If I Had A VC's Ear, What Would I Pitch?

January 19, 2007

Venture capitalists are known for only talking with people they know, or with people who know people they know. It's how the game is played; if they simply talked with everyone who walked in the door, they would never get anything done. Of course that makes it tough if you lack contacts.

In the mid-80's I started a company (Data Tailor) to build and market an unusual spreadsheet program (Trapeze, of which I will write a later posting), and raised money from various contacts. It was a miserable experience but the only way you could start a software company in Texas at that time. To bankers in this area then "software" meant clothing (this actually happened to me). Long before the dot com boom, VC money was not really an option for a small startup. We eventually sold the code to another company, and went on to develop Persuasion and Deltagraph under contract. The stockholders got a little back, lots of tax writeoffs, and my foray into the software marketing business ended sadly.

Of course today is a completely different era, but you still need contacts to raise money (unless you have well-to-do friends or family). The good news is that money is available at a much smaller level than it was 20 years ago. But if you don't have money on your own (and I don't really) and your contacts are nice but not linked in much (yes I know that's a pun now), it's still difficult to develop an idea (an old adage is "an idea is just an idea without a management team behind it"). So if a magical VC leprechaun appeared to me, what would I pitch?

I have two ideas. One I have been mulling over for about 10 years in the search arena, but no one has approached my idea yet during that time (that is public anyway) so I will hold on to that one still.

The other isn't really completely original, but then virtually nothing is. It's funny how some startup will get funded, and yet so will the second, the third, sometimes even the nth startup in the same space (think ajax start pages). Most of these will fail and wind up in the dead pool. It's often not how original the idea is, nor how timely (though it helps!) but how well it gets executed by the team. Sometimes it's just pure luck that the timing is right.

In 1993 Deltagraph was out of our hands and we tried to come up with something new to work on. I came up with the idea of a distributed instant messaging application for Appletalk called Intercomm. After working on it for a bit (it had instant messages, store and forward messages, polling and a fully distributed server architecture) I gave up, and the rest of team couldn't find anyone to publish it so it was abandoned. A couple years later the internet boom started. Oops, too early, and not the right target (Appletalk instead of TCP/IP). Soon thereafter IM became a big (although profitless) business. Oh well.

OK, so what idea would I pitch? If you need to contact a set of people by phone, email, fax, pager, IM or whatever all at the same time and have an audit trail (so you know who was contacted when), then you need something like this.

Imagine a soccer coach canceling practice (contact 12 soccer moms on the go or at work), a school system wanting to contact every truant student's parents, a city disaster management team needing to be called together when the big storm hits, or even the city calling everyone in town to boil the water first. Interestingly there are companies out there doing some of this but no one has a single broad vision of how useful this is. Some examples are Call-Em-All Voice Broadcasting Service and One Call Now. The problem is they simply focus on calling phones. What I imagine would be even more useful is to combine all forms of communication, so you can code the system to try multiple phone numbers, emails, IMs, pages, whatever, until a satisfactory response is received. The original message can be prerecorded, or even typed, and then triggered from any communication type the system supports (including the web).

The key to such a business of course is reliability; it would be pretty useless to try warning a city of impending doom and then have the system crash. That's the real success, ensuring a flawless, highly scalable (burstable) response which may occur infrequently. So far in this industry that's a tough one to guarantee.

The nice thing about this business is you can make real money, either by charging a fee to list, a fee to contact, or some combination. You could even let the soccer coaches use it for free. Unlike the typical web 2.0 site, you are actually offering a tangible service people would pay for (and do, reading those two companies websites). I don't know how many times I've wanted to be called or call a group of people about a changed time and never could get everyone. You do have to plan a bit ahead but once you have a group listed, there are a lot of things you can use this for.

So what's needed to make this work? People who have lots of experience in building voice systems (which is easier today with VOIP and voice response systems that actually understand people), high scalability and reliability (not as easy as it looks) and some nice web UI's. Not something you can do in your garage with couch change. Perfect for a group of experienced folks who know people who know VC's.

So if you are one of those folks, go do it.

As for me, I will have to wait and see if I can pitch the other idea someday. In the meantime, back to looking for work.