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Silicon Valley Hustle: Former Motionloft CEO Accused Of Defrauding Investors


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Silicon Valley Hustle: Former Motionloft CEO Accused Of Defrauding Investors

Thanks to a series of high-profile exits and a generally frothy financing environment, it’s not unusual to see startup founders spending money lavishly these days. But the story of Motionloft and its founder Jon Mills could serve as a cautionary tale, especially for unsavvy investors drawn to a big payout.

On the surface, Mills seemed like a successful entrepreneur. His company, Motionloftprovided real-world analytics for store and property owners who needed to analyze pedestrian and vehicle traffic that passed by their respective establishments.

Mills was a first-time entrepreneur, but he had received backing from high-profile investors like Mark Cuban, and according to the Motionloft website, the company had secured clients like CVS, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Cushman & Wakefield.

Several former friends say Mills was also fun to be around and generous about inviting them to party with him at various music festivals and in places like Las Vegas.

All of which is why, when Mills started asking friends if they wanted to invest in his company, a few of them jumped at the opportunity.

They say Mills cashed checks that altogether were worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, promising them a small percentage of the company. Later, when he told them an acquisition was imminent, they felt confident they had made the right decision.

Mills is no longer part of Motionloft, and the validity of the investments his friends made while he was there is being called into question by earlier investors. As a result, after months of waiting, those friends now believe that not only was there no acquisition, but that it is possible they won’t get any of their money back.

We’ve spoken with Mills, and the former CEO admits to leaving the company in November. But he also says that all money he took as investment from friends was legitimate and used for company expenses, and he denies telling friends the company was going to be acquired.

New Investors

It all started in early 2013. Around the time of the Super Bowl, sources say Mills told some friends he had a couple of Motionloft “advisor points” he could use at will, enabling them to buy a small percentage of the company. For some, he also dangled the possibility of an acquisition that would make the investment pay off.

“He told me, ‘Mark Cuban said to pick two good friends who could afford [the advisor points],’” said one former friend, who we’ll call “Stephanie.” (Several of our sources have asked us not to use their real names.) “He said, ‘Give it to Motionloft, and come June you’ll get a percentage of the sale.’”

Stephanie (again, not her real name), was a friend of Mills’ girlfriend and had spent a lot of time with him over the previous two years. She trusted him enough to empty out her savings account and write a check for $20,000. Mills then promised her documents showing she was a shareholder in the company soon after, but she says that paperwork never came.

To celebrate, she was asked to join Mills and his then-girlfriend, along with some others, on a trip to Coachella that included a ride in a private jet and stay in a rented villa outside the music festival.

Mills claims that Stephanie was given a convertible promissory note in February, and his attorney has sent us a copy of the contract. It is dated February 21, 2013, the date that she made her investment.

jets

Jon Mills and entourage loading up two private jets for a trip to Palm Springs.

Stephanie wasn’t alone in being asked to invest, nor was she the only friend and investor that Mills took on expensive trips. Throughout the spring and summer of 2013, Mills courted other investors to the company from his group of friends.

Another former friend, who we’ll call “Jason,” tells a similar story. In April he was asked if he wanted to invest, and was told that the money would be used as a bridge loan to cover Motionloft expenses.

Jason ended up writing a couple of checks for a total of $200,000, but unlike the earlier investor we spoke with, he received paperwork to confirm his investment.

No one seems to know exactly how much Mills collected during the period in which he was soliciting money from them. Jason and Stephanie know of a few others within their group of friends and that they were invited to events with.

But so far, most have declined to share even with each other how much they invested for the same reason everyone we talked to didn’t want their names to be used for this article — that is, they are all embarrassed that they fell for what they now believe was a series of lies by Mills.

“As far as how much money was raised, Jon is the only one who really knows,” one of them told me.

Unlike Stephanie, not everyone invested because they were told an acquisition was imminent. A couple of people we talked to believed in the Motionloft business. But in the fall, Mills began telling people who had invested that the company had been sold and they should expect a payout soon.

Jason shared with us copies of text messages that Mills had sent him, some as early as mid-October, in which Mills boasted that the company had been sold. Mills showed Jason an incoming pending transfer of $37.7 million for his share of the company, and said the friend’s stake was worth $2.9 million.

Mills denies ever telling people that the company had been acquired and claims the texts as they appear below were written by someone else.

texts1

But Jason isn’t the only person claiming Mills told them Motionloft had been acquired. Stephanie and another source, who we’ll call Matthew, confirmed that they were also told the startup had been sold.

“He told us, ‘The company has been sold, you guys are all millionaires,’” Matthew said. For those who had invested in the previous months, the deal seemed too good to be true.

It wasn’t until later that they found out it was indeed too good to be true, and that Mills had been lying about the acquisition all along. There was no big payout coming.

What Happens In Vegas

Mills had a habit of inviting friends to join him for opulent parties, dinners and trips. Sources say that in a strange way, his profligate spending was part of the reason they felt confident investing in his company.

After all, he wouldn’t be spending tens of thousands of dollars a night at clubs if Motionloft weren’t doing well.

But the same spendthrift behavior that once assured them when writing checks to invest in Motionloft also eventually led them to believe that something was amiss.

It all came to a head in late November 2013 when Mills invited about a dozen friends to join him and his then-girlfriend in Las Vegas for a weekend to celebrate her birthday and the acquisition, which Mills said had finally closed.

It was the third such trip that Mills had taken people on over the course of several weeks, and it was the most excessive of the bunch.

Over the course of a few days, Mills racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars in expenses that included private jets, a penthouse suite at the Palms, and extravagant dinners.

Stephanie tells us that she had reservations about going on the trip at first. She had little money in her bank account and was waiting for the long-promised sale of Motionloft to finally close.

The reason she went — besides the fact that it was to celebrate her friend’s birthday — was that she was hoping to find time to confront Mills and ask for some of her money back. But there never came a good time to approach him. Sources we spoke with who were on the Vegas trip say that Mills seemed agitated the whole time.

His behavior, especially when it came to money, also raised red flags among some of his friends. For instance, Mills had booked private charters for his friends to fly into and out of Vegas and was staying in the penthouse suite at the Palms, but guests were asked to book their own rooms.

There was also the occasion of a large, expensive dinner at Hakkasan in the MGM Grand. With two tables and plenty of drinks and dinner, the tab came out to nearly $20,000. But Mills arrived late to his own party and left early, meaning that it ended up on Jason’s credit card instead.

miguel

Jon Mills booked R&B singer Miguel for a private performance, which sources say cost $100,000.

The reason Mills left early was so that he could prepare the suite for the coup de grâce of his expensive weekend retreat. When his guests finally arrived back at the suite, they were treated to a private performance by R&B singer Miguel.

After spending the entire trip seeming preoccupied, it wasn’t until the private concert that Mills finally cracked a smile, Stephanie told me.

“It was like he was thinking, ‘I did this. I made this happen,’” she said.

Fallout

After realizing how much the previous few days had cost, the friends who had once written checks to invest in Mills’ company began to wonder when they would get their share of the proceeds.

Mills, in an effort to alleviate their fears, showed them what appeared to be the dashboard of his online bank account. It had $38 million in it. Their portion of the payout, he said, would be coming soon.

Below is a photo of the checking account balance Mills showed to others we spoke with. He denies that the phone is his, saying he never owned one with a crack in it.

That much is true: The photo is actually of a screenshot he shared with Stephanie. The reason she took a photo of her phone, she tells us, is that Mills wanted to share his good fortune with her, but told her she needed to delete the screen shot immediately after seeing it. She deleted it, but not before taking a photo of it on her screen.

mills account balance

Nevertheless, some on the trip began to wonder why they kept having to foot the bill if Mills was so flush with cash. After the Miguel performance, according to people who were invited, some guests began to confront Mills about money he owed them for personal expenses.

For instance, Jason, who got stuck with the previous night’s tab, confronted Mills. He said to Jon, “You just got all of this money, why did you stick me with the club bill?”

Mills promised they would get their share of the sale soon, but the wires never appeared in their bank accounts. Moreover, the group soon began to suspect that Mills wasn’t paying other bills.

Sources say the private performance by Miguel, which cost $100,000, was never paid for. That was also true of the private jet charters, which included three separate flights into Vegas and four flights out, and cost nearly $100,000 altogether.

Justin Sullivan is the CEO of Private FLITE, the private jet service Mills used to charter the flights in November. He told me that Mills promised several days in a row he would pay for those flights by wire and later told Sullivan he would FedEx a check. Neither came.

After multiple attempts to reach Mills on the phone, Sullivan confronted Mills at his house to demand payment. Mills then wrote two checks for a total of nearly $294,000, but both bounced, Sullivan told me.

