20 November 2009

Philly's Startup Phinest Rock at Founder Factory

WXPN's World Cafe Live regularly features rock bands, but on one day in November, Philly Startup Leaders' Founder Factory gives entrepreneurs, from earnest beginners to successful experts, the chance to be the rock stars.

The small stage and close proximity of the audience makes for an intimate setting, differentiating it from the large, cold and poorly lit venues that usually host company showcases.

For the experts who have made it -- as entrepreneurs, investors or both -- Founder Factory provides a chance to regenerate the entrepreneurial ecosystem. The experts share stories, impart wisdom, and lend an objective ear in "Fishbowl" problem-solving sessions with young startups.

For the startups, it's a chance to meet other like-minded entrepreneurs, receive advice that would cost thousands if they had to pay for it, and maybe even find an investor or adviser.

And for the audience, many of whom are entrepreneurs working on their own ideas, they benefit from hearing the types of questions facing young companies and those asked by investors and others who may be in a position to lend a hand to them some day.

This year's speakers included Doug Alexander of Internet Capital Group. Doug has seen it all over almost 30 years as an investor and entrepreneur. He offered an investor's perspective on what it takes to build a successful company.

Success may be determined by how a startup answers a few essential questions, Alexander noted: 1.) Are you solving a problem that is keeping someone up at night? 2.) How are you going to make money? and 3.) What is your go-to-market strategy?

Dr. Jeremy Siegel, the Russell E. Palmer Professor of Finance at the Wharton School, arrived with some good news on the economic front. He analyzed everything from the relative value of the dollar to what level of inflation our economy can handle (3-4 percent, in his view), and even criticized former Fed Chairman Alan Greenpsan for not foreseeing the collapse of the credit markets due to highly leveraged credit default swaps.

"Greenspan saw the balance sheets," Professor Siegel said. "He could have told us to watch out." Siegel's bullish optimism on the resilience of our economy was well received.

The sold-out crowd of 200-250 people also heard from Alan Kraus of Ben Franklin Technology Partners Geoff Cook of myyearbook.com and David Brussin of Monetate.

The Fishbowl companies this year were Revzilla, an ecommerce site for motorsports enthusiasts, mobile language learning system PlaySay, and Kidzillions, an allowance and chore rewards platform that lets kids spend and save their money online.

Kendra Gaeta, founder and CEO of Kidzillions stole the show when she demonstrated the art of winging it during her presentation. Her team did not make it due to car trouble on the Turnpike and then her PowerPoint couldn't load. With a sigh of resolve, Gaeta plowed ahead, impressing both the Fishbowl panel and the audience.

The sophomore outing of Founder Factory was not without kinks: some of the presenters need to sharpen their presentation skills and focus on the story rather than every technical issue they wrestled with in establishing their business.

I'd also like to see some cleantech representation in the program next year, either as presenters or Fishbowl companies. There were several interesting cleantech companies in the audience this year, so perhaps one will hit the PSL radar.

And the program would benefit from having a "where are they now?" session recapping what happened with last year's Fishbowl companies and what they learned after Founder Factory.

In the end, Founder Factory is a good reminder that celebrating the entrepreneur can lead to inspiration and value creation. More than one entrepreneur in the audience with whom I spoke shared that Founder Factory helped them renew the spark that got them excited about starting a business in the first place.

And perhaps one of those startups will one day be invited back as an expert imparting his or her wisdom to the next generation of entrepreneurs.

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