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Angels Or Posers: Who’s Gonna Run This Town Tonight?

After a multitude of angel investor conversations over the last couple weeks (including Drinks On Fifth interviews with Sig Mosley and Vivek Wadhwa), I’ve come to one core question – and no one captures it better than Jay-Z: Who’s gonna run this town tonight? Between the economic downturn and Sig Mosley not issuing any new term sheets, there’s a vacuum a mile wide in Atlanta – a town that has all of the underpinnings necessary to be the next Boulder or New York. So who’s it gonna be? Someone we all know from inside 285? A shadow player who has local staff but that most entrepreneurs have never heard of? An East Coast outfit who has a stringer or EIR hanging around Atlanta? A complete outsider like Jason Calacanis with his Open Angel Forum? Or worst-case scenario of all: no one fills the void. Here’s my thought on what’s next…

First off, let’s be honest: Atlanta has the infrastructure needed to be a much bigger player than we are. Here are 10 truths I dare you to argue with:

  1. An airport that gets you almost anywhere in the world direct.
  2. An overall cost of living that embarrasses the West Coast or Northeast.
  3. A full-fledged research institution that churns out ninja engineers like crazy in Georgia Tech.
  4. One of the nation’s top technology-based incubators in ATDC.
  5. A design school that produces stunning visual artists and game designers in Savannah College of Art & Design.
  6. A vacancy rate in commercial real estate so high it drives insanely pro-startup prices and terms.
  7. A residential real estate market that’s always been ultra-competitive with other tech centers – and has taken an additional economy-driven haircut.
  8. Access to mid- and executive-level management talent from multiple Fortune 500 companies across industries like shipping, CPG, transportation, finance, etc.
  9. A no-brainer relocation spot for the future executive-level talent needed to drive the business.
  10. A thriving social life for young, single professionals.

 

Sure the traffic sucks and it’s hot in the summer, but get over it – every city has its issues. This town is ripe for the picking!

There’s another aspect of Atlanta you can’t ignore: in the absence of Sig, the rest of the angel class is a town of followers. While logic dictates this is a hindrance in growing an overall startup ecosystem, I would argue this might be our saving grace. If we can find the right minds to lead, the rest of this town will follow – that habit can’t be broken easily. What do you think would happen if a guy like Ron Conway or Chris Sacca funded in 2-3 Atlanta companies in the real-time data space? What if the Pied Piper changed the tune from B2B to something more of-the-now? You guessed it: the startup ecosystem would shift on a dime – and the angels would battle to the death to align themselves in deals alongside these heavy hitters. But I actually don’t think the solution is 100% external – I believe the new blood would only serve to shake the locals from a slumbering sleep (both investors and entrepreneurs).

I’m going to skip my “swing for the fences” speech on what types of companies entrepreneurs should be starting for one simple reason: natural selection. Once 3-4 new-style deals are done, I believe the transformation will be complete in less than six months. That’s a direct testament to how I think entrepreneurs have tried to build companies to be funded versus building what they really think users will love.

At the same time, entrepreneurs are not without blame here. I’m considering assembling a Crazy 88s-like band of ninjas to personally hunt down all startup people who ask investors and advisors for NDAs – you really gotta stop embarrassing yourself and our town. And secondly, quit asking for funding based on business plans – real investors fund URLs and working products.

But overall, I’m wildly optimistic about the quality and quantity of startups that can come from this town if there’s a clear path forward. I don’t think it’s an understatement to say startup folks have been beaten down. That bat’s been swung at me personally, and it’s not a Louisville Slugger – it tattooed B2B-SaaS on my arm for a week. But if we can break out of these shackles great things will happen. Imagine a Tech engineer, a SCAD designer and UGA journalism student joining forces to create a digital media company. Done…

At the end of the day, I think the major shift lies on the shoulders of outsiders – unless there’s some hidden individual or syndicate that’s ready to do 5-7 deals a year. (And honestly, I don’t care who you are as long as you’re in it for the love of the game.) We need someone like Jason Calacanis, Brad Feld, Ron Conway or Chris Sacca to wipe the slate clean. Someone with massive street cred, a solid track record and the resources necessary to take a company from a $25K seed round through a $5M Series C without getting crammed down. But those guys aren’t going to move here, they’re only going to delve into select deals that make sense for them. Think of them as the crowbar prying the door open so we can see the light.