Sullivan then created a website called JonMillsFraud.com in which he has uploaded copies of the receipts for Mills’ trips, as well as screen shots of his own text conversations with Mills.

He also began reaching out to other people who had been on the charters and found many of them were also owed money by Mills. Seemingly all at once, everyone began to feel like they had been duped.

motionloft tshirt

One investor had this T-shirt made after things went bad.

A Plea To The Board

With little other recourse, some of those who gave checks to Mills turned to Motionloft’s original investors who confirmed their fears: There was no acquisition pending. There was not even a conversation with an acquirer, they had been told.

In retrospect, some wonder why Mills told them the company was about to be acquired, especially those who invested, because they believed Motionloft was a solid, viable business.

Jason and Matthew both told me that they wouldn’t have realized anything was amiss if Mills hadn’t boasted that a deal had been done or took the group on the trip to Vegas.

After they figured out something was up, Mills’ friends seeking to be repaid the money they invested in the company went to Mark Cuban. According to our sources, they were told the company had no record of their investments.

Apparently Mills and co-founder Chris Garrison had created a separate checking account from the company’s main account when they began soliciting funds from outside investors. Mills has confirmed this is true, but claims this second account was only ever used for company expenses.

Not everyone who gave Mills money has documentation to prove it, except for cancelled checks written out to Motionloft. Those who do have paperwork have been told by the board that its validity is questionable. We took a look at the paperwork that was given to one investor, and passed it by an attorney to review.

We were told that the document, which is structured as a convertible promissory note, appears to be legitimate, although it was not exactly a “well-written contract.”

Our sources have been told, however, that Mills had no authority to sell any shares without the board’s approval, unless they were his own. We’ve obtained a copy of the original investment agreement between Motionloft and investor Mark Cuban, dated June 30, 2010, which states that the company cannot issue any securities or guarantee any debt without Cuban’s prior written consent.

In an email exchange obtained by TechCrunch between Jason and Motionloft investor Mark Cuban in late November, Cuban wrote:

“Motionloft can only be responsible for what Motionloft has paperwork for… Anything that Jon has done that is reckless or illegal is Jon’s responsibility. Not Motionloft’s.”

Those who received documentation had been issued convertible notes that mature a year after they were issued. Those notes come due beginning early next year and throughout the summer, but Motionloft might not be able to pay them off at that time.

Later in the email exchange we obtained, Cuban said that the company had no money to repay those who Mills received investment from. In fact, he wrote that he would likely have to recapitalize the company to keep it going.

mills cuban

Jon Mills with investor Mark Cuban at SXSWi 2013.

“The company is bankrupt,” Cuban wrote. “I had to put up a credit card yesterday so they would not get kicked out of their offices for 30 days. They have no cash. I’m trying to figure out how to keep them in business.”

In that exchange about six weeks ago, Cuban also urged the person who contacted him not to go to the police until he had a chance to “figure out what is going on” and “see where i can take this.” He wrote:

“If we go right to the authorities and it becomes an issue that drains resources than it hurts our chance to do anything… I can’t handicap the odds of any of us, but my guess, and its only a guess is that if it becomes a police matter in the short term, it gets much harder.”

That’s one reason why those affected have held off on getting the authorities involved. Those I’ve spoken with recognize that contacting the police or going public with the story would reduce the likelihood of either Mills or Motionloft paying them back.

In the weeks that have passed since they first contacted Cuban, we’ve been told that communications have hit a stand-still. Whatever hope investors had a month ago that Motionloft and its earlier investors would honor Mills’ agreements have since been quashed.

Cuban declined to comment, except to confirm that Mills is no longer associated with Motionloft. Indeed, Mills’ name and bio disappeared from the company’s management team page shortly after his trip to Vegas. But for those who invested, it was already too late.

Denial

As for Mills, he categorically denies all the claims against him. When we first reached out to him on December 23, he pleaded for more time to collect documents which he claimed would prove his innocence.

In the next few days, Mills only sent a limited screenshot of an Excel spreadsheet — presumably meant to show that the investments people made went into the same bank account that Mills used for expenses — and a canceled check from that account that Mills claims was to pay for Motionloft’s rent.

On December 26, Mills began working with Los Angeles-based attorney Marty Singer, who I’ve been speaking with ever since. Singer, in case you haven’t heard of him, is the “pitbull attorney” celebrities turn to in times of crisis. He’s the guy Charlie Sheen called in his dispute against Warner Brothers, for instance, and he represented Scarlett Johansson when nude photos of her hit the Internet.

Mills’ attorney sent me a copy of Stephanie’s promissory note to show that Mills had a record of her investment, although she still claims she hasn’t received it, and her signature is not on the document. Singer also sent me a prepared statement from the following statement from Mills:

The investors’ money was all deposited into company accounts and it was used for company expenses. I never told them that the company was being acquired. I did not send the text messages as they appear in the screen shots. The text messages shown to me by you were created by another person. Also, I never had a phone with a cracked screen. I last worked for Motionloft during the last week of November.”

However, Mills’ statement came after Jason sent me a series of texts asking for more time before we published this story. He said the extra time was necessary so that his attorney could speak with Mills’ attorney. When I told him that we couldn’t guarantee that, he sent a text retracting his previous statements.

“Until the attorneys speak, I retract everything. I made it all up,” Jason wrote.

made it up

Text conversation between Jason and Jon Mills.

The email containing Mills’ statement, which was sent after Jason’s retraction, also contained the following note:

Also attached (below) is a text message from [Jason] sent to my client today, confirming that he made up the text that you sent to our firm earlier today. Therefore, to the extent that you are relying on any information from [him], he is an unreliable source, since he has confirmed that he created a phony text to justify your story against our client Mr. Mills.

I trust that you will not defame our client.

When I sent Jason a screenshot of the statement I received from Singer, along with the word “Thanks,” he responded: “Are you being sarcastic? His lawyer is up my ass.”

In the several weeks that I’ve been speaking with Jason, he didn’t strike me as the type to make up a story this elaborate, let alone create and backdate a series of phony text messages. It’s also not clear how Mills could have known who sent me the texts in question, if they had been written by someone else.

More importantly, however, Jason’s statements, and the documents and texts he provided, correspond with evidence we received from other sources, which is why we’ve decided to include them.

At the end of the day, Jason is just a guy who gave money to Jon Mills and wants it back. In that respect, he’s not alone.

Featured image: Floris M. Oosterveld via Compfight cc. Photo of Jon Mills and Mark Cuban from Jon Mills’ Twitter account. Photo of Jon Mills and Miguel from JonMillsFraud.com. All other photos provided by sources.

http://techcrunch.com/2013/12/30/motionloft-jon-mills/

 

A Close Encounter with a Pay-to-Pitch Investor


Oh, the people you’ll meet raising money

There’s a rotating cast of bullshit artists encountered while building a company. Vendor New Biz Guy promises seamless API integration, but he doesn’t know what API stands for. SEO Expert Bot thought you might like to know some reasons why you are not getting enough Social Media and Organic search engine traffic, but … you’re not really replying to those emails, are you?

Perhaps most dangerous though, is the Investor who boasts of big checks and high-level connections, but … you have to pony up if you want to talk. What follows is a peek at an actual encounter we had with one such investor while raising our seed round for Bombfell last year.

Quick context: we meet PayMeFirst Investor, who says he represents a club of wealthy investors and celebrities, at a trade show. On a call, he tells us that as part of their investment process, we would pay $2,500 to host a party for these wealthy investors and celebs so that we can talk to them. Wait, what?

We decide to end discussions there, sending what we think to be a pretty polite email:

Shortly thereafter, PayMeFirst replies:

“Everybody,” take “cover”!

Written by

Co-founder @Bombfell (@500Startups ‘12). Lacking in smarts, making up for it with false humility.

 

Let yourself fail


Admitting to fail was the hardest thing I ever had to do. At the same time, it was the most valuable and learning experience in my entire life.

Image representing TechCrunch as depicted in C...

Image via CrunchBase

 

I’ve always considered myself a very lucky person. I started my first company kind of by accident at the age of 15. Now I run three companies, all of them co-founded with the best friends. I enjoy the journey very much, I’m healthy and young, I have great family and friends.

Not that long ago, I wasn’t used to failure.

At the age of 18, I thought: let’s make something even bigger. Let’s create a global product, get investors onboard and make it huge. I read on TechCrunch that this is what cool kids are doing these days. MyGuidie started at 1st Warsaw Startup Weekend. Amazing team, great idea, big vision… We built a product, we got some traction, we won international startup competitions. I was already a well-known polish entrepreneur at the time, so we got a pretty big coverage and we gained some investors attention. We even sold 1% of shares on the auction and that got us a lot of hype and coverage in press or national tv. We were on the top of the world for a while but at the same time we didn’t stop working hard on getting more traction.

