If you can make it to Fred Wilson’s ear, can you make it anywhere?

By Dennis Clemente

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If you can make it to Fred Wilson’s ear, you can make it anywhere.

That’s what people like to think when they see the Union Square Venture principal, the man who has helped build, if not backed up startups like Foursquare, Kickstarter, Twitter, Tumblr and Zynga.

Observing how people swarm to him like bees after each talk cues you into how he has become a rock star in the New York tech startup scene. It was like this at the Columbia Engineering’s demo night last December 13 at Time Warner Center. Columbia Engineering dean Mary C. Boyce moderated the discussion.

One attendee followed Wilson’s every move, dragging me along with him. I met Fred Wilson before, so I was not as excited as he was. But I understand. I just feel bad for other guests when he’s around; this time, Tech and the City author Alessandro Piol and Shutterstock founder Jon Oringer.

Wilson minces no words. There’s no hesitancy, even when he replies to a most pointed question. Some may call it candidness where others may see rebelliousness, even recklessness. I think he has answered these questions before and he just decided to peel the layers of half-truths to tell you what it’s really like out there.

This perspective may come from seeing failed startups. The failure rate, as most publications will tell you, is about 75 percent. For those in the industry, it’s 90 percent.

Wilson said he embraces failure, but he is quick to qualify it. He doesn’t mean lifelong failure but failure that toughens you up, because in the fickle tech world, even the most successful ones fail. So he is suggesting that as long “as you learn the tough lessons of failure,” he is willing to overlook it and take a chance on you. “Making a mistake should not be a Scarlet letter, as long as you realize the mistake.”

But to rewind a bit from the talk he gave along with Piol and Oringer, the Columbia Engineering’s talk was centered on New York’s beginnings in the tech scene and perspective on critical opportunities and roadblocks facing innovators and startups in the future.

Where Oringer credited outgoing Mayor Bloomberg for the thriving tech scene, Wilson was quick to counter that it was Google and the hundreds of engineers it brought to the city that was the catalyst for New York’s emergence as the Silicon Valley of the East.

“Bloomberg was friendly, but it (the tech scene) would have happened even without Bloomberg.”

“The biggest thing that happened in New York was when Google’s software and engineering team came to New York. Google is a gift to New York,” he added. Ex-Googlers these days have their own startups in New York.

Still, Oringer pointed out how multilingual New York also made it easier for startups to take their products or business model on a global scale.

Tech and the City author Piol was more specific, saying the turning point was 2008 when the financial meltdown made many people switch to the tech startup scene.
Wilson wrote the foreword in Piol’s book.

At the time New York-born and -raised Jon Oringer was already running Shutterstock. Today, the stock photo company is earning $200 million.

Wilson answered more questions.

Asked how low-income countries with software development capabilities can compete against the United States, Wilson said, “There’s no culture of entrepreneurship in those low-income countries, because there is no capital.”

Asked about 3D printing’s future in New York, he said the city has the talent for it but stopped short of predicting New York is going to be the center of 3D printing.

After the talk, people were led to the startup demos of students and alumni of Columbia University in an open reception. The startups were Urban Compass, Trek Medics, eBrevia, KeyMe, and Meal Logger

Urban Compass offers a technology platform that enables customers to manage their entire apartment search in one place. It has a team of agents for good measure.

Since August 2012, Trek Medics’ dedicated full-time staff has been working to complete beta-testing for their SMS-based emergency dispatching software, Beacon, with efforts currently focused on the southern coast of Haiti. Beacon addresses response gap by allowing community paramedics to quickly locate, treat, and transport emergency victims from the scene to the hospital.

Another startup, eBrevia was created to assist corporate attorneys, in-house counsel and business executives perform tasks more efficiently.

KeyMe is a cloud-based “keychain” that stores key’s cutting instructions, while Meal Logger is a photo food journal designed to empower people to improve their lifestyle.

What does Wilson look for in a startup founder? “You have to be charismatic,” he said, adding that it’s an important quality to have if you are asking people to fund you.

“I like someone who has a vision who can “get to an opportunity from ‘0 to 60’.”

And if you’re a founder, he said the first five people in a startup is the most critical.

But if having Fred Wilson’s ear is going to help you, well, it depends on what you have to offer him, of course.

Dennis Clemente with Fred Wilson back in November
Dennis Clemente with Fred Wilson back in November

Is crowdfunding right for you? Tales from the trenches

By Dennis Clemente

Is crowdfunding right for you? For some people, the thought of sharing their business idea online to get funding is like giving it away but not unless your idea gets funded faster. Maybe you’re not comfortable with the idea of getting in front of a camera, but there’s a way to overcome that, too.