So what does ‘owning this town’ really mean? As Vivek Wadhwa recently told me: “You don’t need billions of dollars, you need seasoned, successful, good human beings who are ready to help other human beings.” Let me boil that down even further: it really means an individual or small group doing 5-10 six-figure deals annually across a wider variety of startups. This gets the ball rolling, and other angels will follow suit – both regionally and nationwide.

vendetta

So the real question is: when the revolution happens, will you help push it forward or will you defend the old school? What side of history will you be on? I ask the question equally of investors and entrepreneurs because it will be ours to live day-in and day-out. Will you mentor younger entrepreneurs? Will you make investments based on passion for an idea not an actuarial view of the world? Will you lead the community? Will you become an angel following a successful exit? Will you finally welcome the consumer Internet with open arms? Will you give away 10% more of your company to make it 70% larger? And most importantly, are you willing to celebrate failure enough times to have a real crack at creating the next Facebook or Google?

Ask yourself these hard questions, and let’s all recognize we’re at a seminal point in our ecosystem. We can reboot the entire thing and unlearn all our bad habits, or we can be lazy and let inertia rule the day.

So again I ask: who’s gonna run this town tonight?

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+2 # Mike Schinkel 2010-07-23 09:26
Great article and great list!

However I'm coming to the conclusion that one of the biggest reasons we are not a startup town, and I fear that we may never be, is that we have 11 Fortune 500 companies located in Atlanta all of whom (obviously) are based in the conservative south. Full stop.

You'd think that would be a good thing but after playing in the startup sandbox as somewhat of a startup community leader for 3+ years two things are becoming clear to me:

1.) The culture of Fortune 500 companies in Atlanta are extremely insular; I can count on the 10 fingers of my two hands the local F500 people whose names are even visible among those not in their company, not in their industry or not directly involved with there business in some manner. The local F500s really have little interest (or so it appears to me) in "investing" in local startup companies by being their customers (with one caveat, see #2.) I've heard numerous anecdotes about high-profile deals that companies outside of Atlanta get when their Atlanta-based competitors with solid products or solid services can't even get in the door to present. In Silicon Valley, for example (I know, I know) the major players are constantly "tending the local gardens" because its great for their region's economy, it provides experience for the local talent, and most importantly it gives them a competitive leg up on potential acquisitions. Without that kind of support from the F500s, its much harder for startups to thrive in a region.

2.) Local Fortune 500 companies DO buy from a class of startups; agencies and other service firms. These are companies whose primary value-add are talented people who are ready to ask "How High?" at the whim of any local Fortune 500 employee with an budget at all. Those types of relationships build experience and expertise in being great "client service" people but the cause the potential startup skills to atrophy and die so it's very hard for someone to take both paths or even got off the former and switch to the latter. Agencies don't build better mousetraps, they address the tactical needs of well-heeled companies. Rarely if ever does an agency working for a profitable benefactor actually get to do something that makes a real difference or changes the world; it's all about the next marketing campaign. So why would people in this more conservative town take the very high risk "Ramen noodles" path when there are so many companies out there willing to pay such high salaries for servicing the whims of those in the Fortune 500? Over a year ago I generated a list of Atlanta interactive agencies which exceeds 50 and since I've created that list I've probably come across another 50. Do we even have 50 innovative startups that are or will one day be viable?)

So for me a huge problem is the culture of the local Fortune 500s. Unless and until the Atlanta-based F500s collectively value innovative startups and unless and until our major corporations actively encourage those they buy from to help grow their market cap by providing strategic technical and/or market *innovations* instead of just getting tactical help with their latest "It's all about us" marketing campaign, I'm afraid to say I believe very little is likely to change.

Sorry to be negative, but that's just how I've come to see things lately.