And we still failed. From the very top all the way down.

I closed this startup more than one and a half year ago and it was single, most learning experience I had in my life. I’m sure everyone who failed can say exactly the same.

source

Read more – > https://medium.com/lessons-learned/5ef5adcd05f8

 

 

fff-shark

THE FRENZY


Funding Feeding FrenzyBill Blair - special correspondent –

as told to John Jonelis

Bill Blaire here. Mr. Jonelis wants I should go to this FUNDING FEEDING FRENZY thing. Says I’m gonna give a completely different slant compared to the resta this crowd here. I cut my teeth in the Local #1 Boilermakers, then as a Cement Contractor till I packed up my tools fer good. Continue reading

Files photograph of a Dell laptop computer in New York

Icahn, Southeastern mount challenge to Dell buyout


Files photograph of a Dell laptop computer in New York

(Reuters) – Carl Icahn and Southeastern Asset Management Inc have mounted an aggressive challenge to Michael Dell’s controversial $24.4 billion offer to take Dell Inc private, offering $21 billion in cash to shareholders while vying to wrest control of the company from its co-founder.

Michael Dell, major shareholders such as Southeastern and billionaire activist investor Icahn are waging a battle over the future of the world’s third largest personal computer maker, once a tech-industry high flyer, but now struggling to evolve as people embrace smartphones and tablet computers.

Michael Dell and private equity firm Silver Lake want to take the company private for $13.65 per share, making it the largest buyout since the 2008 financial crisis. But many shareholders, including Southeastern and T. Rowe Price, complain that offer severely undervalues the company.

Instead, Icahn and Southeastern, two of Dell’s biggest shareholders, proposed a deal that gives shareholders $12 of cash for every share they own, as well as allow them to keep their stock. Given that they retain their stake in the company and that the rival offer is for $13.65 a share, every stock owned takes on a value of $1.65, Icahn and Southeastern argue. (r.reuters.com/tug97t)

At $12 apiece, the cash portion of Icahn’s and Southeastern’ s offer will come to $21 billion.

Should Dell’s board rebuff them and put the go-private offer to a shareholder vote, the pair will nominate a slate of 12 directors to challenge the current board. In an interview with CNBC on Friday, the activist investor said Michael Dell will no longer run the company should his slate of candidates be elected.

The initial reaction from shareholders was favorable, though some investors hoped the latest offer would prompt Michael Dell to offer a counter. David Moon, Chairman of Moon Capital Management in Knoxville, Tennessee, said his firm sold its Dell shares weeks ago and warned that failure to secure any sort of deal might send Dell’s shares back to $10 a share, before Michael Dell’s takeover offer.

Mario Gabelli, chief executive of Gamco Investors Inc, said via e-mail he would vote in favor of the latest proposal. On Twitter, he wrote it was a “good alternative” to a leveraged buy-out. Gabelli investment funds own about 5.2 million Dell shares, latest filings show.

“It’s improvement. It gives people a choice. The other (proposal) comes across like a ramrod,” said Donald Yacktman, founder and CEO of Yacktman Asset Management which holds 14.8 million shares, according to Thomson Reuters data. “Whichever way things evolve, what this is doing is forcing better capital allocation than we have seen in the last five years.”

On Friday, Icahn again suggested Michael Dell would be the biggest beneficiary of his own proposed buyout, which would exclude current shareholders from participating in the fruits of his restructuring effort.

Icahn’s offer “gives us the opportunity to continue our participation in Dell’s operating business and thus we believe it to be superior,” said Tim Piechowski, associate portfolio manager, Alpine Capital Research, St Louis, Missouri, which owned 2.5 million shares as of May 10.

Dell shares were up 0.7 percent at $13.42 in late trade.

VISION

Icahn argued in a letter sent to Dell’s board and made public in a filing on Friday that Dell operates a large enterprise-focused computing business in addition to its ailing PC division, with strong ties Microsoft Corp and Intel Corp. Without specifying details, he also said cost savings could be had from merging assembly plants across the world, while there remained opportunities to spin off non-core businesses.

That echoed Michael Dell’s own strategic vision for a company he hopes to transform from a purveyor of low-margin PCs into a global provider of high-margin services for enterprises.

As for Southeastern, past filings show the fund management firm run by Mason Hawkins bought into Dell’s shares at about $16.88, meaning a huge loss were they to accept a buyout.

Icahn told Reuters on Friday he will personally contribute a couple of billion dollars to finance a $5.2 billion bridge loan needed to effect his deal. He added that he had already reached out to several investment bankers. Later, he told CNBC in a TV interview that one of those investment banks included Jefferies, which would contribute $1.6 billion to the loan.

Jefferies & Co declined to comment.

The Icahn and Southeastern challenge comes after Blackstone LP ended its pursuit of Dell in April, and pulled out a month after it teamed up with Icahn to challenge the take-private attempt.

It was “insulting to shareholders’ intelligence for the board to tell them that this board only has the best interests of shareholders at heart,” Icahn and Southeastern said in the letter. “We are often cynical about corporate boards, but this Board has brought that cynicism to new heights.”

Dell said in a statement on Friday that its special committee is reviewing the Southeastern Asset materials and will provide comment in “due course.” A representative for Silver Lake declined to comment.

“I don’t think Icahn and Southeastern have enough sway over the shareholders,” Raymond James analyst Brian Alexander said. “As Dell has a lot of cash, (the latest deal) is basically like a leveraged private equity deal, without the company going private.”

Both Icahn and Southeastern said they would take shares rather than cash. They would finance the proposal from existing cash and about $5.2 billion in new debt.

Icahn and Southeastern together hold about 13 percent of Dell stock. The billionaire investor previously proposed paying $15 per share for 58 percent of Dell.

“As a shareholder, what I’m most pleased about is that the pot continues to be stirred,” said Robert Willis, president and CEO of Willis Investment Counsel in Gainesville, Georgia, which owns about 350,000 shares of Dell. “I like the fact that those who oppose this aren’t going to lie down.”

(Additional reporting by Jennifer Saba in New York, Aaron Pressman in Boston, and Sakthi Prasad and Supantha Mukherjee in Bangalore; writing by Edwin Chan, editing by Edwina Gibbs, Saumyadeb Chakrabarty, Jeffrey Benkoe and Andre Grenon)

(VIA. Reuters)

chicago-clean-energy-alliance-logo

WHAT’S CLEAN


Impact Engine – Part 6

John Jonelis

~ VERBATIM from a special correspondent ~

PortaPure WaterChildLoop Lonagan here. I’m at a place where my natural greed ‘n’ avarice can do some good fer dis poor worn-out world. This is the Chicago CleanTech Competition—what you might call a race between high-tech global janitorial services. Ten distinguished judges will pick the best o’ da best—companies that’re really doin’ somethin’ to deal with the mess we’re makin’ outa our little corner o’ God’s creation. What we got here is da last ten finalists in our great city and tonight that gets cut down to five.

Every one o’ these companies is a specialist with a different slant on how to get the job Chicago Clean Energy Alliance logodone. You know as well as I do—the only company that succeeds in this world is the one that makes good business sense. But are those the ones that’ll win? Probably not. But we’ll see.

The MC makes sure we know today is Earth Day, which gets a shrug all around. Then he explains how the winners move on to the big international GCCA event and compete with companies from Europe ‘n’ Asia. You heard all about that organization, right? If you didn’t, see the link and the video at da bottom. I got no time to explain.

.GCCA

A Strange Encounter

Lemme give you summa da local color. Things is movin’ along real nice when I hear this harsh voice all the way from the other side o’ the room. He’s yellin’ at an elderly gentleman for nodding off during the meeting. Then he turns his foghorn on me: “Hey Lonagan, are you going to be writing this up? Because I’m going to call you every hour on the hour till you do!”

Sheesh, I ain’t kiddin’. The guy blares that out right in the middle o’ da meeting in fronta all these gentle souls. I’m wonderin’ if any of them clean tech folks ever ran into anybody like Rong Mayhem before.

I know that Rong singled me out ‘cause of a simple misunderstanding. He thinks I’m some kinda reporter. Well, this ain’t no newspaper and nobody sticks me with no deadline. I’m lookin’ for companies to invest in. So’s I keep takin’ notes.

Then he howls. “Lonagan, what the hell are you doing?”

This time I answer. “Just writin’ down what you say, Rong.”

But he’s got a come-back to that: “You know what you are? You’re a legend in your own mind!” Then he repeats it a couple times.

