Pairing founders to investors in a way that seems almost kismet is a staple of Venture Dallas, a nonprofit organization led by nine North Texas dealmakers. And in a world gone virtual, the value of those connections is real.
That’s why the organization is hosting a month-long experiential event that’s “not your typical virtual conference.”
Venture Dallas 2020 will connect companies and investors through a curated networking platform. It’s something that has yet to be done in the region, the group’s host committee says.
Last year, the organization’s inaugural Venture Dallas event was a catalyst of connections. The two-day summit amassed a curated crowd of more than 300 local entrepreneurs and cross-country investors that highlighted our high-growth companies and underscored the region as a place to do deals, find opportunity, and foster innovation.
It was a huge success—so much so that the host committee started planning in January 2020 for a would-be September event.
Then COVID-19 hit, and the Venture Dallas team had to adapt. They had to think different.
“We’re trying to help startups, drive economic development to our region, and advance the venture ecosystem”
—Bryan Chambers, Capital Factory
Venture Dallas 2020 was reimagined as a virtual experience for founders and investors spanning 34 days starting in September. A mobile-first platform called Thumbraise will let curated startups pitch investors via short-form video. Organizers describe the experience as something like “Tinder-meets-Instagram Stories.” A ‘feed’ of bite-size video pitches can be specifically curated to the kind of companies investors are interested in.
From Sept. 15 to Oct. 18, video pitch decks from Texas-based founders will be hosted on the social media-like platform for investors across the country to discover.
Mutual interest leads to one-on-one meetings and hopefully, investments, Bryan Chambers, Capital Factory’s VP of Accelerator & Investment Fund, told Dallas Innovates.
“We’re trying to help startups, drive economic development to our region, and advance the venture ecosystem. That outcome means facilitating meaningful connections between startups and investors that lead to investment outcomes. End of story,” he says.
Last year, meetings were arranged by the Venture Dallas committee, Chambers says, but the same results can be driven by a unique and curated technology experience, like the one that comes with the Thumbraise platform.
And the deep connections of the members in the volunteer-led organization don’t hurt.
“The plan for Venture Dallas all along was to connect companies and investors. That’s the whole point,” Aaron Pierce, the founder of Tusk Investment, told us. “From an industry standpoint, the opportunity to connect with great companies that are being curated and hand-selected is of great value.”
The group decided it was key for the highest impact to “not do what everybody’s been doing for months and they’re burned out on,” he says. They wanted to deliver a valuable experience built on the foundation that Venture Dallas has always had.
“We wanted to keep the event the same at its core: Highlight the great companies in Dallas and showcase them to investors all over the country,” Pierce says.
Venture Dallas aims to be a facilitator in this new era of social distancing, while at the same time showcasing the region’s best and brightest. The committee saw the challenge of COVID-19 as more of an opportunity to rise to the occasion.
The Thumbraise platform is about discovery; it’s about introductions. “It delivers,” Pierce says. “I think from the investor standpoint it’s a home run. You’re getting the perks of what a physical conference could present without having to be away from your family, buy a plane ticket, or risk your health.”
Venture Dallas host Jonathan Crowder notes that many investors initially slowed down their pace of investments following the health outbreak. It wasn’t just about general caution—the process of meeting entrepreneurs and learning about their companies felt so different in the absence of face-to-face meetings.
The new virtual format “can help bridge that chasm,” he says.
Venture Dallas 2020: How it came to be
The host committee—Aaron Pierce, Vik Thapar, Bryan Chambers, Duane Dankesreiter, Samantha Colletti, Natalie Pazera, Jonathan Crowder, and Joe Beard—is unanimous on why last year’s debut was such a hit.
Crowder, a partner at Intelis Capital, points to the sheer number of members in the local startup ecosystem who came together to demonstrate what a vibrant community we have here. Pierce lauds the committee itself as a testament that if a “small group of passionate folks” set their minds to doing something for good, there’s no limit to what can be accomplished.
For board member Joe Beard, it was both.
“There are two things that stood out to me about this event: the way the host committee came together and rolled up their sleeves to execute on a relatively short time frame and the sheer number of sponsors, companies, investors and service providers that rallied behind our mission,” Beard says.
The 2019 event kicked off with one-on-one “speed dating” meetings coordinated by Venture Dallas organizers beforehand that specifically tailored an investor to a Dallas-Fort Worth-based tech company. The second and final day featured 10 speaking engagements and panels, anchored by talks with Bill Nye The Science Guy and Dallas Cowboy-turned-entrepreneur Emmitt Smith.
Last year’s outcome led to this year’s installment looking better than ever. The committee already had investors from across the country inquiring about the details.
The format didn’t need much changing. What worked so well in 2019 was the curated conversations.
Committee members, who have all been a part of hosting a plethora of events through their respective organizations, first considered pushing this year’s Venture Dallas conference back. As the guidelines and policies of local organizations were shaped by the pandemic, Venture Dallas was going through the same process.
Their team, however, had the rare guidance of Cindy Revol, a principal at Perot Jain who also happens to have a degree in epidemiology. They knew early-on that a virtual event was going to be the likely scenario, so they started preparing for the best possible solution.
“We recognized that if we were going to do anything this particular year it was safest for the community to do it virtually. And we think we can also achieve many of the same outcomes this way—if not more, if not better outcomes,” Chambers says. “We’re hopeful that in 2021 things will return to somewhat normal. But we’re excited that 2021 may be powered by both virtual and physical experiences.”
“At its core, the mission of Venture Dallas is to bring investors to our region and foster critical connections between founders and capital.”