P.S. Yes there are a few "startups" companies for which this doesn't apply but they are outliers, not the norm.
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0 # GFRRTDEFF 2010-07-23 13:41
Mike: I’d agree agencies draw a ton of Fortune 500 spend in Atlanta, but having worked in both national and regional flavors of interactive shops they’re more about blocking and tackling than real innovation. And the smaller the agency, the more tactical they skew. Sure a couple VPs make the big bucks, but the vast majority of folks are mid-level project managers and account people who make an extra 10-15% salary based on the pure markup principle of the agency game, but you’re probably not going to work there for more than 3-4 years.

You and I have talked at-length about the nature vs. nurture question for entrepreneurs and I think this is the primary driver. In fact, I personally found my time inside agencies improved my startup game – I understood corporate buyers up-close and personal, I watched how innovation could be killed by committee, and I saw how much EVPs are willing to spend on technology. In theory, this agency track should be churning out potential entrepreneurs but there’s simply nowhere for them to go. No vibrant, funded B2C companies where their talents are pure gold.

For my money, you’ve just added another argument for why we need more B2C startups. I hadn’t thought of that one yet. Thanks!
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+3 # local guy 2010-07-23 10:09
Poseur's have run this town for a long time. Georgia government, bankers, lawyers, and - yes - Angels all live in the herd mentality coursing until their A-dawg barks-up a deal.

There are at least two really good consumer deals on the street that people "don't get" because a) they're Consumer SaaS gutting an old media industry, and b) everyone wants to know either "what Sig said" or get feedback from the one consumer-deal-founder guy in town that won't bother to meet.

Like Mike I know a few of the F500 dudes who will spend loads of time as Advisors with the two big Universities or new media agencies, but that's for one reason only: poaching cheap, trained do-er talent, not innovations.

Unlike Dave I don't believe any outside investor type's are gonna bother with ATL. When DLA came in, there was a threat of this - but in todays climate it just ain't gonna happen. Everyone west of Sonoma has parked the jet.
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0 # GFRRTDEFF 2010-07-23 13:55
I'd agree times are squeaky tight, but I think Step One can be taken by a very small handful of entrepreneurs and investors – boiling the ocean is impossible during these economic times. Folks like Regator and ScoutMob are getting us there business-wise, now we just need a funding source or two. $500K would go a long way toward cracking the nut, which is a pretty cheap cost of entry for someone external. Time will tell...
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0 # Feb0zdou1 2010-07-23 17:21
I agree with you, local guy. It ain't gonna happen, Dave. I predict you'll be quite cynical a year from now.

Before you came on board, TechDrawl's first research project was spurred by Jeff Haynie's rather controversial departure to Mountain View. blog.jeffhaynie.us/whats-wrong-with-the-atlanta-startup-ecosystem-and-how-to-fix-it.html. Mike Schinkel, Lance Weatherby, Urvaksh Karkaria and others filled me in.

So, TechDrawl (funded by the startup community) sent Russell Jurney to study (and hopefully emulate) the Valley's startup culture and ecosystem techdrawl.com/News-Post/Fresh-Voices/An-Atlanta-Boy-In-Silicon-Valley. He interviewed 8-10 of the biggest names out there including David Lee of SV Angel LLC (Ron Conway was in Hawaii).

Back in Atlanta, there was some fallout and backlash with "Not the Valley" buttons and lots of cheerleading since there are great reasons to live here.

However since then, we've lost 2 more entrepreneurs to the Valley -- Jurney and Paul Stamatiou, as well as a digital media strategist, Courtenay Bird. Brain drain.

We've also lost Greg Foster (but not to the Valley) , the only B2C VC in town.

I've become cynical for a 2 reasons. 1) Jurney's video interviews made clear that angels and VCs want to be geographically proximal to their teams. I realized it was probably wishful thinking that TechDrawl could attract B2C investment capital from outside the region, on of our original missions. 2) As Haynie said, Atlanta and Georgia are relatively tech laggards. I first realized this when at a TAG Top 40 judging event well over a year ago, the backnoise stream complained the judges were too low-tech to be judging technology. Only 2 were on Twitter and 1 did not even use a cell phone(!) Thanks to Ben Dyer (related), I've socialized with lots of investors here and have discovered how little many of them apparently get online (with some exceptions). I've explain how to move a cursor on a computer screen to click on a PayPal icon.