Impact EngineAfter that, things quiet down for a while. And I’m smiling to myself, thinking about the poor MC tryin’ to control the meeting. So I glance over the program and get a jolt. Outa these ten companies, I see two graduates from Northwestern University’s Impact Engine. Lemme tell you about one o’ them:

.

Portapure

Portapure George PageGeorge Page is the founder of Portapure and he’s da keynote speaker tonight. He’s also one o’ da judges, so maybe things’ll work out all right after all. He’s a chemical engineer that worked in Chicago water projects so he’s a practical guy. And he’s on a mission. He wants to make clean water available to anybody, anywhere, anytime. To do that, he makes water filtration affordable for the developing world.

Portapure won this event last year and ended up among the top 30 in the world. I first seen him at BNC Venture Capital when he invented a pocket size water purifier. I’ll tell you about that one first:

.

Pocket Pure

Picture this: Say yer goin’ into the jungles of Haiti to do disaster relief. Yer gonna be

Dirty water

Dirty water

there for weeks and the water is mostly muddy streams and swamps. This is da 3rd World. There ain’t no EPA out there to slap people with fines fer makin’ a mess. Still, you gotta get yer butt out there no matter what the conditions. So whaddaya do? Pack in lotsa fresh water, right? Think again. Got any idea how many pounds a few gallons o’ water weighs? It’s impossible to lug all that with you. Airdrop it, maybe? Not a practical solution.

As it turns out, you don’t even need to carry a canteen. Instead, you take along a little pocket-size device called PocketPure. It weighs next to nothin’. Any time you get thirsty, you stop at a convenient swamp and make yerself some clean drinking water—one cup at a time. You can stay in the field as long as you want ‘n’ you never run outa water.

Gathering water in a swamp

Up till now, all anybody had was water purification tablets. Those take half an hour to work and you still gotta filter out the dirt somehow. But technology moves forward and you might as well take advantage of it. As you might’ve guessed, Portapure is sellin’ these things to NGOs by the boxful.

Drinking water is in short supply across the world. Lotsa people in all kindsa places die of E. coli and such. Kids even. That brings me to Portapure’s next product:

.

Pure Lives

Purtapure Purelives

Purtapure Purelives

This one’s on a bigger scale. It’s a three-phase filter with a 5-gallon capacity—just right for yer typical grass hut. Hey—people in the developing world want clean water for their families, too.

This thing filters both bacteria and viruses outa real filthy water. I’m talking real nasty critters like cholera, typhoid, amoebic dysentery, E. coli, coliform bacteria, cryptosporidium, streptococcus, salmonella, giardia, and of course, yer ordinary dirt ‘n’ sediment—it’s enough t’ make yer flesh crawl. This device filters out 99.99% o’ that muck—the definition of clean water according to the World Health Organization. And the filter lasts for maybe 10,000 gallons! This thing was tested in an NSF certified lab and reduced the E. coli count from 5490 to less than 1.

Muddy waters

Muddy waters

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Da Business

This keeps getting better. He sells these things to NGOs, but there’s another angle. Clean water’s at a real premium. It’s like liquid gold in some places. And folks livin’ there wanna make a living just like anybody else. That gives Portapure a natural distribution network and a sustainable solution that pays for itself. At the same time, they’re putting people to work and boosting the economy in these far-flung places.

.PortaPure WaterChild

Da Awards

This company’s got its share of ‘em:

  • Impact Engine graduate
  • GCCA Global Top 30 company
  • Chicago Innovation Awards 2011 Up & Comer
  • Office of the Treasurer Small 2012 Business Plan finalist
  • Tech Cocktail 2011 Finalist

Here’s a good video on Portapure:


I wanna tell you ‘bout the other companies and who won. But I ain’t got room to do it justice here, so I’ll be back with more.

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LOOK FOR PART 7 – COMING SOON
Go back to Part 1

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Meanwhile, here’s a video that explains the whole international competition:

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Da Contacts

Portapurewww.portapure.com

Contact – Info@PortAPure.com – 773 251 5779

1507 E 53rd. St, Suite 218PortaPure logo

Chicago, IL. 60615

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Portapure on 5 NBC Chicago

PortAPure’s George Page is Saving the World

http://www.nbcchicago.com/blogs/inc-well/Portapures-George-Page-is-Saving-the-World-132243943.html

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Portapure on Crain’s Chicago Business

http://www.chicagobusiness.com/article/20120823/BLOGS06/120829905/seeing-promise-in-water-purification

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Impact EngineImpact Engine

www.theimpactengine.com

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Chicago Clean Energy Alliance

www.theccea.org

.Chicago Clean Energy Alliance logo

GCCA—Global Cleantech Cluster Association

Their ten 2011 winners raised $462 Million.GCCA

www.globalcleantech.org/

Images and video courtesy Portapure, CCEA, GCCA, Impact Engine, and AP.

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Chicago Venture Magazine is a publication of Nathaniel Press www.ChicagoVentureMagazine.com Comments and re-posts in full or in part are welcomed and encouraged if accompanied by attribution and a web link . This is not investment advice. We do not guarantee accuracy. It’s not our fault if you lose money.

.Copyright © 2013 John Jonelis – All Rights Reserved

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THE BUM IN ME


Funding Feeding Frenzy – Part 2

John Jonelis

VERBATIM transcript of a recording by Loop Lonagan—investor and man about town.

FFF LogoLoop Lonagan here. I’m headin’ out to this year’s Funding Feeding Frenzy. It’s the big event if ya wanna see all o’ Chicago’s best startups in one place. This time the FFF is happenin’ at a place called the Chopin Theater northwest o’ downtown and I wanna see how that’s gonna work out. Will there be a string quartet? They yusta hold it at a huge automobile showroom which seems weird but worked out. It had about half the floor space of McCormick Place and plenty o’ room fer hordes o’ people to roam. But this is gonna be a lot different.

One thing I wanna impress on your readers, John, is about Chicago itself. You know I love this place but face it—it’s a city with all the usual warts ‘n’ barnacles. And every neighborhood is different, so yer either at home here or yer not. Nobody never gave me no trouble. Maybe I’m no pushover, so I got an advantage. But if I’m gonna tell this story, I gotta give you the whole picture. And I’m gonna give it my best shot.

Clybourn

The Street

I’m comin’ in by train and can’t resist gettin’ off at the old Clybourn Station. From here, it’s only a mile walk to where I’m goin’. That looks real good on a map. But my advice to you is don’t do it. Get off all the way downtown and take a nice comfy cab to the event. This ain’t a bad part o’ town. Nothin’ like that. Just take my advice.

Once I’m on the Clybourn platform I draw in a lungful o’ cold air. It’s feelin’ like the Christmas season just gettin’ started up here and I got a wad o’ money in my pocket. I get my choice o’ passages down to street level. That always feels like descending into the bowels of hell. Mincing little concrete steps winding through grimy concrete tunnels. Once-yellow paint peeling off the walls. And the best part is you get yer choice o’ tunnels! They’s all the same!

It’s still early and the usual crowd is layin’ about the sidewalk. I step over Old Man Percy, ‘cause I don’t wanna disturb his sleep, but the others is startin’ to rise’n’ shine. I give a hearty good morning to Fred and Big Bubba and ignore Merry ‘n’ Pippin huddled in a corner—those two give me the creeps. Summa these people are new to me but you can’t never know ‘em all. Familiar faces go missing but still, there’s never no shortage. I got it on good authority that the poor will always be among us.

People tell me these guys makes Fifty Gs just panhandling. I say it’s a buncha hooey. The idea got invented in that Sherlock Holmes story, The Man With the Twisted Lip, ‘n people been repeatin’ it ever since. If it was true these guys’d find a warm place to sleep. Ever try an icy Bridgesidewalk ‘round about Christmastime? And there’s more ‘o these people hangin’ ‘round than ever. That means more competition. That means harder times fer all o’ them. Sure, any profession’s got it’s elite that strike it rich, but that leaves the multitudes, scrablin’ fer crumbs.

The Professionals

I always say there’s a lot to bein’ a good bum. You feel so warm inside when you drop a buck in his hat. ‘Specially near Christmas. Makes your whole day. Some ‘o these derelicts play musical instruments and summa them is pretty good at it too. Come to think of it, these guys fill an important role in society. They’re public servants. Maybe the city should fit ‘em into their patronage system. It’d mean more votes for The Chicago Machine. After all, The Machine is politicians. And politicians is people paid to be bums.

Hell, when you get down to it, there ain’t much difference between these guys ‘n’ me. Maybe I invest alota money, drink good liquor, sleep in a warm bed. But whadda I really do for the world? I been givin’ that some thought lately and all I comes up with is this—I provide liquidity. Sounds pretty shallow, don’t it? Let’s just imagine some day I make a big mistake and lose it all. They throw me on the street. In no time, I’m part o’ this crowd. Makes a guy think. Maybe I got a talent for it, though—who knows? But it’s a profession without nobility.

