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Wings of Acquire: Using ‘Angel Groups’ to Find Edtech That Actually Helps Students

the74-logoNote: A version of this post appeared in an article in The 74 Million.

 

When I first met Adam Fried, superintendent of New Jersey’s Harrington Park School District — and newly-named Bergen County superintendent of the year — he told me, “We want to be a part of the conversation that is happening in the edtech space. For years edtech has been built for us rather than with us.”

Then, a few months ago, Stephen Hodas introduced Fried to Dreamit, which helps launch technology firms in education and other industries globally and which I direct.

Hodas, whose many ventures have included running the Office of Innovation for New York City’s public schools, worked with Dreamit when we first ran a program nurturing education technology startups. When I informed him that the company was launching a new edtech initiative in partnership with Penn State and were looking for principals and superintendents who were, no kidding, seriously interested in working with startups, he immediately mentioned Fried.

“Having an engaged, supportive educator can be the critical success factor for an early-stage startup,” Hodas told me. “Teacher feedback is essential to creating relevant and useful products, but if your model involves selling to schools, then principals and superintendents are the ones who launch your business. Only they can greenlight pilots”

This is what Hodas told Fried as well, but the superintendent wasn’t satisfied with merely advising a few entrepreneurs and implementing a pilot or two. He had larger ambitions.

“I’d spent the past two years bringing in entrepreneurs and empowering my staff — basically doing everything possible to create teachers who are fearless about taking chances,” Fried said. “But ultimately, I’m just one district. And then I thought, ‘What if I were twenty schools?’ Then the entrepreneurs would come to us, listen to our problems, and go out and solve them.”

With that idea and twenty like-minded principals, superintendents, and other school leaders, Fried founded the Northern Ignite Cluster. Its near-term goal: meet every two months with four or five pilot-ready startups capable of addressing real needs in their districts.

NIC held its first meeting in April at Dreamit’s New York office. Four startups currently in our accelerator program (i.e., startups whose businesses we’re helping to develop), along with a company that recently completed our program, demoed their apps and services for the educators.

“The ingenuity and creativity of the apps had real potential for future use by school districts,” said Superintendent Richard Kuder of the Wyckoff School District. “It was invigorating to be a part of the early side of the creative process. I am looking forward to the next opportunity.”

Fried is already looking ahead to how groups of educators like NIC can scale to dozens or even hundreds of members, partnering with scores of startups — and how groups that size will determine which ideas are best.

As we brainstormed possible structures and processes, it occurred to me that there was an organizational model surprisingly close to home: angel groups.

Angel group investing has been around for decades, arising from a time when finding individual investors was more challenging for startups, with the result that investors weren’t seeing a sufficient number of proposals to be confident they were investing in the best. Change “investing” to “piloting” and you have the problem Fried wants to solve.

As angel groups grew to dozens and in some cases even hundreds of members, they did in fact attract many more startups — too many, in fact. The groups developed screening mechanisms to weed out entrepreneurs who weren’t quite ready for investment or who were outside of the sectors that most interested the groups’ members. The process often involved a formal application reviewed by a committee of five to ten members. Only startups who making it through this filter were able to present to the group as a whole.

The possible usefulness of this kind of model to a tech enthusiast like Fried was intriguing, so I introduced him to Mindy Posoff, Managing Director at Golden Seeds — an angel group that invests in young companies with diverse management teams.

Posoff saw the potential immediately. “The power of working within a strong angel network allows you the ability to access a wide range of experiences, perspectives, and resources,” she explains. “In talking with Adam, it became apparent that our dynamic screening, due diligence and investment process could be easily adapted and scaled for his needs.”

With an organizational framework in place, Fried is ready to grow his group. “If you are a district, school or thought leader that would like to be apart of the Northern Ignite Cluster please contact me at fried@hpsd.org. We are looking forward to the future and what this will do for our children.”

Angel Profile: Toan Huynh

alleywatch-logoNote: Angel Profiles is my semi-regular column appearing on AlleyWatch.  

Angel At A Glance-Toan Huynh2

Why do you angel invest?

I started out as an entrepreneur—just like you—and learned the hard way that sometimes, VC money is not all that it appears to be. It can make you feel like you gave your shirt, your house, your car, and your shoes away. I know what it takes to be an entrepreneur and put everything you have: your blood, sweat, tears, ALL your time and sleepless nights, into a startup. So to have an angel come in and support us would have been a godsend. This perspective probably makes me more sympathetic towards entrepreneurs than it does non-entrepreneur investors. VC money is good for some ventures, but just be very clear about what you are getting into, especially if you are post revenue and can get better funding elsewhere.