Now I'm a cynic. But, B2B will do fine in Atlanta and there's probably generally better ROI's there anyway.

Why are we technology laggards? I tend to concur with Jurney's theory that it's a Red State-Blue State pattern. Austin, Boulder, Boston, New York City and San Francisco are more liberal and open-minded, and Atlanta is more conservative and closed-minded. (And, I say that as someone who is relatively conservative).

In San Francisco (and all of CA during my 2 years there), it is cool to be on the cutting edge of everything. That's their schtick, their state pride. They know they are the world's fount of innovation and people are embarrassed to be left behind, to be low tech. It's cultural.

Not to rain on your parade, Dave, but I think you're going to be playing this tune by Rihanna and Jay-Z sooner rather than later: www.spike.com/video/rihanna-umbrella/2852429 :-)
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0 # GFRRTDEFF 2010-07-23 19:54
Alright so now we know where Celia and Local Guy stand, but I simply don't accept it. My theory on good people being beaten down is proving itself dead-on. If there's no hope, why would anyone still be trying? If you truly think the scene is that bad, your best option probably is to move because a defeatest attitude never solves anything. And for those of you that think it's miserable, isn't it darkest just before the dawn?

And I'll guarantee a year from now I'll be posing the same questions if things are still status quo – or better yet, we'll be running a funded startup alongside TechDrawl that is part of the solution. I refuse to concede there's no hope – this town is too smart.

My article has nothing to do with the SV vs. ATL debate. We're primed to define our own version of success – much the way Boulder has. I've had the conversations with like-minded guys like Jeff Hilimirie, and there are efforts underway. The question is: what will you do to help move us forward?
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0 # local guy 2010-07-23 20:43
Dave, no one said there's no hope for ATL. I commented that there's low likelihood it will come from outsiders. I've heard Cam Lanier is and out of PDK again working on a few big deals, which is good to hear - but we need others to step up and Fortune 500 guys to step in.

And to the points about ATL events, that panel of Angels kicking off the TiE event demonstrated they're tired. Someone needs to start inviting active, excited angels to drum up the town rather than the same old guys that talk it down even if their investments aren't yet well known.
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+1 # Feb0zdou1 2010-07-23 20:58
I was told the entrepreneurs at TiE pitched to no one who was listening. #fail
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0 # GFRRTDEFF 2010-07-24 02:31
You're spot-on that new blood is what's required – and I do believe we can attract them. Mark my words, if I can get Jason Calacanis to bring the Open Angel Forum to Atlanta you'll see a momentum shift very quickly. Know anyone who can help me convince him?
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0 # Feb0zdou1 2010-07-23 21:05
Shotput Ventures, Village Capital -- this younger generation of serial entrepreneurs investing in accelerator programs & giving back is probably the greatest chance Atlanta has to become a Boulder or Austin.

Even Austin entrepreneurs often must move executive(s) to the Valley to be near investors. Piryx www.piryx.com/landing/start/ case in point.
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+1 # Lance Weatherby 2010-07-23 20:57
Send them to me. If they are real deals we will in front of some people who write checks. If they are not I will write a blog post preserving the entrepreneur's anonymity explaining where the holes are.
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0 # Michael Price 2010-07-23 13:12
Michael Price of CEOVentures.com wrote:
As Ben mentioned in another article, there are several efforts underway to form Angel Funds in town. Hopefully several of those efforts will be successful and would be a big help to fill the void (wish Sig and John could stay in forever). On our part, we are also going to try and do more "not started internally" deals although the IRR of those is challenging without natural advantages in the marketplace beyond the tech being offered (but making good strides in building these to help the chosen startups jump forward). I don't think we can rely on any one firm as in the past, the strength of the Valley is in the numbers and synergistic ecosystems.
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0 # GFRRTDEFF 2010-07-23 14:00
The strength in numbers is the best point made so far. And you're right: Sig and I talked at-length about who steps in for Imlay and there are many conversations afoot, but no clear successor. I'd like to see 5-6 entities step in to interject more diversity in funding for the next 20 years...
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0 # John Peltier 2010-07-23 13:14
Good points, all. Living in Austin the last 18 months gave me another perspective to add: Sense of community. Where does the Atlanta community gather?