At the meetup “In the Trenches: Best Practices for Crowdfunding” at a Microsoft office last June 4, the panel of speakers came from gamers who went through crowdfunding and lived to tell the tale. They were Melissa Marie Fassetta of FPS Russia, Joshua DeBonis of Meriweather and Mark McCorkle of Luna Nova.

There was no hesitation on Fassetta’s part. She said she went to Kickstarter right way with her idea. That proved to be a good move, as she helped raise $55,000 to fund FPS Russia: The Game http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/fpsrussia/fps-russia-the-game-0, coordinating with the popular YouTube channel http://www.youtube.com/user/FPSRussia. Fassetta is a game development and social media project manager for a digital creative agency in NYC.

She has also been involved in a Kickstarter project that was not funded, and is happy to share her experience in what works (and what doesn’t) in running a successful Kickstarter campaign. “Set a lower money level. We set it at $51,000. We got $55,000.”

Reaching that amount is not as easy. “Kickstarter is powerful but you can’t just rely on it. Have writers or bloggers write about you,” she said with others nodding in agreement. DeBonis ran a successful Kickstarter for a computer role-playing game about the Lewis and Clark Expedition called Meriwether http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/meriwether/meriwether-an-american-epic.

“We talked about our game using Google Hangout and did cross-promotions with others seeking funds on Kickstarter,” DeBonis said, who is particularly interested in exploring ways to integrate history and music with games, the procedural generation of game content, and games that provide a deep experience. DeBonis raised $35,000, still way less than the cost of the game but it’s a good start. As of press time, he has raised over $44,000.

It helps if you have the credentials for people to believe in you. DeBonis is an award-winning game designer and the Director of Sortasoft LLC, an independent studio based in Brooklyn, NY. He has taught game design and development at Parsons The New School for Design, is co-founder and organizer of the New York Board Game Designers playtest group, and recently co-founded the experimental collective Brooklyn Game Ensemble.

Over the past year, McCorkle has been working on various browser and cross-platform technologies, finally settling on a framework that will allow his game, “Luna Nova,” to reach as many platforms and players as possible.

The purpose of building the game is not just to entertain, but also to give McCorkle and the other creative people on his team a venue to communicate a rich sci-fi story. Kickstarter will allow him to get his indie game into people’s hands by winter of 2013.

Since this is McCorkle’s second Kickstarter campaign, he gives one great tip about how to use your Facebook log-in. “Create a Facebook page specific to your crowdfunding campaign, so when you need people to promote or collaborate with you, it’s easier.”

“This is my second Kickstarter project,” the animated McCorkle said. He started his game geek life writing small games on his Atari 800XL. After years of being a game consumer and building infrastructure for everything from ISPs to travel companies, he worked with a small team to develop a browser-based MMO.

The panel was moderated by Emma Larkins who works for a tech startup called Knodes that helps people build communities around their projects. She’s passionate about the crowdfunding industry, and recently Kickstarted her first science fiction novel, Mechalarum http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/emmalarkins/mechalarum-a-science-fiction-novel.

For people to consider funding your idea, handing out rewards or incentives is also important, but
what’s even more important is to know how to handle it without making it a bigger headache than your idea.

The panel said a physical item/reward can be problematic. It can be a pain to ship a thousand items plus you have to deal with customs. They also advised that you make sure you know where you are shipping your item—domestically or internationally.

As a crowdfunding site, not everybody gave Kickstarter a resounding endorsement. The panel offered some suggestions (and misgivings) on how the site has still room for improvement:

• Writing and editing fields could be improved (no copy-paste option)
• Fortunately, there is a preview mode now
• No interaction during and after posting with Kickstarter
• When the campaign ends, you can’t edit your posting anymore
• It has no data unlike Indiegogo, so you don’t know who’s clicking on your posting
• Indiegogo has no transaction fees
• You don’t need approval on Indiegogo

The more important benefit of crowdfunding is building a rich community of people who want you to succeed. But is crowdfunding for everyone? The panel was unanimous in saying some ideas “just have no audience,” with McCorkle adding that “if you failed the first time, it’s harder the second time.”

To raise your level of success, the panel was unanimous in saying that having a well-scripted video is essential. In the beginning, they admitted to trying an off-the-cuff, impromptu video to appear authentic, but it didn’t work.

Still, the question remains: Is there a full-proof way of getting your idea funded? You’ll learn from first-hand experience.