Of course there’s gangs and outright criminals in the mix. Then there’s a lotta homeless people with no hope. Alcoholics, drug addicts, and whack jobs. Minds gone over the edge. They say Old Man Percy’s got millions stuffed in the bank but he’s sleepin’ here on the pavement whenever they shove him outa the loony bin. You think you can change him? Think again.

The Scholar

Everybody’s awake now. I always ask if one of ‘em can recite a famous quotation. Gotta keep up the level o’ education here. So I calls for somethin’ Christmassy. I give ‘em a choice—Isaiah 7:14 or Matthew 1:23, whatever their preference—theys exactly the same text. And Fred rattles it right off while Big Bubba stares him in the face, mouth hangin’ open. Fred’s a real intelligent guy. He’d be a good addition to my team.

Note to John – Why not make him a reporter?

Note to Loop – Bring him around for an interview.

Anyway, Fred’s recitation earns a C-Note for every one of ‘em that’s present—even Old Man Percy and the two Hobbits. Except I peel off ten fer Fred. Hell, it really is almost Christmas. I know most of ‘em is gonna waste it but I ain’t tellin’ these guys what to do with their own money.

Then Big Bubba rumbles to himself in a deep bass, “Emanuel—I thought dat was da name o’ da mayor.” Whadaya gonna do with guys like that?

Note to John— I ain’t had no coffee yet this mornin’ after a real rough night. Too much booze and no sleep, so maybe you oughta clean up my copy. I think I’m runnin’ on like the old days—I mean before I got some college. Understand what I’m sayin’?

Note to Loop— I find your account lucid and concise. I’ll publish it as is. And a graduate degree in finance at the University of Chicago is more than “some” college.

Overpass

Stumbling over the Truth

Fred and Big Bubba take me up on my offer of breakfast. There’s a good old diner along the way. That’s the real reason I picked this station. But before you get to the gentry part o’ town, you gotta walk under the overpasses. The Kennedy Expressway bridges make natural roofs fer the homeless and the piles o’ rubble at the sides reek somethin’ horrible. Yeah it’s raw but so is any city.

Another thing about cities is potholes. In good times there was always holes in the street. Now, with this economic depression it’s worse than ever. So we’re walkin’ down Ashland Avenue at a brisk clip, enjoyin’ each other’s company and I’m scannin’ around like any careful city dweller when the next thing I knows I’m on my face. Lousy pothole—right in the sidewalk of all places.

Fred and Big Bubba haul me back to my feet and brush me off and I check for damage. Maybe a guy can get away with slashed knees and filth on his rumpled blue jeans but it don’t look right on a $2,000 suit. In an instant I go from Mr. Bigshot to a reject from the Salvation Army. But now I fit in with my companions, so I shrug it off. And I got a mile ahead o’ me to walk off the sprained ankle. But in a couple blocks we reach the nice section and the diner I told you about.

The Private Room

The cashier at the restaurant tries to push us out the door like we’re the Blues Brothers or somethin’. Probably thinks we’ll drive off the clientele. Phooey. Maybe this is a classier joint than Julio’s House of Jalapeños but hey—it’s still a diner, not the Chez Paul. So I ask for Lonny, the owner, and he leads us to a back room stacked with boxes. They lay a nice table for us and the room is perfect for planning out crimes and runnin’ poker games.

Big Bubba orders three stacks o’ pancakes. He butters every one of ‘em and drowns ‘em all in maple syrup. Fred sticks with a piece o’ pecan pie. But I dig into steak ‘n eggs with toast and A-1 Sauce ‘n’ bacon. And more important—a big pot o’ coffee for each of us. Round about the fifth cup I’m feelin’ a whole lot better. Fred smokes a cigarette. We talk. Lotsa stimulating conversation. It cheers me up. Now I’m ready—ready to meet with big money at the FFF.

Back on the street, Big Bubba and Fred part ways with a wave and a Merry Christmas. When I suck in the brisk air, I feel more coherent and alert—ready to pick winners, negotiate terms. Less than a mile left to walk off this sprained ankle. I think about them that puts their heads down on a frozen sidewalk and the ankle don’t seem so bad no more.

Note to John—Do I sound more coherent and alert now that I had my coffee?

Note to Loop—You’re always alert.

The Gentrification

Here’s another thing I find interesting about the city. Here in these gentrified sections you can never tell what’s inside a building. Alotta these are new construction or complete makeovers with big-time brands on their signs. Those buildings are nice inside—most o’ the time. But the others can surprise you. The outside of the Chopin Theater looks like a dump that’s been a dump for the last hundred years. Turns out completely different once you walk in the door. This place is gorgeous. A great spot for the FFF.

Chopin Theater

Chopin Theater

A beautiful lady greets me like royalty. I check the layout. Nice lobby. Nice coffee bar. Nice theater space for the companies to present. Steep stadium seating so everybody can see. Doors and windows floating around the stage give it a class look. I figure them’s props for some production but it’s a bonus for us.

Chopin Theater Lobby

Chopin Theater Lobby – photo courtesy of theater

I take in the morning’s presentations. Then I go bummin’ downstairs. Wow! A huge room with a great spread of food and drink. This is way better than the old place. People can talk and strike deals while they feed at the trough and make all the racket they want. Meanwhile, the presentations go on in the kinda setting they deserve—quiet and focused. Kudos to David Culver and company for finding this spot and nailing it down.

Chopin Theater Stage

Chopin Theater Stage – photo courtesy theater

So what’s the FFF all about? One o’ the most important things in the world—starting brand new companies! That means keepin’ as many people off the streets as we can! So here I am wolfing down food, crackin’ jokes, and talkin’ to intelligent company. Lotsa stimulating conversation. It cheers me up. Just like breakfast with the bums. Now I’m ready—ready fer the rest o’ the day.

Chopin Theater

Chopin Theater – photo courtesy theater

Listen John, I went off on a tangent and didn’t even cover the event yet. Now my batteries is gettin’ kinda low. I’ll buy some fresh ones and get back to ya later. Fer now, have a joyous Christmas.

Continue to Part 3

Go back to Part 1

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Links

Chopin Theater

http://www.chopintheatre.com/event.php?id=2275&pageId=soon

Funding Feeding Frenzy

https://www.facebook.com/FundingFeedingFrenzy

Find Chicago Venture Magazine at www.ChicagoVentureMagazine.com Comments and re-posts in full or in part are welcomed and encouraged if accompanied by attribution and a web link. This is not investment advice. I do not guarantee accuracy. It’s not my fault if you lose money.

.Copyright © 2012 John Jonelis – All Rights Reserved

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fff-speaker

SHARK TANK MEETS THE APPRENTICE


Funding Feeding Frenzy – Part 1

John Jonelis

The big Funding Feeding Frenzy is almost upon us again. Loop Lonogan covered this event last time and here’s his transcript—verbatim:

FFF LogoLoop Lonagan here. I’m at the Funding Feeding Frenzy ‘n’ there must be more’n 1000 people here and lots more goin’ in and out all day. If you wanna see what’s happening in the Chicago Startup Community, this is the place to be and you can do it all in one single day. But don’t ferget—there’s sharks in them waters and they bite.

This is the place where the judges hold up cards like they used to at the Olympics way back when. They say either FUNDABLE, which almost nobody gets, KEEP FISHING, which I see a lot, or the dreaded GO FUND YOURSELF. Plenty of those too. I watch one company get the thumbs down from the judges but later in the day that same company finds an Angel Investor right here at the event.  I’m trolling for a couple good companies myself.  And maybe some fun on the side.

It takes all day before I see any blood in the water. And I’m sittin’ here with a big grin. I always like a good fight.

The Setup

FFF is so big they hold it in this enormous indoor car dealership – almost as big as McCormick Place.  I crawl into a hot new Camaro and ogle the red Corvette.  In past years, with room to spread out, they ran three stages at once.

This year for the first time, the FFF runs just one stage—not the usual three. This poses some pros and some cons. It allows David Culver & Company to put together a large panel of distinguished judges—all recognized Chicago investors. That’s on the good side. I get to see every company that presents. That’s good too. They already weeded out the weak companies and lotsa these presenting here bear a deeper look. I’ll check into those. These companies seem like they’re coached better than ever before and I appreciate the professionalism. All o’ that is on the good side.

But some things don’t work so good on a single stage. You gotta picture the situation. This event goes on ALL DAY. Sure, you can walk around but with only one stage, there’s nowhere else interesting to go. And it’s a hot day. Real hot. The AC keeps going till afternoon, then it gets nasty. But I like investing in startup companies and I like fireworks. I expect to see some of both. So I show up bright and early and stay late. And so do the judges—the whole day. That’s what causes all the trouble.

