Friday, October 16, 2009

Response to Jason Calacanis' Attack on Mike Segal & Private Equity Forumss

I know Mike Segal of Private Equity Forums and we even promote his events. So let me stick up for him in this way: his events bring out-of-town investors and entrepreneurs to New York. That is his strong suit and has been doing that well for years, filling up room after room with investors and entrepreneurs. He deals with what I call pedigreed starts-ups: people who have serious experience in their fields, have put a good amount of money into it and can afford to pay to be in this league. Dotcoms are a small part of his world - most of his Entrepreneurs have biotech, heavy engineering, energy, packaged goods or financial services businesses.

These obey very different rules from the digital world that Jason and his cohort inhabit – so before we get into some version of class war let’s understand that we are dealing with other classes of new enterprise.

As the organizer of the iBreakfast I should state that we run very modestly-priced start-up events and we give our winning entrepreneurs tickets to Mike Segal’s events so they can see what his world looks like. Some of it is familiar but a lot of it is very different – his investors usually look for revenue, tangible assets, assumable debt and a host of things dotcoms start-ups are oblivious to.

I can’t argue with Jason or anyone that access to investors ought to be Free. Why not? If Fred Wilson or Steve Jurvetson wants to see you – go ahead. They might even throw in a VitaminWater or buy you lunch. But unless you’re a serial entrepreneur and were recommended to them, the chances are the don’t want to see you. So events like Mike Segal’s and to some extent, the iBreakfast have emerged put you right in front of investors and get you into the general recommendation system. By organizing it into a marketplace they are entitled to charge what the market will bear. In that respect Mike is no different from a trade show producer or the Wall Street broker that takes his commission and the spread.

If you think he is charging too much – don’t pay. The iBreakfast offers a low-cost pitching event that grooms, educates and gives start-ups access to investors for a nominal $125. We don’t market it like crazy but then we also don’t pack dozens and dozens of investors into one place. So take your pick. As for the groups that do it more or less free, go to them – but they are probably oversubscribed and they’ll make you wait.

So, should one approach drive out the other or should all of these coexist?

If Jason can attract Investors and Entrepreneurs from all over the region – or the country to an event, do it on a regular basis and give it away for Free, I say more power to him. I might have a plan or two I’d like to trot out myself.

But keep in mind a few things. Free often drives out the good. Without a financial incentive there is a good chance the forum will run out of steam. Even if the forum continues, they still have to add some kind of value that makes it worthwhile for the investors to show up and for the best pitches to rise to the top. If they can do that, Free may win. Even so, many companies would still rather pay for all kinds of reasons like speed to the investor market or controlling their destiny.

A big question is why would Jason do it for Free. I buy his “sticking up for the hood” motive up to a point, but the real deal is publicity for his Mahalo “people powered” pedicab of a search engine, he needs to attract contributors, fire up his base them up and make them feel important.

As for the profit motive, well excuse me, Jason had no trouble charging over $1,000 for his Silicon Alley conferences when he could – thereby keeping good information and contacts away from the needy. Tech Crunch 50 is not Free. So why should these organizers behave differently? If Mike Segal can save his Entrepreneurs from traveling all over the country just to see investors and get the word out at once, then there is a value in it. Something like a road show in one place. Plus, many investors take this kind of effort seriously and see this as separating these Entrepreneurs from the pack – those which just can’t afford the effort and therefore may not be as viable.

That’s why these events take place at fancy ballrooms and not at a taco stand – it makes people take these presentations seriously. Maybe the investor should be paying for the lunch but the market dictates otherwise. Trust me, the doctor who just prescribed Jason his self-righteousness pills didn’t pay for his own lunch either if he didn’t want to. The drug company was happy to pick up that tab. More importantly, if an Entrepreneur is flying in from Minneapolis, Free starts to look very iffy while a paid event says “this is happening” and his time and travel costs will not be wasted on a flake out. Likewise, investors realize their time is unlikely to be wasted by people who are not really committed to their new enterprise.

Having said all that, I actually welcome Free because it forces the paid guys to do a better job or else. Plus it gives the posers a chance to discover their real selves before they do something silly like empty their trust funds.

As to which approach is really better – let’s say they are different and serve different purposes that may ultimately harmonize. A free event favors just-out-of-college start-ups with those big moonshot ideas like the next Twitter, iPhone Killer App or Search Engine (know of any?) Few succeed but the ones that do, make it really big. They change the world.

Paid events favor the seasoned player – the pedigreed start-up that has 10 years of experience in a field, often a mundane one where they see the real opportunity in their space, know the players, the customers and so on. There is less pizzazz and few ground-shaking ideas. The payoff is more earthly but to the investor, is also a safer bet.

The true serial (and successful) entrepreneur which includes Jason, only has to pick up the phone. The sensible entrepreneur has to know which category they belong in before they choose their path but they all have their place.

My prediction – a year from now, all these forums will exists in one way or another. All will do a better job and all will charge about the same – even the Free.

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