Tag Archives: CoLab

Star Tank Recap

First things first: whether or not any of the participants at Star Tank yesterday agreed to allow their ideas and products to be highlighted in local media, I didn’t register as “media” at the event, so I’m not going to detail anybody’s pitch. Maybe I should have done so, though…I don’t think any of the working press showed up to watch.

Second things second: I saw a couple of really interesting ideas presented, but as you might expect, the most ambitious were the least finished and polished. Although I focus on tech start-ups, I’ve got to say I was most impressed by the efforts of a couple of local inventors who came in with actual physical prototypes of everyday consumer goods, including one guy who makes hammocks you attach to the trailer hitch of your truck:

On the tech side, my vote goes to Voxxel, a voice-synching application, as best in show. (I can’t find a website to link for Voxxel. Sorry. Although here is my man’s GitHub page; I’m sure you can find something about Voxxel there if you want to take the time to wade through it.) Voxxel wins because it was neat and because it had been built and worked.

Other techies included a pair of educational software presenters, neither of which had written a single line of code, and a delivery system idea (Code? No.).

So it wasn’t gangbusters, but I feel like that actually validates the premise of the need for this “tip-off” event: just because there might be good ideas floating around the Valley does not mean local entrepreneurs are ready to pitch them. So I hope the various participants will take their feedback and come back in November with more cohesive and better planned presentations.

A quick note on the crowd. There wasn’t one.

And then the Governor showed up.

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Star Tank Approaches…

The second Star Tank event at CoLab is a mere two days away, and the anticipation is running so high I’ve been vomiting for days! Could just be the flu, but hell if I ain’t excited!

So guess what I’ve gone and done for all y’all? I did some honest to goodness reporting! That’s right, I’ve cultivated a source, a real start-up Deepthroat. Heh.

Here’s what I found out: there were fewer submissions for this event than the one last fall, but there is a much higher percentage of tech start-ups pitching. Further, most of these start-ups are in the ideation/seed stage. This is opposed to the last event, where most presenters came with ideas for invented products, or existing business expansion.

Also substantially different than last time, this event is intended more as a coaching exercise than an opportunity to find viable business ideas. What was learned at the first event was that there are passionate entrepreneurs here in the Valley who do not have the business skills to successfully market themselves. Though I didn’t attend, I assume this means a bunch of dudes got up on stage just a-sweatin’ and a-stammerin’.

The idea this time around is to find the proverbial “diamond in the rough” and coach him/her up so that they can pitch more effectively in the future. This mission is less sexy than a full-on unicorn search, but potentially more useful to the larger start-up community.

In another deviation from the previous formula, this event will be open to the public and the media. I can’t say I support this idea. If you imagine Mr. Sweaty Inventor up there pitching, don’t you think additional audience members will amplify his nervousness?

I do plan to attend at least part of this event and will report back what I find, especially if I spot a sweaty diamond, regardless of whether they receive funding.

I know this bro is excited:

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XpoPitchNight, Reviewed!

Today is Wednesday, which means tonight is Xpo Wednesday at the CoLab, which means last Wednesday was XpoPitchNight, which means this post is a week late. Sorry.

Since this is somewhat less than timely, I’ll keep it brief, as you are unlikely to care any longer. Here’s the gist:

The event was less pitch-y than anticipated (by me). That is, if by “pitch-y” you mean entrepreneurs offering ideas in search of funding, and I do, so that is how we will be defining the term. And there just wasn’t much pitch-y-ness on display.

One gentleman stood athwart the stage and offered 4 business ideas he wasn’t interested in working on.

Another fellow dispassionately proposed a bike sharing idea.

…and that was it! At least from a pitch-y perspective.

There were other ideas, but they weren’t about tech start-up, billion-dollar-business kind of stuff. For instance, one dude pitched the idea of building a viewing deck/platform off the side of the Wasena Bridge. Why? No idea. It was kind of cool, though.

In summation, the event was not what I had anticipated or hoped for, but it was sort of fun anyway. Goes to show you, Ms. Jackson, that you can plan a pretty picnic, but you can’t predict the weather. Or more precisely, you can plan a pretty pitch night, but you can’t predict the pitch-y-ness.

There is another XpoPitchNight in the works for June. I’m fairly certain it will be fun, and I hope it will be pitch-y. I can assure you of this: the event was clearly enough of a success that time slots WILL fill up, so if you are a start-up looking for funding (it is possible!) or just looking to polish your knob pitch in front of a friendly crowd, contact Ariel at the CoLab post haste!

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Human Venture Capital

[Note: I teased this post awhile ago and said I needed to research appropriate links to insert. Well, that never happened. This draft has been waiting for publishing for more than 2 weeks. I’m going with it.]

I’ve been mulling a concept I call Human Venture Capital. A quick googilation shows many others have come up with this “unique” phrasing, but it seems generally to be applied to corporate headhunting. As in, “We’re venture capitalists who happen to invest in people!”

Clever.

But I have a different formulation in mind.

