup CEO, or work for a startup – these are challenging times. The world as you know it is on hiatus, and uncertainty reigns. I would like to share some wise advice from my friend and fellow board member at the Angel Capital Association, Pat LaPointe from Frontier Angels in Bozeman, MT. This is advice that I hope every startup CEO in our community takes to heart.
Best wishes, and be healthy,
Peter

Dear <CEO> –

I hope you and your families and friends are healthy and staying safe. There is no “sale” worth jeopardizing your health. No meeting is worth exposing yourself or your team to something for which there is presently no cure. Please be careful.

I was running early stage companies in both Sept 2001 and in March of 2008. This feels EXACTLY like those situations. Fear and uncertainty reign. No one person has a completely accurate view of the situation because it is SO complex and unprecedented. In case you care, here are a few observations on how I would apply my own experience if I were running an early stage company today:

  1. If I was selling to enterprise or government buyers, I’d expect everything to stall. Sales pipeline will get rigor mortis and nothing will move forward for months. That means any revenues you were counting on from companies not already under contract will NOT materialize anytime soon.
  2. If I had contracts with cancellation clauses, I’d expect to see half my enterprise customers exercise those clauses. Government buyers don’t tend to cancel in the near term, but commercial enterprises will start shedding expenses UNLESS I’d already been able to PROVE clear cost savings for them. If my value proposition was about generating more revenue for them, they will STILL cancel because many of their clients/prospects will not be buying right now.
  3. If I had less than 12 months of cash on hand, I’d start preserving cash NOW. TODAY. It is incredibly painful to have to lay off people who you worked so hard to recruit and train, and who have worked so hard for your shared future and vision. But you have to think about the business surviving first so you will live to fight another day and have any hope of re-hiring people later. I would triage my accounts payable and stretch my vendors to 90 days or more. I’d call and tell them I was doing that, but I had no choice if the business was going to survive.
  4. Even if I had more than 12 months cash on hand, I’d move to conserve cash immediately. I’d defer discretionary expenditures. I’d look for opportunities to reduce my non-strategic expenses like rent or other things where I may be able to renegotiate the deals.
  5. I would look for opportunities for “customer financing” – getting happy customers to pre-pay for the next 12 months of product/service and offer something special in return.
  6. If I had a revolving line of credit, I would draw it down NOW. The interest cost is small price to pay for the security of the cash.
  7. If I had a termsheet on the table or was in mid-raise with “soft circles”, I’d expect it will fail. Venture funds will continue to invest, but only after a few months go by to allow them to reassess the market dynamics and even then the valuation they offer will be much lower even if there is no apparent reason for that. Angels already have “alligator arms” and are fast shutting down all investing until they understand their own personal liquidity. They are thinking about their families and their own health since the majority of them are over 60. I’d expect them to be cautious and slow-moving for at least 6 months. I’d look to find capital from family and friends and credit cards and second mortgages to stay alive. Another option…
  8. I’d look for opportunities to sell services to customers/prospects for short-term revenue flows to keep the lights on. I’d think about where my expertise is and how I can leverage that near-term to create value for someone.

Bottom line: act fast to preserve cash so you have more options 6 or 12 months from now. Expect the situation to get far worse than you may initially think (e.g. 20% unemployment; 8-12 weeks of “social distancing”; a big viral rebound in the fall of this year; fundraising rounds taking 12-18 months). If it’s any better than that, you’ll be ahead of the game.

I will never forget how my first big exit completely fell apart in the fall of 2001 and took many months to put back together (at a lower price). Or how I had bankruptcy papers on my desk in 2008. Or the incredible pressure of having to keep my family afloat and protect my staff – many of whom had become close friends and all of whom had families of their own. In both situations, I acted too slowly, was overly optimistic about how soon things would turn around, and pushed the company too close to the edge. I was too optimistic and overly confident of my own ability to impact a market being buffeted by forces far larger than I could overcome – no matter how hard or smart I worked. 

But we adapted, learned, and thrived. You can too.

We (Frontier Angels) are huge fans of you and your team and want to help.  We are still investing. What we’re looking for are companies who A) have good market traction, B) have the ability to ratchet-down their monthly burn rate, C) are sufficiently well financed to seize opportunities in the market, and D) have CEOs who are not prone to mistaking hope for judgment. Call anytime we can help with anything.

Stay well; act fast. Remember, YOU are the core of your asset. Take care of YOU.

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It is almost deemed common sense to follow where the money is, but one must also consider where the opportunity is as well. This is where the thought leaders get a head start and  potentially receive better returns. The Rocky Mountain region is looking favorable for investing due to recent startup activity and a lack of access to capital.

Startup Activity in the RockiesScreen Shot 2016-07-13 at 10.25.26 AM

Recent startup trends are looking favorable for the Rockies. The Rocky Mountain region states are Colorado, Montana, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona, and Idaho. All of these states rank high on the Kauffman Index Startup Activity Rank for 2015.

Among these states Montana ranks #1 for 2015, and Wyoming follows at #2. Colorado ranks #4, and Nevada jumped 11 spots to place it self at #10.Screen Shot 2016-07-13 at 10.30.43 AM

Fishing for Returns

Angel investors should always consider the water they are fishing in. The Rocky Mountain region is setting itself up to look like a stocked pool. With so much start-up activity, angels can afford to be picky while also diversifying their portfolio. Not to say angels should throw their money in the area assuming one will be a home-run type of investment. Yet, they have a bigger selection to compare and contrast similar investments.

Competitive Deals
Screen Shot 2016-07-13 at 11.21.43 AM

The 2015 Annual Halo Report shows that 3 out of 4 Angels invested within their region. However, less than 18% share of all angel dollars are within the Rocky Mountain Region (this yields higher competition among the startups). Therefore, with less money coming from out of the region, and only 18% of total money within, start-ups need to build a well rounded deal to stand-out and gain an Angels attention.

(I.e. More activity doesn’t necessarily equal better returns, but it does yield more opportunity and more investment options. Always do your due diligence/invest smart, but also consider regional activity or trends.)

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Last week at the Angel Capital Summit, the Rockies Venture Club hosted the first-ever University Startup Challenge. It was the first pitch competition in Colorado specifically for students from across the state, and we were proud to host it! Since they presented to real investors at an investor conference, we were looking for the ‘most fundable companies’ instead of just business plan competition winners. These entrepreneurs are all actively working to build their company, and some have real traction in the market. They were also on equal footing with the rest of the companies at ACS for investor funding. 5 of the top universities in Colorado nominated students for the event – University of Denver, CU-Boulder, CU-Denver, University of Northern Colorado and Colorado State University.  Read more

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10.10.10 is an innovative program that combines 10 wicked problems, 10 prospective CEOs, and 10 days together in Denver. The bigger the problems the bigger the opportunities, and they’re intent on finding the most massive problems out there and empowering CEOs to create solutions. The first program launches in August, 2014 and is the first of its kind. Read more