I’ve done three startups and they’ve grown. Angel investing, if done correctly, can be a wealth generation tool, but it is not an exact science. A lot of it is your gut. A lot of it is your experience and your belief in the product, the person, the team, or the market.

What was your first angel investment? How did it turn out?

Wow, this was a while ago – let me think. I started in my late 20’s. I invested in a Mexican “white glove service” bank that catered to well-heeled Mexicans in the US. These guys are very well off, they travel to the US all the time and when they do, they expect the same level of service that they get in their home country. and there was a gap: there was nobody doing it. There was a pay out a last year so, yeah, I’d say that this investment went pretty well.

What investment do you most want to brag about?

Yes! How did you know? The one that I really want to brag about is actually a company I invested in called New York Distilling Company. It is an artisanal gin and whiskey distillery right here in Brooklyn and was co-founded by folks from the Brooklyn Brewery. I just love the idea of supporting local jobs and food and it has been great to watch them grow. Another is Hayward, one of the first American lifestyle luxury brands – they make stunning bags and accessories and is getting ready to open their first retail experience location in NYC!

Can I tell you about another company I invested in? The other one is a Vietnamese-style sauce company The Saucey Sauce Company. They produce all natural, artisanal Vietnamese inspired sauces and ketchups – they are awesome and makes everyone look like a rock star home chef!! I use it daily when I cook. I am proud of that one because I’ve seen it really seed and grow as a family endeavor.

Any notable or amusing train wrecks? Any lessons learned?

It’s still too soon to say if there are any train wrecks yet. That said, there are some that are struggling and pivoting. An example is a curated personal healthcare “birch box” concept – we thought it would be snapped up quickly by the big box pharma chains but that hasn’t happened.

I have found that a good way to manage your angel investments is at the beginning of the year you say to yourself, “Here is my bucket of money for angel investments this year” and it makes up a certain % of your overall investment portfolio And you tend to be generous at the beginning of the year – as the year progresses, angels may start to think, “Wait, I invested here, I invested there, my portfolio’s filling up. I don’t have room for more investments.” So you have to be more picky and do more due diligence.

Any startups you backed that should have hit but didn’t? Any idea why not?

Yeah, there was a social media site, like a digital “Dear Abby” for the young women of today. Say you get a text from a boy and you don’t know what it means. You post it and all the lady friends you know log on and comment. You also have male ambassadors commenting as well. Essentially, it allows you to crowd-source advice about dating based on texts guys send you. They had a movie deal with major networks, they had a series deal, like they had all this stuff kind of going on. Those projects probably are still in the works and will probably grow in the next several years as consumer trends change .I’m still waiting for the up, though. [laughs]..but I am patient!

Most humbling experience (related to angel investing)?

Humbling? Well, I am turned off when an entrepreneur is obnoxious enough to say that you cannot invest unless you write a huge check. Entrepreneurs like that sometimes miss the point of angel investing. It is not just the money. It is the entire network that that person could bring to bear – if they care about you and buy into your vision, the angels can bring a lot to the table. But humbling? Gosh, I don’t know.

What’s the smartest thing someone pitching you said or did?

Once I asked an entrepreneur, “Tell me what I would miss if I don’t invest.” He said, “Look, if you didn’t invest – and I get why you are not investing – but just picture this: 5-10 years from now, I’m going to be here…. I’ve put it all on myself. I’ve put in all my life savings.” He understood that in order for me to buy in, I had to understand my return pretty explicitly and that he was willing to be in that ride with me.

One of the first red flags for me when evaluating an investment is to understand how much money the founder has put in himself. This is actually pretty key, because you want them to have skin in the game, right? You have to make sure you understand the motivation behind a business and that you agree with it.

What financial returns do you target for an angel investment?

I don’t have lofty dreams for angel investment, to be honest. If I or anyone else gets a 10x or 100x return, it’s a rarity. You look for a 10x plus return, knowing that you are lucky to get a 2x plus return. And I’m pretty realistic on time frame – between 3–7 years. I know the funds are locked up and I’m not going to see that money any time soon.

What makes you better than the average angel?

Hmmm, I don’t know if I am better than the average angels. but I manage the angel investment like a portfolio. It’s an investment vehicle; it’s not emotional. My husband and I agree this is what we have and that’s it. If later anyone finds something really interesting, we’ll say, “Look, we can’t do it this round, but maybe next year.” We run it like a little PE shop.

Sometimes, when you get excited about an idea or a team, you do make emotional investments. When it is emotional, I cap it.

