In Good Forum

How to Shop for a Forum

Boot Camp Basics
Made it to the venture forum? It ain't over yet--time for the orientation workshop.

Sure, earning the chance to present at a venture forum seems like a major obstacle cleared. But in reality, a more critical element to this whole process actually happens after you're chosen to participate. Referred to as orientation workshops, and designed to teach entrepreneurs venture-forum procedures, these pre-forum cram sessions actually more resemble boot camp.

Case in point: At Springboard 2000, a series of regional venture forums that target women, selected business owners must attend a day-long boot camp four to six weeks before presenting. In addition to learning about the presentation and testing out their pitch, each is assigned an experienced coach ready to help them refine their spiel.

It's not a simple process. Entrepreneurs must make special attitude adjustments in order to be successfully coached, says Karen Gifford, director of consulting services at Venture Point. "[You] must hear the advice and actually take action on it," she says. "But that doesn't mean every single bit of advice we give out should be taken. It's a matter of hearing what is said, judging it and explaining why a certain action was taken if it's not in line with the recommendation. You also have to be coachable without being defensive."

The Right Stuff?
Things to keep in mind when looking for the right venture forum

Timing is everything when it comes to presenting at venture forums. That's because these are public venues--meaning it's not possible to ensure confidentiality of a presentation. Tom Siegel, president of the National Association of Venture Forums (NAVF), says entrepreneurs should wait until they feel they're not letting the cat out of the bag about their company before applying. Depending on your business, this means securing your copyright, making sure your trademark or patent is in the works, or having your Web site in beta-test mode.

"But it doesn't mean waiting until your business plan or presentation is perfect," says Siegel. "Most investors recognize that people progress and improve over time and won't hold it against an entrepreneur who, six months or a year ago, gave a presentation that was sloppy."

Once you decide when to present, the next question is where. Finding a forum is getting easier thanks to the National Venture Capital Association Web site, which features an events calendar that lists venture conferences and forums. NAVF is currently in the process of developing a listing on its own site, and you can call the NAVF office at (314) 567-4145 to find the nearest forum.

The top six forums that pull in the largest number of participants are: The New York Venture Club; The Capital Network in Austin, Texas; the Florida Venture Forum; the Missouri Venture Forum; the Los Angeles Venture Association; and the Rockies Venture Club in Denver, Colorado.

Once you've identified potential forums, give them a call. "Ask them the format of their meetings, how you apply, what the application fee is and who attends," suggests Siegel. "Are they investors or service providers?" Also, ask what you can expect to gain as a result of attending and participating in their forum. Says Siegel, "They'll be honest with you, because they're not interested in misrepresenting."

Keep in mind that each forum has its own unique mission. These can range from investing in environmentally friendly companies to targeting firms that will create jobs in a particular local area. Find out ahead of time if your business fits with their mission, or you'll just end up wasting time-yours and theirs.

Choose Wisely
How to do the venture forum right

As you might have guessed, not all venture forums are created equal. To use a baseball metaphor, some forums are considered Double-A while others are definitely major leaguers.

Jeremy Kisner, president of Akropolis.net, noticed such differences after making presentations at just two forums. "After we did our seven-minute presentation, we had a table where people could come back and talk with us," he says. "At the first one, it was mostly students and service providers who talked with us. At the second one, there were probably five or six investors who asked us to tell them about our business."

Tom Siegel, president of the National Association of Venture Forums, agrees there's quite a variance among venture forums. "It all depends on the mission of the venture capitalists," he says. "For some of them, part of the mission is to keep the forum a relatively small, closed group. Others are more general networking groups or open forums, and a few are industry-specific."

If you're new to the game, attend a small forum to help you better learn the process. But keep in mind the following tips for evaluating venture forums:

1. If the application process is highly selective, chances are the number of potential investors present could be substantially higher.

2. A heftier application fee sometimes translates into more investors.

3. When you call to get more information on a forum, find out the ratio of investors to service providers.

4. Will there be more angels than venture capital firms attending? Angels tend to make smaller investments.

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This article was originally published in the July 2000 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: In Good Forum.

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