Founders, funders, friends — startup taps network to grow
Feeding off Valley's self-perpetuating cycle of innovation, entrepreneurs set nonstop schedule
"We're driven by building something people really want and making it as easy as possible to use," 23-year-old Jeff Seibert told a middle-aged man eating cheese and crackers.
Seibert, who co-founded a Web startup as a Stanford University student, was pitching his company to other alumni at a networking event. It was perhaps the tenth such discussion Seibert had conducted that day, and there would be more to follow.
The Stanford-ites gathered around banquet tables at Mountain View's Computer History Museum, converted into a reception hall for the night, to hold the casual — but crucial — career conversations.
It's time to grow their startup, Increo Solutions, beyond its core five-person team, Seibert and his co-founders have agreed.
So they have thrown themselves into a morning-to-night schedule of work, meetings, networking and gathering advice from venture backers, as they seek more staff.
They have big hopes for the startup, which offers a collaborative-brainstorming service they want to become a standard office tool.
But it takes energy to recruit others to hope alongside them.
"I spent the whole day meeting with people," Seibert said in a quiet moment at the Stanford event, after the older alum had drifted away. "I'm exhausted."
Then he moved on, sidling into a larger room where startups were sprinkled among titans such as Google and Apple.
Someone called out to him.
"What number are you on? Third employee? Fourth?" a startup staffer asked Seibert, from behind a table littered with free stickers and candy.
Seibert laughed. He'd met the man at another networking event — one just for startups, at Stanford, earlier in the year.
It's perhaps a result of emerging from the Valley's arguably largest innovation engine — Stanford University — that part of the growth strategy for Increo is to turn back to the fold and seek fresh talent.
Leading the charge is Increo CEO Kimber Lockhart, who refers to networking as "making friends."
The label seems less euphemistic when you realize how friendly Lockhart is, and how hard it is not to make friends with her. For now, she is Increo's most public face, dealing with reporters, writing much of the company blog and attending Silicon Valley's frequent invitation-only networking events, often with Seibert.
"I should have worn more comfortable shoes," she muttered at the Stanford reception, weaving through the crowd on three-inch heels. Then she spotted an old friend and a warm smile lit up her face.
The growth strategy isn't limited to collegial shmoozing. It also includes drawing on the expertise of Draper Fisher Jurvetson (DFJ), the Menlo Park-based venture-capital firm backing Increo with seed money.
At Increo's Mountain View headquarters, located in an office park flush with other startups near U.S. Highway 101, a whiteboard is covered in colorful marker scrawl — a list of possible business partnerships.
After all, the Increo team has spent the summer — the last installment in this article series was in June — adding new features to their current product, Backboard. The service, available at www.getbackboard.com, allows users to group-edit images or documents.
Now, Backboard is available with more storage capacity and comes with amped-up security, among other features. The startup is ready to reach out to other firms and further develop its software, but needs more staff, Lockhart said.
Enter Bryan Hale, an analyst with DFJ who meets with the young founders a few times each month. Hale, 26, sat down to discuss growth over tuna-melt sandwiches on a recent lunch hour at the office-park cafe. He suggested places Increo might look for qualified staff and offered to make introductions. He listed businesses working on similar products.
Industry perspective — rather than feedback on features of the Increo product — is what Hale, a salesforce.com business-development alum, has to offer, he said.
"We can't sit down and code alongside them. They're way better at that than us."
Hale's advice is supplemented by meetings with venture-firm partner Tim Draper, also an Increo board member. (Seibert met Draper, not coincidentally, through a Stanford program designed to encourage innovation.)
Because it's their job to watch industries and scan the horizon for new, bright ideas, venture capitalists provide crucial perspective, according to Soujanya Bhumkar, CEO of CoolIris, a startup funded by Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Byers.
"They are in the lighthouse so they see our ships moving back and forth. They have much higher visibility than a startup that is resource-constrained ..."
Not all entrepreneurs choose to go the venture route when seeking to grow, however.
Although his first two startups were venture-backed, serial innovator Bart Decrem opted for so-called "angel" funding for his third, an iPhone-applications maker called Tapulous.
"Angels" are typically Valley veterans eager to turn around and fund more bright minds. Tapulous funders include, for example, Sun Microsystems co-founder Andy Bechtolsheim and salesforce.com founder Marc Benioff.
Angels usually offer smaller amounts of money than venture firms and adopt a more hands-off approach, Decrem said. Tapulous still isn't quite sure what its business plan is and wants to be able to mutate quickly. That's easier in a laidback relationship with colleagues — rather than a venture company, Decrem described. And as an industry veteran, the CEO was perhaps less in need of venture firms' networking prowess to access high-powered Valley players.
Meanwhile, Increo's relatively youthful founders will keep looking until their network rivals Decrem's. Shortly after the Stanford event, Lockhart would pull her heels back out of the closet. She'd been invited to an evening champagne mixer for women entrepreneurs. And when there were other bright minds to meet, simply going home after a long day at the office was an ill-advised option.
Staff Writer Arden Pennell can be e-mailed at email@example.com.