FFF Corvette

FFF

Just like any good event, they save the best fer last. That means the big show happens late afternoon. By this time I see lotsa shiny faces. The audience gets kinda thin. Most of ‘em are feedin’ their faces and indulging in various liquid cravings and raising a terrific racket in back—so loud it’s hard to hear the panelists. Like I said, these judges been workin’ their tails off all day and barely time for a pit stop. Anybody can see they’re all wrung out. And cranky. For what it’s worth, I figure this thing needs to start at 10:00 am and end at 3:00 pm max. That gives time for a couple two-hour sessions and a nice break.  But that ain’t the way it is.  No it’s every minute all day.

I think it’s crazy to pitch to a buncha investors suffering the miseries, but I see that’s just what’s about to happen. I prick up my ears and lick my chops. I wanna see what develops.

The Donnybrook

After four o’clock, the panelist’s questions are gettin’ kinda testy. They’re attention spans are probably at the breaking point too. I figure some promising offering is about to get chewed up.

Lemme tell you what happens but first, remember my rules:

  1. Tell a good story.
  2. Don’t get the judges mad.
  3. There’s no third rule ‘cause three strikes and yer out.

The next company is real special. After hearin’ their pitch over lunch, I believe they’re the real deal. But the guy I talked to at lunch ain’t the same guy givin’ the presentation right now. No, this presenter comes off as a know-it-all. What’s the word? Arrogant. Could be the heat because I meet him later and he ain’t that way at all. But right now, it’s painful to hear. He’s breaking rule #2.

And sure enough, the first judge turns nasty right away.

FFF Speaker

FFF Speaker

“I don’t understand your value proposition.” That’s the opening salvo. Then he starts firing off questions at the poor guy like a machine gun and when he’s done, you can sweep the pieces off the floor. This judge is an investor I respect. He’s the kinda guy I call the sharpest knife in the drawer. Some people think he’s intimidating. This time as it turns out, it’s the kiss of death. No way the other judges are gonna say anything positive after this guy turns vicious. No—they all fall right in line:

It’s like lecturing a schoolboy when the next judge says, “Within the million dollars, how do you see using that money?” Hey, the presentation covered all that stuff. Was he asleep or what? Like I say, it’s late and these guys attention spans are all shot to hell.

They could rattle off the rest of the objections in their sleep:

“You spent virtually no time on the business side.”

“Can you describe in more detail…?”

“How is that justified…?”

“I have a concern…”

Then back to the first judge. “There’s some big players in the marketplace. Some BIG, BIG competitors. One is coming to Chicago probably this year. It’s gonna—they’ll crush you!”

It’s all a buncha hogwash. But now the poor guy is back on his heels. He’s shot his wad.

Here’s the problem: He’s fielding questions all alone—something I like to avoid. He let himself get caught up in details and he don’t recognize these questions is coming at him from an entirely different perspective. Naturally he gets defensive.  Naturally that offends the judges. What he needs is a colleague to observe and step in when there’s a problem. But he’s all on his own.

FFF Speaker

Then we hear objections shouted from the audience.

Can you move so I can see?” Sheesh, I been sittin’ here all day. I’m tryin’ to pay attention to the shellacking going on in front of the big screen. I don’t even need to turn around to recognize the loud, harsh voice of Rong Mayhem. Why’d he wheel himself behind me?

“Somebody make him move.” I don’t budge. Rong can take a flyin’ leap fer all I care. Then he calls out to the speaker—as if the guy didn’t have enough trouble. “What happened to your last venture? I heard it went bust.” I have no idea what he means by this remark. Their last venture is a film that turned out real good.

The moderator interferes before another word gets out: “Don’t talk to him,” he says, meaning the speaker and audience shouldn’t oughta talk to each other. That’s the rules but it seems kinda rude given the circumstances. I like Rong but he gets banned from alotta these events. Can’t keep his mouth shut.

Then there’s a burst of noise from the beer drinkers in back ‘n’ that gets a response from the audience.

“Turn up the speakers. I can’t hear anything,” shouts Rong Mayhem. 

“Who cares?”  yells Sheldon Tommygun. 

“Shuttup Sheldon,” booms Rong. This delightful interchange leaves me wondering if I’m gonna see an old man and a guy in a wheel chair duke it out. That’d be somethin’ to see.

Another judge goes on as if there was no interruption: “What does adopt the platform mean? C’mon, whaddaya think it means? Then he suggests a major change in the business plan and the poor guy is so beaten down he accepts it—even calls it “smart.”

Time’s up. The presenter limps off.

Next!

This comes as a big surprise – the very next company, Pallette App, gets a nice warm and friendly reception and takes first place fer the whole event.

bnc-pallete-app

The Winner

I gotta admit, they’re good. Real good. But where’d all that irritability go? Maybe the shark’s bellies are full. To my mind, they just butchered a promising offering and missed a shot at a great investment.

The Happy Ending

I always say: If you tell a good story with passion and don’t personally offend the investors, they’ll gleefully fill-in the holes in your business plan using their own imaginations. Without a good story, they’ll pick you apart like vultures on a carcass. Well it isn’t hard to offend the investors this late in the afternoon. And that’s what just happened here.

So here’s what I do the next day: I run off a transcript of the Q&A. I go to the company’s offices and present it to them. There’s nothing like seeing something in black and white to get your attention. Then I encourage ‘em to show up at a couple other events. And sure enough, the next time these guys present, they do great. And I watch ‘em get fully funded. So this story has a happy ending.

A Promising Company

A Happy Ending

Upcoming FFF Event

The upcoming Funding Feeding Frenzy won’t be like this one was.  I expect it’ll be strictly business. They’re holdin’ it in an auditorium where they can keep tighter control. All the noisy food and venders is gonna be separate. I’m sure David Culver’s got it figured out. It’s his show and he knows what he’s doin’. And I’ll be there ‘cause I’m always ready to pick up another great company or two.  And it’ll be ALL DAY again, so maybe, just maybe, we’ll get some fireworks on the side.
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Continue to Part 2

Hey, you wanna know how it actually feels to give a pitch to this kinda crowd? Check out “My Kraken Encounter.” Just click da link.

My Kraken Encounter

Continue to Part 2

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Contacts

Find the Funding Feeding Frenzy at https://www.facebook.com/FundingFeedingFrenzy

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Find Chicago Venture Magazine at www.ChicagoVentureMagazine.com Comments and re-posts are welcomed and encouraged. This is not investment advice – do your own due diligence. I cannot guarantee accuracy but I give you my best.

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Copyright © 2012 John Jonelis – All Rights Reserved

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WORTHY OF AWARDS


The Chicago Innovation Awards – Part 3

John Jonelis

Time Share Gulfstream JetI’ve jumped aboard a Gulfstream G450 to interview the legendary Loren Bukkett. I want his take on the Chicago Innovation Awards. He finally puts away his phone and turns to me. “Okay, let’s talk,” he says.

I take that to mean he’s already finalized all the deals that peaked his interest. Nice to have a large staff to handle the details. But here in the jet cabin, it’s just Loren, his wife Aussy, and me.

Aussy is doing some form of shorthand on a tablet computer. That woman hasn’t spoken since I climbed in the plane. Maybe Loren asked his wife to keep it buttoned. Maybe he wants to control what information gets out. At this point, I’m afraid to ask her a direct question. I even wonder if this is their secret strategy to keep outsiders off balance. If so, it’s working.

They give out so many honors at the Chicago Innovation Awards tonight that I can’t keep it all straight. So much glitz and pizzazz. Jumbo screen. Music. Entertainment. Applause. Streaming internet content. I appreciate the way they present a standardized set of videos to highlight the mission of each winner. A professional job and it moves things along nicely. With sponsors like Disney, Comcast, and Wrigley, they can afford to do it right.

Chicago Innovation Awards

Chicago Innovation Awards – jaj

I pull out my notes. “Let’s do the ‘Up-and-Comer’ category first.” I proceed to read off the list but Loren waves me to a halt.

“We’ll do it my way,” he says. And he goes on to tell me about every company that won an award at that event. He does it in depth. No notes. No prompts. At his age, that kind of memory astounds me.

“Now John, keep in mind that for twelve years, every company with an award from this group is a success. And there are a lot of them. That’s impressive and gives an old investor like me a feeling of confidence. Of course my people check out these companies in depth, but you can’t help but come away with some degree of certainty—a belief deep down that every one of them will find a way to make it.”

“You said they’ll break that perfect record this year.”

