Recently, I connected the dots at back-to-back Metro-DC area events: the BallstonBID Launchpad competition appreciation dinner, In the Capital’s “50 on Fire” and Startup Grind, featuring Tige Savage. Tige is the co-founder and managing director of venture and growth equity investor Revolution LLC. Revolution Ventures (Revolution LLC’s venture fund) recently closed on a second $200 million venture capital fund aimed at early-stage technology investments. Like his fellow Revolution investors, Ted Leonsis and Steve Case, he’s part of the early-AOL crowd who remain to enrich the business community, themselves and their many good causes, with their complementary strengths. Tige is the guy who rolls up his sleeves to work with companies like Revolution Money, which used the Internet to change the economics of credit card processing and survived the 2008 financial crisis to be purchased for $300 million by American Express.
I was as curious to hear what Tige Savage had to say as I was to see who else would turn up to meet him. I wasn’t disappointed.
Putting the “meat” in meeting
At Startup Grind, sitting side by side in the row ahead of me were two tech company founders at different stages: Joshua Szmajda, CTO of Optoro, a Lanham-based software company transforming the reverse logistics market by enabling major retailers to sell their excess or returned merchandise directly to consumers through third-party online markets such as eBay and Amazon.com, and Upen Patel, Founder and CEO of M2 Labs, a cloud-based mobile payment network that picks up with mobile where Revolution Money left off. Optoro was recently funded by Revolution Growth.
I’d met Upen briefly at an event last Spring. Then, again in November when Khurrum Shakir, founder of iGrabberAutos [See iGrabberAutos, Cvent and Less than Six Degrees of Separation from Steve Case], a Kayak.com-like search engine for cars recently rebranded as CarSquare, invited me to an appreciation dinner to which the 14 finalists of the BallstonBID Launchpad competition invited their supporters. During the welcome speech, I turned my head and found myself face to face with Upen, who it turned out was one of the 14 finalists winnowed from some initial 225 entries. His company, M2 Labs, was subsequently voted in as the fan favorite to join the final three selected to pitch to a panel made up of Ted Leonsis, former U.S. Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra, U.S. Rep. Gerry Connolly and Mark Gruhin, co-managing partner of Saul Ewing in Washington. CarSquare and BuilDATAnalytics, a business intelligence platform for the commercial construction industry, tied for first place, because as Ted told the local press of the winning business plans, “There was meat there.”
The judges couldn’t break the first-place tie for the prize of office space in Ballson, legal services from Saul Ewing and $15,000, and organizers report that Ted volunteered and wrote the second $15,000 check himself. Finalist Changecause, a service that connects charities with business sponsors to match donations, will be among the four finalists invited to pitch to Ted in January. Upen knows he’s got his work cut out for him. “I spoke with Ted very briefly afterward and he commented that he wants to see more details when we meet.”
Learning to innovate by the numbers
Upen had come to Startup Grind to meet Tige Savage and let him know that M2 Labs is looking to take on the payment industry again. He is closing on a patent Dynamic Tokenization technology that creates virtual identity in real time every time a customer logs in to do a transaction. It resonated with him to hear Tige emphasize the importance of getting deep penetration into a market before spreading into newer markets. He also took to heart the advice to figure out and track the key indicators for his industry. “If you’re tracking four metrics and three continue to fail,” said Tige, “figure out a line of business that’s focused on the fourth. Hold yourself accountable to the numbers but don’t die by them.”
Upen asked the first question in the Q&A to learn how Revolution Money got a bank onboard as a processing partner, and in the end, walked the speaker out. “He was very open that Revolution doesn’t do seed rounds,” says Upen, “But, I wanted to get on Revolution’s radar for the future, because I am essentially Revolution Money 2.0.” He got Tige Savage’s card to follow up and learn about how Revolution Money overcame some of the same challenges he now faces. “Until yesterday, he did not know that I, Upen, or my startup, M2 Labs, existed,” says the optimistic entrepreneur. “Now, he has heard about me and whether he might invest in me or not, he might introduce me to other investors who would be willing to invest early stage.”
Meanwhile, in fat city
What was Josh doing at Startup Grind? I found out two weeks later at In the Capital’s “50 on Fire,” where Optoro was a tech winner, just having capped off an extraordinary year of funding with $7.5 million in January led by Grotech Ventures followed by $25 million in July from Revolution Growth and a few more million in late November from SWaN & Legend. Josh, who has enjoyed working with Ted Leonsis who sits on Optoro’s board, had learned that Tige Savage would be at Startup Grind from a friend at Optoro and he figured he’d stop by to meet him and say hello. Tige explained with self-effacing wit to the gathering that his team invests in “boring, existing categories where incumbents can be flanked.” It made sense to find out that Optoro never pitched Revolution, but was approached by them. “From what I understand, we were approached by Revolution Growth almost a year ago,” says Josh. “They were interested in what we were doing because we’re transforming an industry that’s been underserved by technology, and that’s a kind of business they look for. We weren’t looking to raise at the time, but they managed to convince us to work with them. So, ultimately, we never ‘pitched’ Revolution, although we did explain our business a number of times along the way.”
Upen says he came out to Startup Grind because he is working on giving investors an advance look at his business plan and keeping them updated by sharing his successes in advance of the next level of funding. He is working on being, what investor Mark Suster (Upfront Ventures) once referred to in a 2010 blogpost, as “a line, not a dot.” Tige expressed appreciation for those who can get creative and cited Mark Suster’s penchant for not telling people how to reach him. Though, he emphasizes that most of the companies he invests in come invariably through recommendations and relationships rather than over the transom.
Josh comes at things from his CTO’s lens: “Build something for yourself,” he says. “Stay involved in the community. Don’t focus on raising money or the pitch. If you need cash, get a job that pays the bills but don’t stop your own projects. Great people who succeed do so on the strength of their product. Understand your customers and what it is you’re doing to delight them. Get all that straight and people will pay attention.”
And, sometimes, said Tige, when emphasizing that first-time CEOs don’t need to be perfect, but they do need to be honest, “Shit happens. It just does.” Like my being late to Startup Grind that night. I held the elevator for a pleasant-looking guy with glasses wearing a checked shirt when Startup Grind’s Derek Andersen jumped in behind him and said, “Oh, this is tonight’s speaker, Tige Savage.” I turned to shake his hand and smile, half-regretting I’d forgotten to bring business cards. “I’ll be writing about tonight’s event in my little blog,” I said. “I’ll send it to you. I hope you like it.” And there it was. The elevator doors opened, and I guess you could say I’d made my first elevator pitch. Probably needed more meat…