BUSINESS PLANS · Entrepreneurs get 'tough love' treatment
By Pauline Parry
December 15, 2004 | Long gone are the days when venture capitalists could be seduced with little more than a good idea, two smart people, and a hastily assembled PowerPoint presentation.
So what is the would-be entrepreneur who lacks business experience to do? A new program flourishing in San Diego may offer hope.
Connect — a University of California at San Diego organization formed to foster local entrepreneurship — provides a program called Springboard, which mentors neophyte technology companies as they develop their business plan and financial strategy. According to Global Connect director Greg Horowitt, "It's a tough-love process. We create a safe environment in which business plans are deconstructed before they are fully reconstructed on a stronger foundation."
It costs $250 to participate in the program.
Not Just for Startups
Graduating companies: 200
VC investment: $550 million
Only the best budding entrepreneurs pass the application and screening process. Those who make the cut participate as either strategic or financing Springboards or, in some cases, fusion Springboards for those who need coaching in both areas. "Companies come to us at very different stages," says Springboard program manager Doruk Aytulu. Needs and expectations differ depending on the company's maturity. "They're not all startups looking for financing, although the majority are. We have coached at least one company with $80 million in annual revenue that was defining a new strategic direction."
Nor are all of the participants devoid of corporate experience. Tarari, the first spinoff of Intel, completed the Springboard program in 2002. While the executives had significant Fortune 500 experience and a sound business idea, startup management and fundraising were new to them. The company has secured $29 million in venture funding.
A startup company typically spends three to 10 hours in coaching sessions with the Springboard staff. "The pace of the program is driven by the entrepreneur," Aytulu says. "We require the companies to do a lot of work between the sessions, and, depending on their energy and their other commitments, some need more time than others."
The process is tightly focused. "Springboard does not comment on the value of the idea or the science that is presented; neither do we advise on the likely success of a company," Aytulu says. "We help the entrepreneurs to present and position their idea or new strategy."
The program culminates with a graduation event, where a company presents its polished business model to a panel of eight to 10 experts — venture capitalists, entrepreneurs with domain expertise, accountants, attorneys, marketing professionals, and an executive from the same industry. The panel provides advice and direction. "Graduation is not about applauding companies — it's about giving them specific, detailed, constructive feedback," Horowitt says. "What a young company doesn't realize it doesn't know will be its downfall."
A major benefit of the program is networking. Springboard helps new entrepreneurs establish key relationships in the investment community. The graduation event also allows the new company to fly its flag in front of those investors without actually asking for money.
San Diego entrepreneur Alan Creutz participates in many graduations. He belongs to the San Diego Tech Coast Angels, a group of private investors who fund early-stage Southern California companies. "We take our role as mentors of startup companies seriously," Creutz says. "It is part of our responsibility to the community." Generally, investors follow a one-strike-and-you're-out rule — a poor first impression may well be the last. But, Creutz says, "If we see a company we like, we will work with them to further develop their business plan and pitch. We often broker relationships between the companies and venture capitalists."
An added benefit for the volunteer experts is a first look at potential blockbuster companies. While the Springboard program does not guarantee investment, the graduation panel can choose to become seed investors.
Companies are encouraged to be creative in securing investment, and 2002 graduate Chimerix has been just that. By emphasizing bioterrorism applications of its technology, the company has secured $37 million in government grants to develop smallpox therapeutics. Most impressively, 60 percent of the Springboard graduates are still doing business, and Connect-supported companies are twice as likely as other companies to be in business after five years.