—Samantha Colletti, Silicon Valley Bank
Knowing that the market is inundated with ‘Zoom’ panels and discussions, the Venture Dallas committee was looking to enhance the event’s value for both entrepreneurs and investors. From the beginning, Crowder says, the team agreed the cornerstone value for Venture Dallas was its commitment to supporting the needs of the local startup community.
“When an in-person conference was no longer feasible for 2020, we wanted to keep the momentum going. At its core, the mission of Venture Dallas is to bring investors to our region and foster critical connections between founders and capital,” Samantha Colletti, Dallas market manager at Silicon Valley Bank, says.
“Investors are actively looking for deals and founders are continuing to raise throughout the current economic environment. Going digital allows these connections to continue to happen and creates a dedicated ‘space’ for founders and investors to engage.”
Here’s what you need to know
That engagement the host committee was searching for is where the Thumbraise platform comes in.
Founders chosen to participate in Venture Dallas 2020 will be given access to the mobile app’s platform where they will upload a short video and pitch deck for their company. That information will be available throughout the entirety of the conference.
Investors also gain access to the Thumbraise platform during that time, but on the viewing side. Curated startup pitches will be available for each investor across the country, and they can then schedule “meetings” with founders. Investors can also network with their peers who have registered for the conference.
During the runtime of the conference, all parties are able to talk one-on-one within the Thumbraise app.
“The Thumbraise platform is hyperfocused on two parties: entrepreneurs and investors,” Vik Thapar, a partner at Cypress Growth Capital, says. “As an investor, I like meeting with companies, especially if we invest in them. But I get a lot of benefit catching up and meeting with other investors as well.”
Thapar says the group wanted to provide the best bang for attendees’ buck, but through something that was a little bit different than another virtual conference. Collectively, they felt this format solved that need nicely.
Organizers acknowledge that attendees may still yearn for an in-person physical connection. But there are benefits that make up for that—rather than having to fit a number of meetings into a two-hour window, the network will be open for around a month for investors to peruse at their convenience. (And they don’t have to budget for air fare).
The critical details are readily available, so an investor can decide quickly if a startup fits their investing thesis enough to take next steps. That makes for a safe environment to directly engage with founders as their schedule allows.
The technology also enables the Venture Dallas team to gather data and analytics that aid startup founders, which is nearly impossible during a physical conference.
A call for applications
Participating in Venture Dallas is free for qualifying startups and investors.
Investors must request to join the Venture Dallas Investor Network. Anyone in the country is welcome to do so. So far, the committee has been leveraging its personal networks—interest is already very high, they say.
Startups can apply to pitch through a two-minute application. Venture Dallas organizers are looking for fast-growing tech companies or those with tech-enabled products.
A common thread for startups chosen to participate is being a qualified and attractive candidate for angel or professional VC investors. Organizers say this is primarily for founders who are currently fundraising or have plans to in the next year.
Insight from last year also showed that investors were looking for later stage startups. Even founders who have been through a Series B are welcome to attend.
But each startup must have two or more employees and be based in Texas.
What’s different this year is the conference’s statewide invitation. A heavy focus will still be placed on North Texas, but the committee decided to be inclusive to the entire state this go around. Colletti says their partners and colleagues in Austin, Houston, San Antonio, and everywhere in between are working together to make that happen.
“I am excited that this year’s digital event will feature companies from across the state of Texas,” she says. “Founders will have broad access to investors and the ability to interact and share materials in a safe and organized digital environment. Success this year will be defined the same way as it was last year—by the quality of connections made between investors and founders and the funding rounds that are closed as a result of these interactions.”
Dallas-Fort Worth is a place to form connections
On a macro scale, Venture Dallas aims to continue accelerating the region’s growing entrepreneurial community. The organization is dedicated to growing the innovation ecosystem here, and it firmly believes this is one of the best places in the world to grow companies and invest in them.
“Through Venture Dallas I think many, many startups in North Texas and beyond will go on to realize investment,” Chambers says. “As a result, that will only drive more activity into our region. We’re hopeful that across hundreds of these connections, many will lead to investments down the road. And, we hope the Venture Dallas Investor Network will be more established than ever and in a position to continuously help power that in the future.”
Startups naturally need capital to grow. Prior to COVID-19, travel filled that need. People from all corners of the world would visit Dallas to schedule meetings, make investments, and attend events. That has obviously stopped.
As Thapar points out, these are unprecedented times. It’s important for startups and investors to connect with one another to continue building business and, of course, to raise capital.
“We needed a way for folks to have that personal interaction, without, obviously, physically being next to each other. This year’s event is a good way to do that,” he says. “I think startups need to get in front of investors. Maybe they’re not looking for capital today—they may be looking for capital down the road. But this is a way for an investor to track an entrepreneur and vice versa.”
Looking ahead, organizers do see a virtual/in-person hybrid event being successful. (Pending whether or not it will be safe to attend in-person events next year).
Thapar says face-to-face meetings are valuable, but generating conversations, no matter how it’s done, can produce myriad benefits. If the Venture Dallas team is right about this platform and its ability to foster investments, it could be used in the future. It’s all about delivering the highest impact and value.
Regardless, the entire committee encourages startups and investors to participate.
“I believe that the current environment has helped to eliminate the geographic boundaries that isolate companies and investors in different regions. Branded money has also lost its appeal as companies realize the importance of value-added investors during turbulent markets,” Beard says. “Our new virtual format is designed to reduce the friction between great companies meeting great investors. We are curating the attendees and making it easy and efficient for these collisions to happen.”
Dallas Innovates is a media partner of Venture Dallas.
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