Venture Capital Flowing in Iowa

Yesterday, I attended a fantastic conference put on by the Iowa Economic Development Department.  The conference had the dual purpose of announcing the winners of the John Pappajohn Business Plan contest that has been in process for months here in Iowa.  John Pappajohn is very well known here in Iowa, using his fortune to found 5 John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Centers around the state.  I’m going to hit a few topics here so I’ll break them out to make some sense of this post.

  1. The 1st place winner of the biz plan contest has developed a "geometric search engine".  A demo was given that shows a bunch a 3-dimensional spheres and when mousing over them or clicking on them, a relational database of "similar parts" (I think automotive was the example used) became visible.   Here’s the deal.  I’m fairly smart but really didn’t "get it".  My sense was that the room didn’t "get it" either.  I’m sure this business is fantastic and very sexy to investors looking for the next big search tool…but this idea collided with the very premise that was preached over and over again at the conference…your business must be explainable and understandable to the venture community and to the people who’ll use it within a paragraph, a few sentences, or a few slides.  Sorry.  Maybe it’s just me…but my thoughts were echoed through my ad hoc survey.  I’m certain that this business is deserving and they’ll probably be in the news soon as a breakthrough disrupter but I’ll be standing by wondering what I missed.
  2. There was a wonderful talk given by Tom Bedell.  Tom took over his father Berkley Bedell’s  (Berkley & Company) business at the age of 29 after the company had begun to suffer from systemic management malaise.  Tom described how he reinvigorated the company, helped it rise to meteoric heights…and ultimately how he sold 80% of it to a private equity firm when he "Wasn’t able to do his job effectively anymore because the company had grown too large. (honesty)"  Now the company does in excess of $300 million and is called Pure Fishing.  Tom’s main point was the leading a company to simply "build shareholder value" is wrong and ineffective over the long run.  Tom strove to make the company a good place to work, took a genuine interest in his employees and their families, and too chances challenging those around him to dream about what could be instead of limiting themselves to what’s "possible". 
  3. There were 4 Tracks of break out sessions to attend.  The first track I attended was called "Writing a Business Plan to Attract Capital".  The session was presented by David Hensley of the University of Iowa.  The session gave some good information but the same I’ve heard for years now.  One thing that made me chuckle was the Mr. Hensley’s comment about numbering business plans.  He said that once he received a "#47" business plan and that he was offended for being well down the list and very skeptical since theoretically 46 others had rejected this plan before him.  I would take the opposite approach (remember how many people gave google the boot before someone listened?)
  4. My second session was called "Branding with Sparks" and was given by Nancy Garberson of Marketing & Communication Strategies, Inc
    Now this session was VALUABLE.  The demographic of the room was tilted in the twenty-something direction due to a slew of college students…but otherwise, I’d say the balance were thirty-something and up professionals.  Guess what?  The rules and stats about "How many people know what blogs and RSS are held true!  I was clearly surprised when only a handful of people said that they actually blogged.  Only 2 people in the room knew what RSS was!  That was about the 2% that I’ve heard but having to explain it and what I do with it (since I was called upon) was like explaining fire to homo habilis!  Ms. Garberson spoke of YouTube (which people knew because Google is buying them), and the changing face of marketing and communications.  She kept it "marcom 101", not diving into "tagging" or really getting deep into what "blogs are"…but that was PERFECT.  I am amazed every day (and my mouth waters at the opportunity) that even many PR/Communications/Marketing firms don’t know about these tools and how they are driving today’s marketing efforts if you pay attention.  There was a gentlemen at this session that runs an aircraft hanger development company called Carousel Condos in Clear Lake, Iowa.  He participated in the session and answered/asked many questions posed by Ms. Garberson.  Notably, he asked, "What’s a blog" and explained that he used direct mail to drive traffic to his website.  I believe that after the session and after I had an extended chat with him about blogging and what it means to connect with customers, the industry, and potential customers…he left with the spark.  That’s the spark to know more and explore the foreign world of organic marketing done by having dialog with the world at large.  I’m guessing that he’ll become an advocate and pro-blogger in no time.  Besides, he’s just gotten his first blog link to let’s all pound his site and show him what blogs do for traffic generation!
  5. I had a wonderful lunch conversation with a table full of entrepreneurs.  First, I chatted at length with Barbara Rasko of Make Mine Wine Magazine.  Her new magazine is focused on the "good life" here in Iowa and the surrounding states.  She highlights the 62 wineries here in Iowa and writes informative articles about the states viticulture and rich history of producing some of the world’s finest grapes for wine production.  I brought up blogs and away we went!  She needs to build buzz and gain eyeballs so advertisers will pay her bills.  What better way than to have conversations with Iowa wine enthusiasts and watch that spread around the world.  I gave a little "Blog 201" about tagging and how searches for Iowa Wineries could be owned by her if with a little editorial effort.  She concurred and I hope she reads this entry to see what a random meeting with her meant to the blogosphere.  Again, pound her site for me so she’ll see what a traffic spike 1 link means.  Also, subscribe to the magazine if you’re in the Midwest and enjoy local wines like I do.  Her first issue looked beautiful.
  6. Next I met 3 guys from Defyance Watercraft.  They’re building a personal watercraft that is purely electric powered.  It’s a small craft and will fill the "no gas motors allowed" niche for smaller lakes.  They tell me they have an abundance of "willing prototype testers" in the wings and I’d like to add my name to the list.  They hopped on the blog conversation and we chatted about building buzz, building an audience, building a community that investors would eat up as "validating the model".  Man that was fun!  The guys are working in a garage (it still happens) and need the money to build a prototype and launch the company.  Doesn’t this sound more fun than another Web 2.0 software company right now? 
  7. I also met a mom looking to re-enter the workforce after growing her child and while taking care of her ailing mother.  She said, "I don’t see starting a blog anytime soon" after our group’s embrace of the concept.  I countered that she’s exactly the type who SHOULD be blogging…about her situation, her desire to enter the workforce, etc.  If she engaged the world in conversation through blogging and reading blogs, she may find herself sifting through offers or finding the perfect situation that she didn’t know existed.  Heck, if she’d had a blog, I’d have link to her here and who knows what would happen from there?
  8. My final encounter was with Eric Branson.  He’s started his own Human Resources Management firm.  He’s the ideal candidate for blogging about his industry, his business, his life, etc.  People recommend and hire based on relationships.  Start engaging your world in conversation and see what happens Eric!

When lunch ended and we got up from the table, I told everyone there that, "I’d love to link to your blogs when I do my post on this event…but you don’t have them, so get started on them right away!..I think it struck a chord.  It was a pleasure meeting all of you and I hope we continue the conversation(s) soon.

One final note.  Isn’t it dandy to be immersed in so many people with ideas and enough chutzpah to come to a day of start up talk?  However, if you’re there and pitching yourself, or just meeting people that may someday be a part of your life, have a business card! They’re $30 for 1000 at Office depot but 30% of the people I met didn’t have them!         



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