I do have specific expertise in cloud technologies, food tech, fintech and a personal interest in education and women’s and children’s health – so I have view points on these that might be helpful.

Pretend that it’s 2019 and complete this sentence, “[Technology X] is less than 5 years old and now I can’t imagine life without it.”

I think that five years from now I’m going to have a home device or office device that can actually know my habits: know what I want, know what I need, know what I do in what order, and help me manage my personal and professional life in a meaningful way. A life assistant – you know what I mean? I would love to see a product like that.

What’s the best way for entrepreneurs to reach out to you?

Check me out on LinkedIn.

If you are an active NY-area angel (or know someone who is) and would like to be profiled for AlleyWatch, please contact me here.

Angel Profile: Zach Aarons

alleywatch-logoNote: Angel Profiles is a bi-weekly column appearing on AlleyWatch.  

Angel Profile-Zach Aarons

How did you get into angel investing?
I was running a walking tour business here in New York. My partners and I were always playing around with how to make the experience better. We had a lot of ideas and then, with the launch of the iPhone 4, other people started doing it. I got depressed for a bit, that I wasn’t the first mover, that they stole my idea. Obviously they didn’t but they were actually executing when I was just doing walking tours. So I decided to start calling and emailing these people out of the blue and asking them if I could get involved. They said I could invest. I had no idea about seed terms and any of this stuff but I took the plunge, started writing checks, and I got addicted to it.

What was your first angel investment? How did it turn out?
I was doing consulting work for a digital agency downtown that I still advise called Gin Lane Media. They were developing wire frames for me to build an artificial intelligence itinerary generator. I had to go out to LA for work and TechCrunch Disrupt 2011 was feeding live videos of the presentations. I saw this guy present an artificial intelligence itinerary generator called Weotta and it was far better than anything I could have ever done. I emailed one of my friends who was there at the time and said, “Don’t let this guy out of your sight. Don’t let this guy leave until he agrees to take a check from me.” I ended up investing. I called Gin lane and told them to burn the wire frames.

The company is doing really well. The founder is really well networked in the valley and has received investments from far more impressive people than me. It was really a watershed for me because he took a chance on an (at the time) unknown investor when he didn’t have to. More importantly, he has become one of my closest friends, a mentor to me, and has introduced me to more people than anyone else in the tech scene.

What investment do you most want to brag about / why?
Everlater is one of my exits. Two guys travelled the world together and decided they wanted to do a mobile travel journal app. Which failed, as all mobile travel apps do. So they pivoted and became a B2B platform that sold solutions to tourism companies. Rafting trip guides and school trips and things like that could own the content rather than all the content being creating on these trips were going elsewhere – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram.

They got funded by a VC fund in Boise, Idaho called Highway 12 Ventures and were looking for other angels. I remember seeing their pitch deck on Skype while in my in-laws house in France. The last slide in the deck is a picture of them standing on this giant crater. I said, “Where is that? The Atacama Desert?” And they said, “Yeah. You’re the only person we pitched that has actually gotten that.” I wrote them a check for $25K. I had a connection to these people. I couldn’t explain it. I was the only angel to take the plunge along with the VC fund.

Less than a year later they got bought out by AOL Mapquest who, rather than compete with Google Maps, are pivoting to a travel solution.

But why I’m most proud of this is that, while I was helping them through this transaction, they told me, “This deal took longer than we expected. Without your $25K, instead of getting acquired and having a really nice exit, we would have gone bankrupt.”

Notable train wrecks and lessons learned?
<Laughs> Do I have to name the company?

I invested in this company. Four guys, right out of college, hungry as hell, very talented, knew their market. They had ambitious plans and moved out to the valley. A couple friends and I were the first money in for $50K each. They raised about $1M in 9 months… and blew it in 9 months. No investors knew that they had been burning money like this. Maybe their advisors knew but none of the investors.
First lesson learned: If a company has really impressive advisors but none of them are writing checks, figure out what is going on.

We were told they were going to merge. Basically, it would have been like a talent merger. We were excited because the company that was coming on had a very talented IOS person. The team continued to look impressive on paper. It should have been a red flag how excessively aggressive the CEO was but I looked at it as being stupidly hungry, really wanting it. There’s a fine line there.
Second lesson learned: Try to figure out where hunger ends and excessive asshole-ish behavior begins.

Then I get a call from him saying, “The guy who was going to merge reviewed the bank statements decided to back out at the last minute. The other two cofounders also backed out. The company is folding. We have no money. We’re $150K in debt.” They had been spending money like crazy. We found out the company had bought a $60K automobile.
Third lesson learned: Monitor how your companies are spending money if you can.

