Thursday, July 2, 2009

Venture Island Starts With A Splash At the Whole Pina Colada

To kick off the Venture Island Northstate competition series this year, we hosted the Whole Pina Colada June 23 at Canyon Oaks Country Club in Chico, the home of many classic Golden Capital Network events over the years, (and also the site of a great many hacks on the golf course by GCN staffers).

It’s a pastoral canyon setting and perfect for this type of loose business networking affair. Unfortunately, the Canyon Oaks bar was out of Pina Colada mix, so Sierra Nevada Pale Ale was the able fallback for those wishing to imbibe. (In truth, Mai Tais are really a better rum drink anyway -- 2 parts light Bacardi, 1 part pineapple juice, 1 part orange juice, a dose of Cointreau, and a dark Myers floater on top…mmmm).

The evening began with intros from Stewart Knox, a great resource and advocate for Northstate business through his work with the esteemed Charlie Brown at NorTEC, our regional workforce investment board. Stewart and Charlie are two of the most innovative workforce guys in the business, which is interesting since they represent the most rural, underpopulated regions in the state. They are the local overseers of the Northstate WIRED program, an innovation catalyst initiative brainstormed by former U.S. Dept. of Labor assistant secretary Emily DeRocco, and apparently gaining some traction in the Obama administration.

Our own President and CEO Jon Gregory was next up with the outline of how the Venture Island competition series will work this year: Three events with business challenges and eliminations each time until we get the final three showdown.
Sandy Baruah, former assistant secretary of the U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA), was on next. Sandy is the Honorary Co-Chair of the California Business Ascent Challenge, as well as a Senior Fellow with the U.S. Council on Competitiveness. His remarks centered on recent conversations with colleagues at the Council, and it comes as no surprise here, but according to some of the smartest economists in the world, innovation and entrepreneurship are the keys to U.S. economic recovery and competitiveness into the future. How can we invent and produce more of the products and services the world needs and wants here on our own soil?

In this vein, Sandy indicated that during a conversation with high-level officials in the Obama White House there was continued support by the new administration for the WIRED innovation initiative started by Dept. of Labor about four years ago. The WIRED initiative funds Venture Island and other GCN business catalyst activities, along with many other important innovation efforts across the country, so this was good news for us, as our current grant expires the end of this year.

The first panel of the night was the one I was most looking forward to, and I wasn’t disappointed. Titled simply, “Business Success,” this panel featured five successful North State entrepreneurs telling their stories and imparting some gems of wisdom they’ve picked up along the way. The panelists included Rob Innes, from Innespace Productions, Matthew de Bord from Origami Foods, Kendall Bennett from A Main Hobbies, Todd Radke from ATC Hardware Systems and Andy Keller from Chico Bag.

Perseverance and passion are the words that come to mind when I try to generalize the session. Specific advice I recall included:
  • Protect your intellectual property (get the international patents, too)
  • Maintain customer satisfaction (you'll have a problem someday. You'll be judged by how you handle it)
  • Be ready for challenges with manufacturing quality control (in China, esp. You'll have to take many trips to stay on top of it)
  • Focus on the right market (identify what you really do best and avoid the temptation of the latest bright, shiny object)
  • Find the right talent (there's a lot available cheap right now. Be cautious with stock incentives)
Each of these founders have experienced success and failure along the way and clearly love what they do. All of the company products were very cool. It was an inspiration, even if it did get a little long-winded.

The final session of the night had by far the most energy, and rightly so. Thirteen early stage entrepreneurs standing before the world (or at least the 200 people or so in attendance) making their two minute pitches for capital, talent, advisors or whatever it is they think they need to get to the next level. The top five are granted automatic pass through the first elimination round of Venture Island: The Trading Post.
The five winners were:
  • Jim Philips, Inovius Software, Redding
  • Jim Crummett, Telecom Lifters, Browns Valley
  • Joe Andrew, Novasyte, Chico
  • Julie Atlas, Bumblebee Transport, Paradise
  • Steve Heumann, Cable Master, Paradise
There were a couple crash and burns, but almost all the competitors in the field showed well. You could tell which had availed themselves and actually listened to the coaching advice Jon gave them the week prior. Julie Atlas from Bumblebee Transport was the standout from the winners. Not so much because of her on-call large item moving service business model (which isn’t bad) but more because of her sheer energy, perseverance and authentic passion.

My two favorite picks from the also-rans were CleanTraks and the grill lid lifter – probably because I could use both of them yesterday.

CleanTraks has a product that incorporates a doggie bag holder into a retractable leash. It includes waterless hand soap, and no, this is not for leftovers from the restaurant, but for what the dogs themselves leave behind. The company is pretty much pre-product and pre-revenue, so they’ve got a long road to travel, but CleanTraks was a neat, innovative, well presented concept, and with something like 75 million dogs in the U.S. and a corresponding $500 million annual addressable market in dog accessories, they could have something big on their hands with the right marketing.

Grill lid lifter was yet another case of an intrepid inventor solving one of American’s most vexing problems: how do you keep a beverage in one hand, a basting brush in another, and get the grill open when you need to sauce the ribs? The answer, of course, is the grill lid lifter: Step on a button with your foot and the grill lid lifts. This one’s just on paper, but Jason Darrow from Yreka has some nice business chops and I wouldn’t bet against him to make a compelling case for this baby as the competition unfolds.

Our next Venture Island event is July 23 at the Enloe Conference Center, when all the companies from the Pina Colada, plus whoever else comes on board between now and then, face-off in the Trading Post.

As always, more information about our Business Ascent challenge events, our investor judges and panelists, and the company profiles and video of the elevator pitches are available for viewing on our web portal, in this case at VentureIsland-Northstate.Com


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