“That’s the awards to those two politicos, not the companies. No as I see it, what we have here is a large pool of opportunity. I already set some wheels in motion. Don’t ask me which ones.” He clasps his hands behind his neck and leans back. “When you get to be my age, you either turn into a curmudgeon or you win back some of that idealism you enjoyed as a youth. These days, a big part of my strategy includes companies that are doing-well-by-doing-good. I saw a few tonight. One of them is BriteSeed.

I nod. “I saw them pitch earlier in the year—at BNC I think. They made a big impression on me.” I splash three fingers of his excellent Hennessy into each of our snifters. Maybe the combination of spirits and altitude will keep him loose.

“It’s a hot sector,” he says. “Their SafeSnipstm technology could be life-saving. Imagine it on a large scale. No more surgical accidents. Billions of dollars saved.” He leans toward me and lowers his voice. “Keep your eye on Northwestern Global Health and their rapid HIV diagnosis. And Recall-Connect built an automated system to match defective medical implants with patients. No more wading through reams of paper files. Medline came out with an anti-viral face mask. Preventing disease is real attractive to me, but this one’s a family company, so…”

“No need for investors?”

“We’ll wait and see. My only concern with Feeding America is scalability. But they won the Social Innovator Award so people need to take that group seriously—very seriously. Any way we can fight hunger, we oughta do it.” He gingerly takes a tiny sip of his cognac as if he’s already had enough to drink. “I’m interested in the People’s Choice Awards winner,” he says. A little company, New Futura, wants to help Latinos achieve the American dream. Naturally I’m attracted to those kinda offerings. Then there’s Moneythink helping high school kids with their careers. That’s about it for the do-gooders.”

“What about Belly?”

He pauses a moment, pats his stomach, then grins. “That’s another hot sector. That company is off and running in 10 markets with half a million customers already. I’m sure they’ll do well. But I’m not in the mobile app or social media space.”

“Doesn’t that limit your exposure to startups?”

“That it does, John. That it does.” He takes another tiny sip of cognac. “Anymore,” he says, in his Midwestern idiom, “Anymore there’s so much money chasing mobile. So many new startups and only a few will pay off. The good ones get bid-up. Way too high for my liking. New York, Boston—all those great centers for venture capital are in love with mobile and social media. Maybe it’s good for Silicon Valley but it doesn’t fit my strategy. That’s why I come to Chicago. Of course I make exceptions.”

“Do you see a bubble?”

“Well, you always need to keep that in mind. For me it’s more a problem of value.”

Anybody that follows Loren Bukkett knows that deep value is his favorite strategy. Then he shifts gears. “Do you know anything about NuMat Technologies?

That catches me off-guard. “Some. I saw them present at the MIT Whiteboard Challenge. Seems like a winner to me but with so many great offerings, the judges at that event looked elsewhere. Do you think the technology is practical? Can they actually store and transport natural gas in bulk the way they suggest?”

“Keep your eye on them,” he says. And suddenly I wish my investment portfolio could stretch that far.

“And Coyote helps trucking avoid dead runs by sharing between companies. That’s the same thinking that put you and me on this beautiful jet. I like that business model.”

He takes more from his snifter and my hopes of getting him to comment on the awards to the governor and mayor are one step closer to reality. “1871,” he says. “That is without a doubt the most significant incubator I’ve come across. They made up their minds to do it right. 50,000 square feet with an option to double. Three universities keep offices there. Venture capitalists too. A successful startup from Northwestern keeps two big rooms to teach folks to code in new languages. Lots and lots of aspiring companies—and you gotta pass their standards to get in! This is one of the new hybrids—part incubator, part accelerator. Most of their companies are outside my investment horizons but every one of them is highly interesting. It must be a great resource for you.”

“Sure, I’ve been there a number of times. They run a lot of events and always invite the community. If they expand, I may take an office there. What’s your opinion on Options City?”

Loren lifts his feet back to the tabletop. “That one hopes to cure a sore point of mine. They want to help the little guy fight back against high frequency trading syndicates. We’re talking trading in-and-out in nanoseconds. Nowadays these guys own 70% or more of the volume on most of the exchanges. And naturally, the exchanges reciprocate by giving them the same privileges as market makers. But they don’t carry any responsibility like market makers. Or risk. They don’t make orderly markets. No, they hit and run. They’re speculators. Why should they get the first look at all the trades?  It’s all driven by greed on the part of the exchanges. I think it should be illegal.”

I’m leaning forward and nodding vigorously. “It’s the High Freaks that changed my approach to trading. I had to slow my timing way down and widen my stops—take on more risk.”

“Well alotta people are going broke because of it. These operations spend upwards of $100,000 a month for the fastest hookup and shortest wire to the exchanges and then run everything by computer algorithm. This new company wants to level the playing field.”

“Can they do it?”

“The jury is still out.”

Loren talks another twenty minutes to cover it all. Food Genius, mentormob, and mobcart, all leverage the Internet to aggregate information and communication. Cummins Allison of all people is selling a document scanner for banks. Borealis makes a light that takes 90% less energy and lasts 30 years.

That leaves Bright Tag, Catamaran, Littelfuse, and SMS Assist. An impressive event in execution, scope, and promise.  It amazes me that so many fine businesses are right here in Chicago.  All they need to succeed is a boost in the economy. 

We clink glasses. “So Loren, I still want to talk in-depth about the awards to the governor and mayor.”

He flashes me a dirty look.

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Continue to Part 4

Go back to Part 1

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Find Chicago Venture Magazine at www.ChicagoVentureMagazine.com Comments and re-posts are welcomed and encouraged. This is not investment advice – do your own due diligence. I cannot guarantee accuracy but I give you my best.
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Copyright © 2012 John Jonelis – All Rights Reserved

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t-enu

SIX REASONS WHY TECH BELONGS TO THE YOUNG


entrepreneur@nuWhy are young entrepreneurs taking over the tech world? Who gets these kids charged with the kind of passion that induces investors to open their tightly held wallets? They lick their chops like old men lusting after eager young virgins. We’re going to take a closer look at this phenonemon.

I’m at Northwestern’s all-day conference put on by “entrepreneur@nu,” their in-house accelerator for student startups. This session is called “Tech for Non-Techies.” I asked Bill Blaire to cover the keynote address. I want to be here, at this session. I want to hear Mert Iseri who’s on the panel. I’ve seen him present at the Levi mastermind group with his parner Yuri Malina and I already visited their skunkworks on the Northwestern campus for a closer look. These guys are recent grads, young and untested. But I’d be pleased to work with them no matter what the venture. (Well, almost.) Right now, they have something exciting by the tail. But if it morphs in an entirely new direction, it’s a good bet they’ll succeed just as well at whatever that is. Consultants are gathering like wolves but Mert and Yuri don’t need them–not yet, as you will see.

So here I am to hear Mert but I’m in for a surprise. I see what looks like an entire panel of Merts. Yes, every one of them is as electric as my favorite young entrepreneur. They each come from a different background, a different expertise, a different culture. But the reckless abandon is there in all five of them—and it’s addictive. I love it. Truly I do. So do the investors.

THE JOCKEY OR THE HORSE?

My belief in two young entrepreneurs begs a familiar question. Which is more important—the jockey or the horse? I’m backing the jockey this time. Am I right?

I mention this to David Culver of Extraordinary Success – www.extraordinary-success.com. He responds with an interesting comment: “Last time I checked,” he says, “nobody won the Triple Crown, finishing without a horse.” He goes on to say he’s seen plenty of enthusiastic entrepreneurs flame out. But I’m rooting for these two jockeys anyway.

Mert

I believe the entrepreneur is more important than the product or service at the very early stages. I believe this to be true especially if the leader is young. There’s no doubt these young entrepreneurs are smart–scary smart. But more than that, they’re having a whale of a good time. They think business is a blast–a rush. They’ve found a new drug. Instead of greed, they’re driven by joy. Look into their eyes and tell me you want to compete with them. I believe that the young have earned a number of advantages over those who call themselves “seasoned.” I can cite a few good reasons for these beliefs:

1—An early stage product and an early-stage business model will go through multiple iterations during the maturation process. I’m talking huge changes happening fast. Seasoning doesn’t prepare you to handle that kind of rapid change—quite the reverse. But the young seem wired for it—especially students who have no responsibility outside of their class work, their venture.

2—These kids bootstrap on the shoulders of a university-provided ecosystem. Free labs. Free PhD-level advisors. Free prototypes. Plenty of collaboration. We’re talking about a new kind of accelerator. As lean startups and with modern technology they can get up and going quickly. It no longer takes 20 years and millions of dollars to get a company on track. Old folks are financially responsible. These kids have little to lose.