What got me thinking about this was this article that ran in the Roanoke Times. It made a painfully obvious point: we don’t have enough venture capital here in the Valley to spread around as start-up money. That means all the resources that have been devoted, in a top-down fashion, from regional partnerships and local heavyweights to attract and retain IT talent and companies has and will be largely wasted, at least insofar as it is intended to build a local tech economy. They are destined to fail because they do not adequately address basic realities of human existence, e.g. needing money to eat, yet lacking that money, from the period of idea generation until a demonstration of minimum viability attracts the notice of potential investors.

Local groups and partnerships, whether you are talking about 460Angels or Innovation Network, that want to invest in the growth of our local economy do so in the most traditional and least effective way, by seeking to partner with smart and promising businesses.

But “start-up culture” is most fundamentally about a time pre-incorporation. In other words, start-up culture qua culture is about people, and the ideas in the heads of those people, NOT businesses.   It is about, like, a vibe, man.

This is important for Roanoke because, unlike New York or San Francisco, or Austin or DC, it just does not often happen that a logical, thoughtful decision is made to base or grow an IT business here. Again, for extremely obvious reasons: a talent deficit and a lack of capital at the early seed stage.

This may sound a bit circular, and it is, but I think we can get clarity with a concrete example.

If you have a bright and ambitious entrepreneur coming through Virginia Tech, and he wants to start a tech company, what are his options? He can stay in Blacksburg and try to make a go of it, or he can take his idea to the Other Valley. Our local bigwigs want him to stay, keeping his big brain and his youth in our slow, graying area – obviously. But consider his obstacles: he needs help and he needs money.

Here is where you need to actually consider the nitty gritty details, and why it is unrealistic to expect start-up successes without first inculcating a supportive start-up culture:

Let’s assume he has graduated. He now has to pay rent, pay student loans, buy food. He has bills. We’ll be generous in this example and assume his parents are helping him out with those basics.

Ok, he still needs computer crap, servers and whatnot, and office space. Let’s assume here servers are cheap and office space is fairly affordable (Blacksburg does have TechPad, etc.). So far so good.

Then he needs help, employees. Apart from just the bare minimum in terms of being able to pay their own bills, the average employee wants to make a decent living, especially an employee who has the ever-so-in-demand skills needed by a tech startup. But, again, we’re going to give our example man every advantage in this scenario and say that the employees, in addition to being skilled, are also his friends, believing in his vision and willing to work for free.

Take a minute to consider the example so far: a skilled team of professionals without bills willing to work for free. Oh, and they need to maintain this for one year to 18 months.

Does this sound like a common scenario?

And yet, this is the sort of thing that that the aforementioned regional heavyweights are looking for, “young” companies with “scaleable” ideas. In other words, the end product you’d see from a dedicated team after more than a year of hard work.

PLUS!, this team still has to be in Blacksburg, Virginia, at the end of that year, because if they have decamped to NoVA or San Fran, they sure as hell aren’t coming back. (And yet, this is actually the least far-fetched part of the dream scenario, because the cost of living here is really attractive, and if you have the drive and ambition, a year in Blacksburg is probably the same cost as two months in the Bay Area.)

Still, I can’t totally condemn the 460Angels’ and Innovation Networks out there, because this scenario does play out with enough regularity to inspire optimism. In fact, from a purely investment standpoint, this might actually be a strategy preferable to the one faced by VCs in the Other Valley, because if you can step in and invest in a group of guys who have toiled away in obscurity for a year in Blacksburg, for free, then you know you are dealing with a truly dedicated team. However, as the backbone of an economic development strategy for an entire region aspiring to tech relevance, this is pure nonsense…we’re talking about a handful of people. Like, literally 20-30 guys per year come out of Virginia Tech and attempt to start IT businesses, and few of those are going to last a year. Does the Roanoke-Blacksburg-NRV need or deserve the Innovation Network, Third Security, the Virginia Tech Corporate Research initiatives, etcetera etcetera, for TWENTY or THIRTY unpaid jobs per year?

Wait wait wait! No, of course I don’t want to see these resources vanish! I just want to see them doing a better job at, you know, start-up-y things.

Which brings me back to my notion of Human Venture Capital and our example man. What if, instead of waiting to lavish a couple of million dollars on that one Mr. Example who happens to make it a year, we helped a few guys – and gals; let’s not be sexist, y’all – actually make a go of it that first year? Instead of waiting to invest in the companies, we make an upfront investment in the people?

“Pray tell, kind sir, how do we do this?” Easier than you think, and WAAAAAY cheaper than two million bucks: you buy a house or two near TechPad in Blacksburg and CoLab in Roanoke, and you let tech entrepreneurs have a year rent-free. Done.

And I truly do mean it as being just that simple. It would be nice if there was an additional stipend for food, but not necessary…it’s just that start-ups take so much time that it would be nice if we could spare these entrepreneurs the necessity of getting a part time job, but, eh.

And think of the chasm between the risks taken on by the investors in these two scenarios: you invest in a start-up that fails, you get nothing; you invest in a “hostel,” well, either way, you own a house. And the difference in strategy: a huge outlay of cash as a bet on highly leveraged returns, versus a sensible real estate investment for $10,000.

