A Dating Game for Start-Ups

The economy might still be teetering but out here in Start-Up Central, the Silicon Valley's entrepreneurial spirit shines bright.

Spending the day at a fascinating event called "Launch," as in launching the next big thing. The event is organized by the Silicon Valley Association of Start-up Entrepreneurs, and its happening on Microsoft's Silicon Valley campus.

Dozens of start-ups, a big group of venture capitalists with checkbooks at the ready, and the two sides spend a few minutes with each other to see if there's any kind of meeting of the minds. No fly-by-night operations here: many of these young companies have established business plans, some have dozens of workers already, others have only two or three.

It's all about creativity, having a strong, sellable message, a demonstrated differentiator in the marketplace, and the gumption to get the company to that next level. And with only a few minutes to impress, Launch is kind of speed-dating for the start-up set.

"You can meet and greet so many people," says Ken Elefant, Opus Ventures' general partner. "And obviously it's all about follow- up. You find somebody who fits your criteria, you go back and date them again.

Hopefully one day you can find somebody who you want to marry."

He adds as an aside: "You know something interesting, most start ups last longer than marriages today."

Tien Tzuo knows the drill. He was here two years ago, pitching his Zuora, and today, he's on the lip of profitability, cash-flow positive, and here as an observer since he's in the luxurious position of no longer needing VC funding. Having worked for Marc Benioff for 9 years, (a great mentor, he says), he's putting those lessons to work running a company of his own.

"In Silicon Valley there are so many start-ups that it is hard to differentiate yourself," says Tzuo. "So it is great to have a platform like this, you have the members of the press, got members of the VC community. It really gives you a platform to get your message out there."

I sat in on some of the presentations and they were impressive. AppBacker is a new way for apps developers to make money from the programs they sell on online stores like Apple's App Store. BccThis is a software app that makes misunderstanding the true meanings of emails a thing of the past.

There's a whole room dedicated to Life Sciences pitches. Entrepreneurs get 6 minutes to make their pitch, and then they have to answer questions from a panel of four VC's for 4 minutes. (Think American Idol!) And here's the thing: the panelists might want to invest, or the VC's in the audience may choose to. It's a bonanza!

There's also a big area for networking. Everyone is shaking hands, close-talking, whispering, typing away on their BlackBberrys and iPhones. The smell of money is strong. Excitement and romise are both palpable. So quintessentially Silicon Valley.

And it comes at a good time. VC funding during the first quarter was down about 10 percent sequentially, but up 38 percent year over year. The $4.7 billion invested went to 681 deals, and that's up 7 percent year over year.

Biotech commanded the lion's share of dollars, as it usually does, and while software investing declined 1 percent from last year's first quarter, it was still a strong number 2. Clean and green tech came in as the third hottest sector, and money invested there tripled from the same period last year.

Brinks Truck
Brinks Truck

Still, there is a new normal when it comes to venture investing, Garage Technology Ventures' Bill Reichert tells me. He thinks the days of me-too start-ups are dwindling, and just doesn't understand the value proposition of 99 social networking sites all essentially doing the same thing.

Facebook and Twitter are certainly interesting but where's the beef? He's more interested in those companies with a demonstrated competitive advantage in the marketplace and he seems happy with the deal flow.

He's candid when he says that VCs haven't done their jobs in returning cash to investors recently. So investors are a little gun-shy about sending money to VC's, but it's improving.

"Right now there is not a lot of money and so it is easier for the VC to write smaller checks into companies that are more efficient to get them off the ground," he tells me. "And there is going to be a pretty dramatic weeding process going on."

Meantime, as we were standing around waiting to go on air with this story, a Brinks truck pulled up (see image). We all thought, wow, these dealmakers are serious! And ready to invest in cash! No such luck. Brinks was here for something else.

Still, if you want to feel good about the spirit of American ingenuity, come to an event like this. I don't know what the Next Big Thing will be, but I'm absolutely certain there will be one.

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