3—They live in a Bohemian community of highly intelligent and creative people, wild new ideas, and a spirit of shared innovation. They feed on each other’s ideas and enthusiasm. They multiply each other’s output. Avaricious old men don’t do that. We chain ourselves to our desks. If we ever come up with a new idea, we immediately build fences. And how many of us want to go back to our college-day living standards? University students don’t live under such burdens. Hey, they finally got out of Mom and Dad’s clutches—that’s enough for the time being, right?

4—The university now teaches them an important lesson: Permit yourself to fail. Failure merely affords the opportunity to change direction. It’s called “pivot.” Under circumstances like those, the process isn’t that scary. Philosophically, it’s a paradigm shift. I was never told to fail anywhere between kindergarten and grad school. Were you ever told such a thing?

5—These kids are untamed and impulsive. They learn a lot and learn it fast. But it’s what they don’t know that makes them fearless. Old farts know better. Knowledge breeds risk-aversion. That’s why we don’t start companies such as Google, Facebook, Apple, or Microsoft.

6—Do any of you recall the malaise of the ‘70s? No gas–no jobs? Cottage industries sprang up all over. It was a practical way to earn the money to buy peanut butter. That phenomenon is happening again. Unlike computer games and other labor-intensive projects, mobile apps and web-based services are a kind of cottage industry. So this isn’t really new—it’s just different. And it’s a whole lot more exciting than selling macramé at an art fair.

A NEW CLASS OF ENTREPRENEURS

These kids are wildly enthused—their creativity is launched by the fuel of an adrenaline rush. Sparks fly around them. Fireworks. One commented that he’ll probably live only another 15 years because he never sleeps. Is this sounding like a recipe for a new class of successful entrepreneurs? I think so. I’ll ask again: Do you expect to compete with them? Think again.

NorthwesternHas Northwestern found a way to teach the joy of creative drive? Sure looks that way. And why shouldn’t these kids be enthusiastic? They don’t know any better. They’re fresh. Untried. No tire tracks across their backs. For the most part, they have yet to get knocked around by the world. And here they are—at one of the most prestigious schools on the planet, and they’re learning the entrepreneur game from professionals with every possible resource at their fingertips.

When I attended this school they taught venture capitalism. I remember the day they brought in a couple VCs. Those guys had a peculiar message. It was their job to steer us away from venture capital and point us in safer directions. The LBO was the big thing back then. Debt was cheap and easy. Times change. It’s not so simple to borrow any more. I’m convinced that the lousy economy is stirring up the recent explosion of new ventures. And it’s plenty lousy right here in Chicago. Adversity breeds creativity. Northwestern is nurturing it.

If youth is winning out over age and experience in this one arena, I cheer them on. What they’re doing was unthinkable when I was their age. And you have to admire them—they’re doing it so well. This is a highly creative response to tragic circumstances. Jobs are scarce. For many, entrepreneurship is the only career path open after graduation.

OUT OF THE MOUTHS OF BABES

I’ll give you the takeaways from what was a wildly dynamic session:

1 – BUILD A GOOD TEAM—You don’t have to be a tech wizard to work for a tech startup. The purpose of being technical is to build a scalable product that works. A good initial team is made up of three elements: a developer, a designer, and a “Husla” (the business end). These are complimentary skill sets. Each personality type is actively seeking the others. A world of opportunity opens up when you view the future this way. For example, a pure developer focuses on building a solid product but may not be sensitive to other issues. A startup also needs a designer to translate that code into a good customer experience. It also needs a businessman that can sell product and run the operation. Fill out your team with all three elements. One panelist admitted that he hadn’t taken math since HS. He stayed up all weekend and got help from students and a prof for a math test. He failed utterly. Then he visited a huge conglomerate and found his talent in the marketing process. Where do you fit? You need to discover what value you bring—your CORE competency. Work on that element. Translate it into language that customers and decision makers understand. Find somebody smarter than you are in the other areas you need—people that are passionate about your idea. Friends if possible because co-founding a new company is a close relationship. If you don’t know who to bring onboard, get a team of advisors to help you vet people. The university is a great resource for that.

2 – LEARN AS MUCH AS YOU CAN—One panelist developed a mobile app. But when he started out, he didn’t know anything about coding. So he learned all he could. Lots of listening. Lots of reading. Lots of playing with other apps. Another had to learn about payment processing to be able to empathize with customers. Another needed to learn about the medical industry and spent a lot of time searching on Google. If you know a little about disciplines outside your expertise, you make a good team leader. Don’t despair. Just knowing Java is awesome. Yes, top developers know lots of languages, but new languages come along all the time. Keep learning so you’re ready for the next opportunity. How technical do you really want to be? Learn the foundation. That understanding helps you find the tech people you need.

3 – GET A TECHNICAL CO-FOUNDER—You don’t need to be the company tech guru. Find a technical co-founder. Outsourcing all the development just doesn’t work. You need a CORE capability to do itty-bitty things and reduce the need to hire outsiders. Outsourcing everything uses up seed money too fast and isn’t the most efficient way to make small changes. It’s especially not a practical way to create a winning unified design. In-house technical competency allows you to put out fires on the spot. You can orchestrate your outsource money more intelligently. You stand a fighting chance of building an end product that isn’t a hodgepodge of aimless code. Also, a co-founder can hear ALL of your ideas–every one of them.

4 – DON’T KEEP SECRETS—Inventors are typically afraid to tell anybody their idea. These kids believe that’s the wrong way to think. They say, there are ten people already working on your idea and they’re smarter than you. If your idea is so simple that it’s easily stolen, then it’s already been invented. These kids believe you should tell everybody your idea and get as much help and feedback as you can. In their world, entrepreneurs love helping each other. Any one of them may have 63 ideas here and 64 ideas there. Impossible to work on them all. They actually need to filter their ideas. What kind of company do YOU want? Are you passionate about solving THAT problem? Get yourself involved in the crazy growth of the Chicago tech community. If you have an idea, go for it. Here’s how far they’ve carried this philosophy: They say, “It’s better to grow the pie as a whole than to fight over individual slices. Instead of taking a fighting stance, gather a community and be the hub. Keep your friends close and your enemies closer. Make your competitors your friends.”

5 – HAVE A LARGER PURPOSE—Out of all the insights, this one startles me the most. It goes like this: It’s easier to get people excited about saving 100,000 lives than to get them to believe in a device. Be committed to the PURPOSE not the SOLUTION. Otherwise, when you fail you’ll give up. I’m talking about a cause—something you believe in passionately—a larger purpose that keeps you trying when others fail. It’s crucial to hold strong beliefs, loosely held. Go to the customer. Show what you have. If the response is, “I won’t pay for that.” go back and find another solution that serves the PURPOSE. Before working on an idea, ask: “Am I solving an important problem?” The problems that you have in your own life are probably the same ones other people experience. Learn from your personal pain and passion. If you’re working on a larger PURPOSE, other people have the right to work on it too. You will actually welcome it.

6 – TELL A GOOD STORY—Somebody at Northwestern is teaching these kids to tell to do that. They’re poised. They’re concise. They’re on message. I will add to that, “WRITE a good story.” In consulting, I use a complex mindmap that asks one embarrassing question after another. If a client can answer all the questions, I know it’s a real business. One question in particularly seems extraordinarily difficult for entrepreneurs and nobody had ever answered it to my satisfaction. Then Mert did, and got it right—an immediate and strong response—just as if he’d rehearsed it. Amazing.

CLOSING QUOTES

“My entire life, I wanted to solve problems.” – “A lot of people don’t want to be consultants—do what you love.” – “When you’re a student you can take big risks and try new things without knowing what you’re doing.” – “Are you scared? JUST BUILD IT. You’ll be depressed for a little while because you’ll fail, but when you finally succeed, there’s no feeling like it.”

My thanks to Northwestern’s entrepreneur@nu entrepreneur.northwestern.edu for a brilliantly organized event, all the way from advance parking to orange-vested staff that pointed me in the right direction to a conference sparkling with excellent planning and execution.

And special thanks to the young panelists of this session—a group of people who can teach us all:

Elizabeth McCarthy, Moderator

Jeremiah Serapine of GrooveBuggroovebug.com

Stella Fayman of Entrepreneurs Unpluggd and Fee Fightersentrepreneursunpluggd.com and feefighters.com

Zach Johnson of Syndio Socialwww.syndiosocial.com

Mike McGee of Codeacadamywww.codecademy.com

Mert Iseri of SwipeSenseswipesense.com

Check out their sites carefully. They’re just as polished as big money but kids on a shoestring built these.

Comment on this article — Name and email optional

 

Find Chicago Venture Magazine at www.ChicagoVentureMagazine.com Comments and re-posts are welcomed and encouraged. This is not investment advice – do your own due diligence. I cannot guarantee accuracy but I give you my best.

Copyright © 2012 John Jonelis – All Rights Reserved