Then it was just a shit-storm. The founders were threatening to sue each other. We were thinking of seeking legal action but there was no money to be recouped. The founder would fire off these emails insulting a lot of the investors, calling them names. The company folded.
Fourth lesson learned: Do your diligence on founders.

What startups have you backed that should have hit but didn’t and why not?
There are plenty that didn’t hit but I don’t know why.

What’s the most humbling or frustrating experience you have had relating to angel investing?
There was a company I had been working with on and off for about a year and had a very good relationship with. I always told them, “Whenever you guys are raising money let me know. I love your product, want to work with you.” They get into Techstars. All is good. Then they raise a sizable seed round and I get a call, “We are kicking about 10 angels out. The lead investor doesn’t want that many angels in the deal.”

Your day job is at a real estate development company. How does that compare to angel investing?
My dad is in real estate so I have always been around it but I hadn’t worked in real estate until after angel investing.

It is a completely different world. In IT, you incubate a concept and in two weeks you have a products. In another two weeks you raise a round. Then you sell the company two weeks later. Millennium Partners does large scale, mixed-use development. These projects take ten years: Three years to get your entitlements, two years to get your financing, three years to actually build the building, and then another three years to sell it out. So it is a very long slug and I come in and out of deals at times when I can add value. It’s very, very different.

Where it helps is that there are a lot of very interesting start-ups popping up in real estate tech. For the first time real estate is starting to embrace enterprise products. I have been lucky enough to participate in a couple of those deals and I hope to do many more. I am even thinking about incubating my own real estate SaaS product right now.

You were a Senior Associate at ENIAC Ventures for a while. How was that?
ENIAC is a small fund and this was not a typical kind of Associate position. The partners all have full-time jobs, I had a full-time job.

How I got involved with them is pretty funny actually. I met Aamer Abdulla, a very active angel, who invested in Vic Singh’s company Tracks, a photo sharing solution. [note: Vic is also General Partner at ENIAC.] Aamer thought I should take a look, introduced me to Vic, and we really hit it off. At the end of the meeting he said, “So can you write a check?” I said, “I’ll write a check Vic, but only if you let me intern for you at ENIAC”. He said, “I can’t do that but I’ll introduce you to the other partners. If they like you, they’ll show you the ropes.”

It was a great experience and they were kind enough to let me in on some of the deals they are doing, such as Sonic Notify and TapCommerce.

Pretend that it’s 2019 and complete this sentence, “[Technology X] is less than 5 years old and now I can’t imagine life without it.”
My smart fridge. It is going to have spots in it for everything – water, milk, orange juice, cheese, whatever. Whenever things get taken away for a specific amount of time (viz., eaten), it will automatically be delivered to my house so I can put it back in my fridge. Automatically replenished.

The other thing is my personal, flying drone. He takes out the garbage for me. He mails letters for me. (It is only 2019 so there will still be letters.) My hovering personal butler. I can’t imagine life without him.

What’s the best way for entrepreneurs to reach out to you?
Get a warm introduction. If you can’t do that, I am unlikely to invest. My AngelList profile is a pretty substantial guide to my past investments and you can find someone who is friendly with me via Linkedin.

If you are an active NY-area angel (or know someone who is) and would like to be profiled for AlleyWatch, please contact me here. 

Angel Profile: Randy Adler

alleywatch-logoNote: Angel Profiles is a bi-weekly column appearing on AlleyWatch.  

Angel At A Glance-Randy Adler

Randy Adler is the Co-founder and Managing Partner of RK ADLER LLP.

Why do you angel invest?
I love the space.  I think it is the opportunity of a lifetime: a true land grab.  We are experiencing a transition from the old economy to the new economy in which all things become “tech.” This is a unique point in time.  It’s not just a “pop market” that – you ride and get out.  It’s not just a paper game.

Overall, I like to invest in companies that actually make gut sense.  Right now the most opportunities are in technology, especially B2B startups that are generating revenue by helping old brick and mortars transition to the new economy.

When and what was your first angel investment?  How did it turn out?
In tech, my first angel investment was in Lumier.  I co-invested alongside SV Angel, Founders Fund and some other notable investors.  The founder is a former Microsoft developer, a brilliant young guy named Cullen Dudas.  He was recruited at a young age – something like 13.  Basically, he created a new operating system to make Windows 8 look more like the old Windows and function better for people who are more familiar the traditional interface.

It’s doing ok so far.  Every new company has challenges and this one is no different. I’ve been taking more of an active role in this one in order to help them along.  This company has promise because of the high-quality talent, intellectual property and the high quality investors who are involved.