Austin has hundreds of groups and events cross-pollinated with local startup talent. F500's are somewhat scarce as well, but (1) the city encourages startups, (2) startups help each other, (3) the angel and incubator scenes are vibrant, and (4) people take pride in "Austin." They enjoy creating and being something bigger than themselves. It's personal.

My point is #4 of the above: People in Atlanta dislike living in Atlanta. (not "Metro Atlanta," -- "Atlanta") People steadfastly avoid going ITP, scared of what they may find. Encourage technology happy hours and events to draw folks together. That's a community builder Atlanta desperately needs.
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+1 # local guy 2010-07-23 13:18
John, there are too many happy hour things filled with "accredited investors" and their service player entourage, they're just not productive times for start-up people. The insider crowd is always there to ensure they're not missing out on what Sig's been doing while the others are trying to pitch the outsourcing of your bootstrap. But, try to get a word in edgewise...
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0 # GFRRTDEFF 2010-07-23 14:08
I gotta side with local guy on this one. There are plenty of events, but few that create real traction for entrepreneurs. There are plenty on my short list to attend, but there's not one I absolutely can't miss.

The real problem is solving this issue would require one to start yet another event in an attempt to do things differently. So it's x+1, x+2, etc. until someone gets it right.

I think you've got to take a more one-on-one approach to networking – find people who matter to your startup, and build real relationships not just networking events or drinks once a month.
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0 # Feb0zdou1 2010-07-23 17:37
Geez, I'm scared to go OTP.

(I feel like most startup events occur in Tech Square in Midtown ATL. Must be missing some ATDC circles).
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0 # Feb0zdou1 2010-07-23 16:20
C'mon, SCAD doesn't own game design education in Atlanta! Ga Tech has undergrad and grad programs www.gradadmiss.gatech.edu/programs/lcc/dm.php and Spelman College has gaming and an internationally renowned robotics team, Spelbots www.spelman.edu/_ezpost/data/22280.shtml
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+1 # Chance 2010-07-23 17:49
Points 2, 6, 7 and 9 are redundant. Point 10 doesn't matter. Point 8 often doesn't translate into effective tech management skills. Main question is "Why does the void exist in the first place?" If Atlanta is so great, why is (essentially) no one here? You're a tech hub or you're not. Atlanta isn't. But it is a great place to live and work. Parallel truths.
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0 # GFRRTDEFF 2010-07-23 20:02
The void is easily explainable: the top angel of the last 20 years is not doing new deals. I also refuse to believe it's an either-or conversation – Boulder was a funky mountain town five years ago. In fact, we've got a ton more infrastructure reasons to be successful than not. All startup ecosystems start (or restart) somewhere.
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0 # Ben Dyer 2010-07-23 18:48
Yes a lively discussion. Although plenty of money has been made in technology in Atlanta, we're still a town where the majority of successful entrepreneurs have struck gold in real estate, banking, and related endeavors -- at least through 2007. Up until that point in time, the explosive growth of the city led by large corporate employers seemingly made every bank or real estate deal a winner. It was hard to find a private investor who had not made money in a bank deal, and de novo banks were easier to get funded than any other type of start-up. Real estate, banking, construction, and all their cousins fueled each other. Meanwhile, post-Bubble, most technology angels report that they didn't get much return. I've very often heard it said that tech angels have little to show for their risk in the last decade. So, it was easy to follow the money to where it provided the best gains.

Of course now all the rules are different. It's become hard to find anyone who has not LOST money on a bank deal in the last 3 years. We all read the same stats on the real estate market and know what that's going to be like for a while. Perhaps there will be new impetus to shift investment dollars toward the innovation coming from our research institutions and the bright young entrepreneurs they are spawning.

