Entrepreneurs bounce business ideas off bar crowds
It’s a Monday night at a loud bar, and in one corner stands a microphone.
“All right, let’s get the energy up in here, you guys, come on,” Brian Bentow said as he strolled up in front of the crowd.
The 25-year-old at the microphone in Santa Monica’s South bar wasn’t there to tell jokes despite the scene’s resemblance to stand-up comedy night at the local watering hole. Bentow didn’t want laughs. He wanted feedback.
“Raise your hand if you’ve had any pain from ever using a computer or you know somebody that has,” he said as he began a pitch for his documentary, “Your Computer Is Killing You.” “I see almost everybody’s hand raised in here; that’s the problem I’m trying to solve.”
Bentow was attending -- for the fifth time -- a gathering of Bloblive, an entrepreneurial networking event that organizers bill as a marriage between the open mic night of the bar and club scene and the quick elevator pitch of the business world. It also has a support group feel to it, as in: “Hello, my name is Sam, and I have a business idea.”
At each Bloblive, current and would-be entrepreneurs are encouraged to present their business ideas in front of a crowd of like-minded strangers to elicit suggestions and questions that might help them focus their business concepts or to find partners to work with.
Bentow was looking for people for his documentary: sufferers and experts on sore wrists, gaming addiction, bad posture and other effects of a techie lifestyle.
The concept for Bloblive -- “blob” being the unrefined business idea -- began last fall and has taken off with multiple events each month in the Los Angeles area and Philadelphia. Organizers, all of whom work for or consult with credit card issuer Advanta Corp., are looking to expand.
Bloblive organizers say it’s an opportune time for the business networking event as those laid off or dreading pink slips are forced to rethink careers or find a new source of income.
“It’s tremendously good timing,” said Erick Brownstein, a Los Angeles consultant for Bloblive. “People need to be thinking how they can do something new.”
Starting a business during a downturn when money is tight might seem counterintuitive, said Thomas O’Malia, director of USC’s Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies. But successful businesses are founded on “sweat equity” and building a good model, rather than an immediate influx of money, he said.
“In a bad economy people are forced to do things that they have not done, and a great deal of lifestyle companies emerge in a recession,” O’Malia said. “Entrepreneurs start up companies for next to nothing all the time.”
The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation this year expects to train double the number of last year’s would-be entrepreneurs in its FastTrac business programs nationwide. Even the 20,000 to 25,000 trainees expected this year might be a low estimate, said Bo Fishback, entrepreneurship vice president for the Kansas City, Mo., foundation.
The curriculum normally runs two days a week over 10 weeks, but high demand for an even faster FastTrac has pushed some programs to pack the training into seven to 10 consecutive days, he said.
“If there’s bad times, it means you’re going to take a different approach,” O’Malia said.
Part of that different approach could include seeking business advice from a group of strangers in a bar.
“Normally anyone would ask friends and family and the idea was, can you extend that network and get feedback from people you wouldn’t normally expect?” Brownstein said.
Bloblive is an offshoot of Ideablob.com, an online forum to post business ideas and have people comment on them. The most popular idea each month gets a $10,000 prize.
Bloblive and Ideablob are sponsored by Advanta of Spring House, Pa., one of the largest issuers of credit cards to small businesses. Bloblive organizers recently retooled and now charge $10 for each event attended after the first one, which remains free, or $20 a month for membership.
At South, Solomon Rothman was the fourth person to get up and pitch an idea, this one about open-source filmmaking. Dressed in a white buttoned shirt, Rothman spoke quickly, competing for attention with several widescreen TVs and the noise of a bar on a Monday night.
Five months ago, the 27-year-old was working at a Web marketing company, but when the real estate industry tanked, the client base dried up.
“When my company went out of business I said, ‘OK, I have all this time -- I’m going to go for it,’ ” he said. His online films would enable writers, editors, musicians, artists and others to take the final product and do whatever they want with it.
Rothman, who lives in Ventura, estimates he’s been at all the Los Angeles Bloblive events. He met Bentow at the first one, and now they’re working together on the computer-related injury documentary.
Patrick Ford has been laid off four times over the last several years -- most recently in November as an executive vice president of a gaming company -- and each time looked to start new businesses. At Bloblive he spoke of an online comedy workshop he plans to launch in the next month.
“Whenever I leave a company or am in between jobs, I start churning out these ideas and see what sticks,” he said. “Because you can’t depend on corporate America.”
Ford, 50, was older and more experienced than many of the more than two dozen attendees and the half a dozen people who pitched ideas.
“I’ve been through all kinds of situations, I’ve been through the dot-com boom and the dot-com bust, so I just think I have a lot to offer,” he said.
But O’Malia questioned the purpose of advertising your idea just to get feedback.
“It doesn’t matter what I think, and it doesn’t matter what you think,” he said. “It matters what someone who’s going to write a check thinks, or else you’re just having fun and it’s good cocktail conversation.”
Even if the advice she received from audience members wasn’t that helpful, Lillian Wang, a cosmetics company owner in Gardena, said it was a good opportunity to practice pitching an idea and even falling flat without any dire consequences.
Brownstein said bad pitches or even bad ideas haven’t been a major problem at the events, but he joked about bringing a gong to let people know they’re floundering or for people who are only self-promoting and not seeking feedback or help.
“Every now and then you get a really out-there idea where you’re like, ‘What? Where’s the gong?’ ” he said making a motion as if hitting an imaginary instrument.
At a Bloblive event in Westwood on March 3, regular participant Israel Rothman meandered for two minutes about his project, Sheisannoying.com, without making much sense.
“I have no idea what your idea is,” a woman from the audience called out as a few others chuckled.
Rothman paused for a second and raised both hands as if to assist in the explanation.
Trying again, he said: “The idea is . . .”