What investment do you most want to brag about and why?
I think I am most proud of my involvement with Vine, the 6-second video clip company that Twitter recently acquired.  I was part of the founding team as an advisor and was involved every step of the way from pre-formation through exit.  I am very proud of what Dom [Hoffmann], Rus [Yusupov], and Colin [Kroll] – the Vine co-founders – have built.

Any notable or amusing train wrecks?
There was a geo-location based company I invested in during the hype of the B2C, sexy-this-is-going-to-change-the-future, wave in 2011.  They were extremely well capitalized but they made a lot of cart-before-the-horse mistakes and their burn was very high.  It was a really good lesson to me.  Just because you have a company with a lot of money behind it, some great names, and everything else, doesn’t necessarily mean that it is going to be a hit.

There is another very similar story that was a fashion company.  Also extremely well capitalized, great VCs involved… and just completely mismanaged.  They had a lot of visionaries but were not great day-to-day operators.  How do you tell the person whose baby it is that they need to give up their baby?  It is a really tough transition.

Were there any companies that you wanted to invest in but couldn’t?
numberFire.  I love those guys.  I think they are brilliant.  They are an ER Accelerator company that I wanted to invest in before they were hot.  But I just did not pull the trigger in time.  For me, they are the one that got away.

Most humbling experience (relating to angel investing)?
It is a tossup between missing deals because I couldn’t pull the trigger fast enough – I like to take my time and I do more due diligence than some angels – and being passed over in favor of more “strategic” investors.  I definitely understand why a startup would want strategic investors and now that I have established more of a name for myself, it is less of an issue.

What do you like to see in a pitch?
I actually get nervous when a founder has an amazing pitch.  I think to myself, “What am I missing?  This is too good to be true.”  You get some tech guys who just do not pitch well and it does not mean it is a bad team or a bad startup.  I think it is up the investor to cull out the critical things.

A quality product and a great team means a lot more to me.  If the founders are working hard on product, I don’t expect them to be master presenters and memorize Guy Kawasaki’s 10/20/30 rule of PowerPoint.  At the stage I invest in, the companies generally do not have a marketing guy on the team… and if they did, I would be worried that their burn was too high.

What makes you better (e.g., more helpful, more valuable) than the average angel?
I understand that there is sometimes going to be bad news and that everyone makes mistakes.  It means I can help.

Also, I think I’m uniquely positioned as a Co-founder of one of NYC’s top law firms for startups.  I’m also really tuned into the startup community on both the east and west coast.

Pretend that it’s 2019 and complete this sentence, “[Technology X] is less than 5 years old and now I can’t imagine life without it.”
The next innovation will be something in the Google Glass realm – hardware based.  It will be something like smartphones but even more integrated into our lives, either wearable, embedded, or something that we swallow.

What’s the best way for entrepreneurs to reach out to you?
Through the Interwebs of course. J

They can contact me via email: randolph@rkadler.com. I’m also on LinkedIn and Twitter @RandolphAdler

If you are an active NY-area angel (or know someone who is) and would like to be profiled for AlleyWatch, please contact me here. 

Angel Profile: Mark Wachen

alleywatch-logoNote: Angel Profiles is a bi-weekly column appearing on AlleyWatch.  Here’s the original article.

Angel At A Glance-Mark Wachen

Mark Wachen is the Managing Director for DreamIt Ventures New York and the Managing Director and Founder of Upstage Ventures.

What got you into angel investing?
Mostly my experience with my own company, Optimost. [Acquired by Interwoven, which was in turn acquired Autonomy Corporation, which was bought by HP].  When I started that company, I raised some angel money.  The role that those initial angels played was instrumental to the company’s success.  The ability to contribute that same experience to other entrepreneurs to me is intrinsically valuable.  Also, I am a big booster of the New York tech scene, and one of the key reasons for its growth in recent years has been the much stronger group of angels and the early seed money that is now available.  It really helped ignite the whole thing.  Like Bruce Springsteen says, “You can’t start a fire without a spark.”  Angel investing is the spark that gets the whole thing going.

Certainly I hope there will be real economic returns from my angel investing but that’s not the only motivation.

What was your first angel investment and how did it turn out?
The first one was a company called Order Groove.  They are basically a subscription commerce platform allowing eCommerce sites to offer recurring orders-of-the-month club functionality to their websites.  I invested in 2009 and they are doing really well.  They just raised a Series B round and have clients like L’Oreal, Jockey, Johnson & Johnson, Grainger, and others.

