Would you contribute 10 bucks to get an adult webcomix series featuring voiceovers from real porn stars off the ground? How about $5 for a stainless steel buttplug project? Ben Tao and Eric Lai, founders of Offbeatr, an adult version of crowd-funding sites like Indiegogo and Kickstarter, seem to think you might.
There's only one problem. Who will hold onto the money while the buttplug company waits to see whether it can raise the full amount it needs? Crowd-funding sites take donations under the condition that your credit card will be charged only if the project being funded reaches its goal, but PayPal, American Express and Amazon Payments all refuse to process orders on adult material.
What's a struggling startup to do? Why, consult and exchange information with the competition, of course!
Every other Monday evening at the Idyllic Nerd Commune (INC), a co-working loft space in the downtown Arts District, the L.A. Startup Club, a collective consisting of the leaders of seven new tech companies, gathers over take-out to vent about the challenges their businesses face, to offer each other honest feedback and goal accountability and to share tangible resources, such as the contact info for a good Java designer or a comprehensive list of deep-pocketed investors. Startups involved range from the L.A. branch of a D.C.-based solar utility company to a service that saves parents from tedious shopping trips by sending a customizable box of children's clothing every month, started by Sean Percival, featured in LA Weekly's 2009 People issue as founder of L.A. tech blog lalawag.
The intimate, leaderless club is the brainchild of startup veterans Micki Krimmel and Daniel Hengeveld, who aim to find a happy medium between the superficial schmoozing of networking events and the top-down mentorship and forfeiture of equity at startup incubators and accelerators, all of which provide support and advice for fledgling companies in the newly thriving Silicon Beach tech scene in Santa Monica and Venice.
But at the events the two have attended on the Westside, “People are handing out stickers for sites that don't exist yet,” Krimmel says, rolling her eyes. “Most networking things you have to go and posture, 'Everything's great, guys! Entrepreneurship is easy!' and we all know that that's not true.” Krimmel, who is also an L.A. Derby Doll, dismisses your greedy capitalist skepticism about their utopian plan for seven companies to share secrets and struggles with a word she and Hengeveld coined: frieNDA, which, unlike an actual Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA), represents the unwritten trust the group puts into each other as friends.
Like most of the club's members, Krimmel and Hengeveld wear the casual, colorful uniform of the under-40 tech set; the two work full-time at INC and are currently launching a gamified goods and services exchange called Favortree. After chowing down on Chinese food this past week, each L.A. Startup Club company got 15 minutes to update the group on accomplishments and hurdles. Around a simple black wooden table littered with Apple laptops, Diet Coke cans, beer bottles and fortune cookies, conversation remains easygoing but focused, with candid and specific advice on everything from how to deal with online-gaming cheaters to how to manipulate the press. At one point a conspiracy theory about how Google ad sales function comes up, and someone who used to work there confirms it's not true.
For a room full of techies, nearly all of them manage to avoid checking Facebook and email for the majority of the night. When Jeff Ponchick, the ponytailed, flannel shorts-clad CEO and co-founder of a video-synching tool called Outlisten, looks down at his phone while someone is talking to him, he insists, “I'm not texting! I'm writing that down.” Ponchick initially conceived of Outlisten as a way to create seamless, multi-angle music videos out of the phone-camera snippets taken at concerts and posted to YouTube, by matching the audio behind the clips. However, he is working on changing the algorithm to line up clips based on the time-stamp in addition to the audio; the group suggests such a tool could be used to weave together multiperspective videos of everything from weddings to riots.
Up next: Does L.A. have capital for startups?
When Alex Capecelatro, founder of a social network called At the Pool, apologizes repeatedly for criticizing Favortree's investment pitch deck, Krimmel shows she doesn't want sugarcoating. “If you say [sorry] one more time, I'm gonna smack you in the face,” she says, and everyone laughs.
Capecelatro is a whiz kid who dropped out of high school to advise NASA on aerogels (seriously) and, at 25, serves as an adviser at StartupUCLA, but when his turn comes he admits his enthusiasm for building the local tech scene hasn't led to the type of fundraising his company needs.
“L.A. is just, you know … nothing is really kicking for us,” he says.
“For anyone,” Krimmel adds. And therein lies the rub. The burgeoning Angeleno startup community boasts innovation, enthusiasm and the official support of the mayor's office, but the majority of venture capitalists and angel investors remain in New York or San Francisco.
“In L.A., there's no money,” Krimmel says sadly.
“But if there is, we'll find it!” Hengeveld adds.
As the three-hour-plus meeting winds down, the group excitedly discusses performing their full investment pitches for each other, tweeting about each other's successes and trading tips on financial modeling. Just as everyone is about to get up to go, Hengeveld announces a good omen.
“By the way, guys, my fortune cookie says, 'Wealth awaits you very soon.'”
The group responds with a chorus of whoops and cheers, and they all go home hoping this prophecy will come true.