The end of this year’s Bend Venture Conference looked a lot like last year—lots of big checks, surprises, cheers and even a few happy tears. Between equity investments, cash awards and revenue-financing, the region’s largest angel conference doled out $1.65 million in funds after one-and-a-half days of founder pitches.
And big the checks go to …
The event’s big winner was Bend-based LeadMethod, a tech company that makes channel revenue optimization software. The company won the conference’s growth stage award, a $110,000-plus investment from the BVC LLC, as well as a $175,000 investment from Cascade Angels, $50,000 from Portland Seed Fund and $150,000 in revenue financing from Business Oregon. Founder Justin Johnson hammered home the progress his team has made over the past three years, and the big opportunity ahead—and investors agreed. For a few reasons, this was an especially special win. More on that in a moment.
Tigard-based Handful also had a great day with a great outcome. Founder Jennifer Ferguson danced onto the growth stage to Pink (the music was a fun addition to the program) and wowed the crowd with her energetic pitch for Handful, a rising brand of awesome bras – I now own one and you should too — and athleisure wear. Heads up: You can use the code BVC15 to get a discount on the company’s site through the end of the month. Handful aims for a market of Millennials and breast cancer survivors, which includes many key people on their team.
During the conference, panelists questioned whether this was a disparate market, and Jennifer noted that unfortunately it’s not: Most Millennials know a breast cancer survivor and some are already survivors themselves. Handful earned a $250,000 investment in a combined Elevate Capital, Credo and TiE Oregon and a $100,000-plus investment from the BVC LLC Fund.
Social impact and early stage
The social impact track came roaring back for its second year, and the group of four founders presenting didn’t disappoint. Social impact companies succeed by “doing good and doing well,” as moderator Julie Harrelson noted, whether that’s creating earth-friendly, alternative energy sources or reducing water pollution via water-free textile fabric finishes. Portland-based Green Theme International does the latter, and earned a $110,000-plus investment from the BVC Social Impact Fund.
In the early stage, competition was fierce. The presenters brought their A-game on stage to pitch startups ranging from a group travel and adventure planning app to instant coffee subscriptions to outdoorsy gear. BladeRunner Energy won the popular audience vote and the $17,500 BendBroadband Business Early Stage cash award. BladeRunner Energy creates a micro-hydro technology based on biomimicry that generates renewable energy from the flow of water.
Cofounder Moriel Arango explained the benefit that the technology could offer rural and developing communities. It was especially fun to see Moriel’s mom, Rita Hansen, who is the CEO of Bend-based Onboard Dynamics, so thrilled about her son’s accomplishment. Like moms do.
Beaming in Brad Feld
The event’s keynote speaker Brad Feld, founder of TechStars and the Foundry Group in Boulder, offered some sage advice for how smaller places can build up their startup communities. The BVC Skyped him in from Colorado, and the resulting conversation was a great one, especially if you’re interested in developing startups outside of the usual places.
Feld noted the importance of flat networks – ones in which people ignore hierarchy – and inclusive environments, in which lots of people have a voice. He said that often, smaller places aren’t necessarily lacking in capital (though it may not yet be activated) or great ideas from motivated entrepreneurs. His direct take: “That’s nonsense.” Big cities aren’t the only places where funds and ideas dwell and percolate. Indeed, the trick—actually the goal—is creating and cultivating a community that promotes connection between funding and ideas, and then accelerates the transformation of these ideas into businesses.
Hey, I know that guy …
On a personal note, this year’s Bend Venture Conference was especially meaningful as I happen to know the CEO and founder of LeadMethod, mostly because we’re married. So, of course, it’s delightful to see Justin and his team do well, and it warms my heart because I know how hard they work every day.
There are certainly challenges to building businesses anywhere, and there are indeed some struggles unique to being outside a major tech or urban hub. It was heartening to listen to Brad Feld talk about some of the ingredients for a vibrant startup community, from activated local angels to startup events to that irreverence of hierarchy (which can make things move faster on many fronts), and know that many of those are already in our pot, simmering away.
Then Bend offers something else as well: A supportive community that wants people do well. This cannot be underestimated, and IMHO can even serve as a competitive advantage. What’s that look like? It looks like a new entrepreneur freezing on stage at the unConference last Tuesday and numerous people in the audience yelling out “We love you” and “You got this” before asking questions to help.
It looks like Julie Harrelson, Cascade Angels CEO and fund manager, presenting a new investment in LeadMethod at BVC with lots of feeling, thanking not just LeadMethod, but also Oregon entrepreneurs, investors, and the entire community for its hard work. Consider that a mere four years ago, that organization didn’t exist, and now it’s become an invaluable resource.
It looks like a local founder asking a local VC partner for feedback, and getting an introduction and conversation a few hours later. It looks these blog readers filling up a truck full of supplies for Sonoma fire victims in one day to support the BendTECH coworking space manager, who comes from there. It looks like countless introductions, emails and coffee meetings that Bend people still make time for—even with strangers. It looks like founders talking about their failures and then talking about the need to talk about what’s hard. It looks like investors who roll up their sleeves and get into all of this stuff, because they want to help.
That’s honestly just what I’ve seen this week. Most certainly, our startup community still has work to do: There’s gaps, underserved populations and, you know, if a bus full of software developers broke down on Highway 97, that would be handy.
But all that said, there’s real power in the generosity and sincere willingness of this community when it comes helping others be successful. And while no one knows for certain what the future holds for any one startup or Bend as a whole, as long as we maintain this ingredient, we’ll be still #winning.