It really resonated with me because they faced some of the same challenges I faced in the early days of Optimost.  Early on they faced the question, “Why can’t companies just build this themselves?”  What I’ve learned from my own experience is that, while probably anyone can build anything with enough time and resources, none of these big companies have the time or focus to do it.  So if you can provide a critically valuable service, they will gladly pay to have someone else provide it.

What investment do you most want to brag about?
(laughs) It’s hard to say who your favorite child is.  I guess I have to pat myself on the back that virtually all of my angel investments are still in business.  I consider that an accomplishment.

One that I think is particularly interesting is YouNow.  They are a next generation, interactive television platform.  There offer a huge variety of channels where people perform for a minute and the audience votes thumbs-up / thumbs-down.  If the performer gets enough votes, he gets another minute.

What’s exciting to me is that it seems like the logical progression of where interactive entertainment is going.  They are doing really well and now  have a large number of  channels going 24/7, with all kinds of interesting content.  And the fact that it is crowd-curated means that quality should just keep getting better.

Notable lessons learned?
I had one train wreck.  It’s still going but it’s a train wreck.  This was a movie deal.  I certainly learned the lesson “invest in what you know” because there was a lot about that particular industry that I wasn’t aware of.  And, at least in this particular case, the level of unprofessionalism and mismanagement was the kind of thing you read about (laughs) or see in movies.

What’s the main reason you see for startups you backed, either personally or through DreamIt Ventures, that should have hit but didn’t?
At least for early stage companies, the common theme is usually team dynamics – not that it is not a quality team but that the founders don’t get along with each other and that causes the whole thing to implode.  We as investors are constantly talking about how you need a well-balanced team with all these different skill sets and the side effect of this is that sometimes, in an effort to satisfy investors, it inadvertently leads to shotgun marriages, which are usually not a recipe for success.

Most humbling experience (relating to angel investing)?
The most humbling are the ones that get away, the ones that for whatever reason I decided not to invest in and that I kick myself for now.  One I can mention is Birch Box.  I met the women who run that right when they had the idea, before they graduated from Harvard Business School.  They were a really impressive team and had a really novel idea.  The challenge I had was that they were going after a category, women’s cosmetics, that I just didn’t have domain expertise in so I had a hard time wrapping my head around the market.  But they checked out really high in every other metric and they seem to be doing really well.

How has running DreamIt NYC affected your angel investing?
They complement each other really well.  My own angel investing, while in the grand scheme of things are certainly very early stage, within the spectrum of early stage, are not quite as early as DreamIt’s investments.  A company that is coming into DreamIt is probably too early for me.  I would probably think it needed more traction.  So it works out quite well.  If they are too early to me, they may be a great fit for DreamIt.

What’s the smartest thing someone you invested in did?
One of my investments is a company called Thumb [recently acquired by YPulse].  They basically provide real-time feedback on anything.  The speed is astounding, meaning that you post the question and within minutes you can have a hundred responses.

When I met with the CEO, Dan Kurani, early on, the product demo was the perfect example of actions speaking louder than words.  In the meeting, I asked questions on Thumb about random topics and within minutes answers started coming in.  Experiencing the product in real-time was just an incredible proof of concept.

What’s the dumbest thing entrepreneurs do?
The kind of continuous dumb mistake I see is companies reaching out to me without doing any homework at all.  Just because our names show up on a list of top angel investors does not mean we are going to be interested in what they have.  There is such an enormous difference between just reaching out via LinkedIn blindly versus providing a rationale for why you are specifically targeting me because of something in my background.

What makes you better, more helpful, more desirable, etc. to a startup than the average angel?
First of all, I’ve walked in their shoes because I was an entrepreneur myself, raised angel money, grew my company to 85 people, and exited.  On the flip side, as an investor and even prior to starting my company while I was at Sony, I sat on the side of the table with VCs and other professional investors.  So I think I bring a multi-dimensional perspective on what an entrepreneur might be thinking – what are the things that motivate and are important to an entrepreneur – as well as what’s important to an investor.

What kind of returns do you aim for and how do you track ROI?
I don’t have a precise mathematical model but I’d like to feel confident that there is a reasonable path to at least a 10x return.  My expectation is that it could be five years before I see a return.  I know it takes time.

I’ve only had one exit so far, Chai Labs [acquired by Facebook] and the rest are still in progress.

Pretend that it’s 2019 and complete this sentence, “[Technology X] is less than 5 years old and now I can’t imagine life without it.”
Self driving cars.  I expect this to become much more mainstream.  Even though it may be hard for people to wrap their heads around, the ability to make that time in the car productive is very valuable.  And the technology is already strong.