Perhaps the leadership for such will arise from within. That's probably our best chance, given that it's much easier for ideas and entrepreneurs to move to the money than vice versa. We may have already ceded great tech trends like RTD and LBS to the Valley and other media centers, and perhaps we ought to be focusing on the next round of opportunity. It could be medical devices or greentech, for example.

All this goes back to many previous discussions on the need to be working on the right things here -- the ones that can scale with the resources available in Atlanta. That won't be more banks, and it may not be consumer Internet, but there are areas in which we can lead. I think the "right things" will get funded -- investors will be the ultimate voters who make those choices.

Great post, Dave, and welcome comments all.
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0 # Feb0zdou1 2010-07-23 19:45
This guy mentions "email." I think here's a tech sector we can OWN -- turkey callin' technology! Mouth call technology!

Okay, just kidding.
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0 # Feb0zdou1 2010-07-23 19:46
Here's the link for turkey callin' technology:

www.youtube.com/watch?v=L4AUiir1Wc4&feature=related
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0 # Lance Weatherby 2010-07-23 23:13
You are asking the wrong questions. http://bit.ly/caq3yl
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+2 # Dave Wright 2010-07-24 00:11
I'd tend to agree with Lance on this one - I think the biggest issue isn't lack of funding, but lack of fundable deals. I've seen a total of 3 startups in the last year that I'd consider "fundable" and all 3 are getting funded. Lance sees far more than me, and if he says that quality is a problem, quality is a problem.
Why is that? Well, I think one reason is that the ecosystem in the Valley leads to far more forward thinking about startup ideas, and certainly has advantages in terms of building teams that investors think can build a successful exit.
Of course, just because a startup isn't fundable doesn't mean it's not worth doing - it just means it's not ready for funding yet. Ask questions, get a reality check, find your weaknesses, decide if they can be addressed, and pivot as many times as needed. Build it on your spare time and get funding when you have a product and paying customers. You'll be amazed at how much money is available when that happens.
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0 # GFRRTDEFF 2010-07-24 02:42
Dave: I'd actually agree about the lack of fundable deals. The entrepreneurs need to step-up their game as much (or more) than the investors, which I've written about plenty. Money will find great ideas, but where's the glimmer of hope something B2C can get funded locally? One or two wins in this space would signal a whole new era, and would spawn a bunch of new companies from current and future entrepreneurs.
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0 # Lance Weatherby 2010-07-24 14:41
Bingo.
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+3 # Russell Jurney 2010-07-24 20:23
Dave, I guess its better all my articles on techdrawl were deleted, because it lets you say this stuff with a straight face.
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+2 # GFRRTDEFF 2010-07-26 03:23
Russell: I think 'deleted' is a bit of a dramatic way to describe the fact we're still working to migrate the content to the new site. For anyone wanting to view them, here's a link: http://bit.ly/bCrmSC.

In terms of their effect on how we determine the future of investors and startups in a deep economic downturn while simultaneously losing our most prolific angel, you would have been channeling Nostradamus to have covered that ground.
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0 # local guy 2010-07-26 03:35
Dave, with all due respect to our local godfather: is Sig the angel or is Imlay the angel?

This concept of a gate keeper/turkey caller is larger here than many folks want to admit. I also sense someone angling to be the next big warbler. That, of course, requires an owner carrying a gun that can actually buy bullets and pull the trigger.

From what I hear, that ain't the case.
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0 # GFRRTDEFF 2010-07-26 04:31
Those guys have been rolled-up for so long, I don't think it really matters – except to those trying to pry a term sheet out of Sig :-) The MSA exit created the original chunk of cash, but I'd bet the ISS and Tradex deals probably came close to making everything else house bets.

To me, the best possible scenario is a mix of 4-6 investors taking up the mantle – with a varied view of the types of businesses they fund. Add a thriving Shotput Ventures-type incubator to the mix, and I think you'll have a killer ecosystem that will draw great ideas out of talented entrepreneurs.

A $20K bet on a 22 year-old has the highest probability chance of starting the next game-changing company – but only if the angels and VCs are slotted in behind the incubator to fund the growth. It takes cash to scale at the speed most investors want to move...
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