And when I say “you” I mean YOU. You can be a venture capitalist in our burgeoning tech scene. And given the community-focused effort involved, you can do so as a B corp and get tax advantages. Dope.

I’m not saying anything, I’m just sayin’.

But what I’m saying is this: we need to start smaller, but casting a wider net. Worst case scenario, we have more young people stick around town for a year after graduation without accomplishing much. That doesn’t sound too awful, does it?

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#XpoPitchNight

Howdy, y’all.

Miss me?

I’ve actually got a really long piece mostly finished, but I need to add links and crap…research is a chore, man.

In the mean time, wanted to write a quick note about an upcoming event, one week from today, at Grandin CoLab called #XpoPitchNight. Why the hashtag? Because as of now, it really only seems to exist on Twitter.

Details are sketchy: open to all, presenters get 5 minutes to make a pitch. “About?” Good question. Again, details are sketchy. But the overall idea seems to be to get interesting people to get up and say interesting things.

Interesting is good, n’es pas?

Come out and get some.

And then, head on down to Liquorville (Sidewinders) and see this guy play an acoustic set for 10 bucks:

When I first heard this on the radio, I thought, that’s a damn catchy tune. That was about a month ago, and then I kept hearing it and hearing it. I liked it, but it was one of those situations where the DJ wasn’t saying his name (or I didn’t catch it) so I didn’t know who dude was. Finally, I heard his name: Michael Ray. So I YouTube’d him.

…yeah.

BOLD PREDICTION: This guy ends up marrying Taylor Swift. You heard it here first.

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Filed under Roanoke Start-ups, Start-up culture, Tunes

The Little Coworking Space That Could: the “unpublishable first draft” edition

You’re about to read a list.

MovelineThe Black Sheep; Heyo; BeHealth SolutionsVirtualU; Marketing Stick; Skill-capped; Ace of Sales; Rural System and Koofers.

What do these have in common? They are all IT start-ups and alumni of TechPad in Blacksburg. There are actually many more companies listed, but they either didn’t have clickable links from TechPad’s member page or the links were dead.

Even if you don’t know anything about these companies or their viability, that is a pretty impressive list.

I’m not sure where I’m going with this. It would be tempting but lazy to compare TechPad with CoLab in Roanoke and say, “See! Blacksburg is a more natural fit for tech start-ups; just look at that long list and compare to the – shall we say – meager start-up offerings on tap at CoLab!”

That would be a jerk thing to do, though, because all indications are that CoLab really is succesful. They don’t turn paying members away at the door just because their business ideas don’t revolve around disruption and/or unicorns (those are buzzwords, y’all). CoLab is a place for all kinds of workers and small businesses. It’s inclusive!

So, yeah, why AM I writing about TechPad…maybe if I keep tapping away at the keyboard there will be magic. Beep boop bop boop beep…

Nothing yet…

Oh, I know: coworking. Yeah…yeah!

Here’s the thing, right, about coworking or whatever:

:::

:::fuck it, I lost my train of thought.

Did I mention that I hit my head doing pull-ups at the gym tonight? True story. I pulled my head right up into the bar. And I’ve got beastly strength, too. Probably gave myself brain damage like a boss.

Write more tomorrow? Question mark…

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Filed under Blacksburg Start-ups, Coworking, Pointless musings

Shart Tank!!!

How all y’all doin this morning? Peachy, I hope and pray.

Have you heard the latest about Shart Star Tank? No? Have you not heard of Star Tank? Allow me to enlighten you:

Star Tank is like that show “Shark Tank,” where randoms walk in off the street and pitch business ideas to a panel of potential investors, the only differences being that it is in Roanoke and instead of Mark Cuban you get to meet Mark Lucas and/or Mark Pace. And don’t ask why it is called “Star” Tank…you’re better than that.

Anyhoo, this version they are doing May 14th at the CoLab in Grandin will differ from the one they did last November (and will do again this coming November) in that this event “will focus on business development by allowing start-ups, inventors, and entrepreneurs the opportunity to present their pitch and receive feedback.” That sounds totally different to me so I believe them that it is totally different and not exactly the same thing they’ve done before.

I personally love the idea of a local venue for start-ups to polish their pitch, potentially pitch polish, and certainly pitch woo. Seriously, I do! Is it a bit hokey, er, “hokie” (get it? GET IT?), to just balls-out copy this dumb tv show? Yes, but it also seems like fun, and really helpful even if you fall on your face.

As it happens, I walked into CoLab last November when they held the inaugural event. Didn’t have a clue what the hell was going on. They had a couple of banners hanging on the walls and a bunch of nervous, suited gentlemen walking around toting white binders. And that is the sum total of my reportage from Star Tank #1! I’d have taken more extensive notes had I realized I’d soon be starting a world-famous blog.

Here, now read more words: Since I’m not a journalist, I don’t feel like I need to make any stinkin’ disCLOsures to you beetches, but I will anyway because I like you, so you might be interested to know that I have met a few of the judges on the panel, I know everyone who works for and at CoLab, and I’m vaguely considering getting my “stuff” together and presenting my own biz idea at this shindig in May. ‘Nuff said.

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