What’s the best way for entrepreneurs to reach out to you?
LinkedIn… but read my bio first!  You can also see my AngleList profile for more background.

If you are an active NY-area angel (or know someone who is) and would like to be profiled for AlleyWatch, please contact me here. 

Angel Profile: Monique Idlett-Mosley (with Erica Minnihan)

alleywatch-logoNote: Angel Profiles is a bi-weekly column appearing on AlleyWatch.  Here’s the original article.

Angel At A Glance-Monique Idlett-Mosley

Note: Monique Idlett-Mosley is Co-President of Mosley Music Group and the wife of Timbaland.  She was joined by Erica Minnihan, Executive Director at STAR Angel Network.  Unless otherwise noted, all responses are by Ms. Idlett-Mosley. 

What got you into angel investing?
We have a number of financial advisors who are extremely are great at what they do. They’ve brought some amazing opportunities to our door. However, I wanted to take more of a hands-on approach to expanding our portfolio and STAR Angel provides just that. It’s exciting to hear about things before everyone else does, to get in at an early stage where you can actually sit in the room when exciting, genuine ideas are being thrown around, and you feel a part of something.

That’s why STAR Angel Network is so important: it provides me with the opportunity to support new and innovative companies that are eager to make their mark on the world.

Tell me more about STAR Angel Network?
Erica:  We are based in several cities and cater to current and retired professional athletes and celebrities.  We launched in May 2012 and at this time, we have 50 members.  The STAR Angel Network grew out of an Executive MBA program that our parent company, STAR Industries, owned.  Monique was in their inaugural class.  My business partner, Michael Lythcott, realized that a lot of the students in the class were making private investments, but that there was a lack of discipline.  They were getting some dealflow, but they didn’t have an overall exposure to what was out there.  They were getting things referred in from friends, but did not have a holistic approach to evaluate several opportunities against each other.  The goal of STAR Angel Networks is to allow everyone to share dealflow; to allow everyone to participate in the investment analysis process; to have professional due diligence on each of the deals; and to get our members actively involved in the companies on boards, using their access and influence to help create value for our portfolio companies.  Lastly, we want to give our members portfolio diversification which some people don’t realize is so important when you are investing in this kind of high risk, high return asset class.

What was your first angel investment?
Bespoke Post was one of my first investments.  Bespoke comes up with these great boxes that house unique items that subscribers get to purchase before anyone else does. Often, people forget that men do like to shop and feel like they are finding out about something first. What I liked about this particular company was their idea: it was brilliant. In addition, they’re such a young company, and were profitable in their first year. When does that happen? Plus, I love the partners they have, especially Conde Nast, their image really aligns with our company principles.

Most humbling experience (relating to angel investing)?
I feel like, here we are, in this industry where we have all this experience and you almost feel like professionally you’ve reached your plateau.  Now, however, you come into a whole new world and realize you absolutely know nothing.  It’s such a humbling experience to get to learn all these new things, to be introduced to all these new sectors and new people, and to understand just how many amazing new ideas are out there.

What was the worst pitch you have seen so far?
Where they actually said something negative about their own company.  He clearly was not ready to present.  He didn’t know anything about his company.  Another guy was supposed to come and help him present – he really should not have gone on with that presentation. Some people get really nervous presenting in front of celebrities.  But some presenters come in, see these famous athletes, and they get a little star-struck, and nervous.  I think they might be intimidated.   But if you are the CEO of the company, you should be able to operate under any circumstance, to sell your vision to anyone.

What financial returns do you target for an angel investment?
I don’t want to lose anything (laughs).  I would rather have a company with small, steady growth but that stays around than have a one-hit wonder that looks like it’s doing great and then, all of a sudden, it’s gone.  That’s my worst fear.  STAR has a really good screening process so that before it even gets to us, we know we are seeing successful people who have great ideas and who have created profitable businesses.

We are comfortable with companies that we can invest in at a $3M-$5M valuation that we feel have a good chance of getting at least a $50M exit.  So we are usually looking for a 10x return on our money and hoping that the company can be sold within the next 3-7 years.

What makes you and your classmates different from the average angel?
What we hear in the pitches is that they really value the network.  There is a “Cool Factor” when it comes to associating with certain kinds of celebs – the ones who have 5M or 6M Facebook followers.  There are definitely additional benefits to engaging with current and former athletes, or with someone in the entertainment business.

Also, I think sometimes people are surprised by just how intelligent we really are, how engaged we really are, and how much we add value.  STAR brings in the best of the best professors to teach our classes – from Columbia, UCLA, GW.  Some of our professors have walked not knowing what to expect, but to their surprise, end up walking away saying that this has been the best MBA class they have ever taught. That says a lot.

Pretend that it’s 2019 and complete this sentence, “[Technology X] is less than 5 years old and now I can’t imagine life without it.”
One area I am very interested in is robotics.  Robots are still so corporate but will soon become a part of our everyday life, doing things we cannot. There’s so much potential there. It fascinates me.

What’s the best way for entrepreneurs to reach out to you?
Apply through the STAR Angel Network.

If you have questions, email Erica Minnihan here.

If you are an active NY-area angel (or know someone who is) and would like to be profiled for AlleyWatch, please contact me here 

Angel Profile: Angela Lee

alleywatch-logoNote: Angel Profiles is a bi-weekly column appearing on AlleyWatch.  Here’s the original article.

Angel At A Glance-Angela Lee REVISED

Why do you angel invest?
I love helping early stage entrepreneurs as I’m an educator at heart.  I’ve started several companies and like being able to share my experience to help other entrepreneurs.  I think there are way easier ways to make money so if that’s your only goal, you should not be angel investing.

What was your first angel investment?  How did it turn out?
It was a movie and something I felt very emotionally tied to.  It raised the profile of mental illness in the Asian American community and was a Sundance finalist.  When I heard about it, I said, “This is a movie that more people have to see.”  Even if I lose all of my money on this one, I’m still glad I invested.

What investment do you most want to brag about / why?
One that’s doing very well is Legends of Fighting.  It’s like Ultimate Fighting Championships (UFC), but in Hong Kong.  They just raised a $4M Series A on a $13M valuation.  They are on TV, selling broadcast rights.  I know nothing about the space, but my husband and I went to school with the two co-founders, and they are both really smart guys and one knows the MMA space very well.

What’s your biggest lesson learned?

I relied on other investors too much at the beginning. I would think, “This person seems smart” so I trusted their due diligence probably more than I should have. I have gotten pretty far down the process and have been within days of writing a check and something didn’t feel right in my gut but I kept saying, “But this guy is invested in it and he must know what he’s doing.” To be clear, it is less about those people not being smart and more about my needing to get my feet grounded as an investor before I understood what my investment style was.

People often say that there are three types of investors. You either invest in the team, the market, or the technology. I am a team investor, I care about the team first and foremost most so it doesn’t make sense for me to rely solely on someone who cares first and foremost about the market they are playing in. That’s what my gut was telling me. For instance, I heard great company pitch yesterday and several people whose opinion I trust are interested. And even though I think the company will make a lot of money, I didn’t feel a connection with the team so I won’t be pursuing it.

What’s the smartest thing someone pitching you (or who you invested in) said / did?
The entrepreneurs that I like most are the ones that I say “no” to and they a) ask for feedback and  b) three months later email me to show how they responded to the feedback.  They stayed on my radar because they realized that this is not in any way, shape, or form a short term transaction.  Maybe I missed their friends and family round; maybe I said no to their seed round, but guess what?  Maybe I can introduce them to a Series A investor.  That’s smart.  This is a long term game.

What’s the dumbest thing?
American Idol” reactions.  You know, the “I’m gonna be a huge star one day and you’ll be sorry” type responses.

You run 37 Angels, a community of women angel investors.  What’s the difference between men and women angels?
In general, I think women feel the need for a higher level of confidence before trying something new.  They feel they need to know more about something before jumping in and their appetites for ambiguity can be low.  This makes them less likely to go into angel investing and it’s why women angels have something of a reputation for taking a long time to pull the trigger.

At 37 Angels I try to a) increase this appetite for ambiguity, and b) help them do more effective due diligence, to get it down to five weeks instead of 5 months.  We show them that there are different levels of due diligence, what to do, what not to do, etc.

How will you know when 37 Angels has succeeded in its mission?
When what people remember about me is not that I am a woman angel investor but rather that I am a healthcare tech investor who has deep expertise in the pharma industry.   I’ll know I’ve succeeded when I walk into a room and people don’t automatically introduce me to the other woman in the room.

Pretend that it’s 2019 and complete this sentence, “[Technology X] is less than 5 years old and now I can’t imagine life without it.”
Seamless, real-time health monitoring for preventative medicine.

What’s the best way for entrepreneurs to reach out to you?
Please go to the Entrepreneurs section of 37angels.com.  You can also check out my Linkedin profile: @37angelsny.

If you are an active NY-area angel (or know someone who is) and would like to be profiled for AlleyWatch, please contact me here.