The Granada Theater, built in 1946 as a movie house that premiered classics like It’s a Wonderful Life, and now a concert hall, stands as a historic venue in Dallas. Last month, that brick building full of stories and entertainment innovation featured a new and different act—this time, the marquee’s red letters spelled out something a little more on the “wild” side: “Tech Wildcatters Pitch Day 2013.”
The lines forming at the door didn’t look like the normal music-hungry crowd. Instead, the mixed crowd of suits and ties with jeans and tees were jonesing for something else—technological and inventive ideas worth investing in. On this pitch day for the small business startup accelerator, Tech Wildcatters, the crowd came to hear a set list of pitch presentations by entrepreneurs prepared to win over investors.
Tech Wildcatters is one of many startup accelerator programs across the U.S. and worldwide. Some of the most well-known incubators, as they are sometimes called, are Y Combinator and TechStars, but hundreds more accelerators in all business sectors are helping train entrepreneurs and develop their ideas into real, functioning, full blown products and businesses. Tech Wildcatters was named one of Forbes’ top 10 accelerators two years in a row.
“Tech Wildcatters at its simplest is about enabling entrepreneurs to change the world,” says program director Stewart Youngblood. “That’s the ultimate goal—to empower the right people, at the right time, and to offer them continual support on their journey.”
Now, let’s step out of the Granada (before the show starts) and over to the Tech Church, the accelerator’s home base where the whole enterprising process begins. Inside the walls of what once was an uptown Dallas church, you’ll find something inspirational is still going on.
Getting in the Wildcatter program goes way beyond filling out the application. More than 300 startups applied online and only 25 of those moved on to be finalists, who each presented a two-minute pitch to Tech Wildcatters’ investors and mentors. That number shrunk again—this time to its final class of 11 startup companies. With the group assembled, the “boot camp” was set in motion.
The whirlwind, 12-week program is packed with mentorship, a learning series about venture capital, weekly pitch practices and speaker dinner meetings, along with a number of other activities relevant to becoming a better entrepreneur. Each team’s foot is heavy on the accelerator with the goal to reach startup success and to make an impact in the tech industry dominant on their minds.
“It’s a fast paced environment and not for the faint of heart,” Youngblood says. “However every company that has been through looks back and is amazed at how much they actually accomplished while in the program.”
One crucial element for success: the “mentor mindset.” With 75 plus mentors, startup entrepreneurs have exclusive access to priceless connections and a wealth of experience. The purpose of this mentorship mentality is to expose each team to a number of unique perspectives on early stage companies. “The interaction between mentors and investors who have already been successful in their lifetime is the key to truly making progress during the program,” Youngblood says.
“Over the course of the program, companies incorporate the comments, connections and advice they have received from mentors, and at the end it’s quite apparent just how much the mentors have truly made an impact on the startups.” Visions become tangible products and business plans inside the Tech Church’s walls, and the teams emerge as knowledgeable entrepreneurs with solid startups ready to be shared with the business community.
Back at Pitch Day at the Granada, the line outside has filtered into the lobby and finally disappeared into the theater, where the lights are dim and the music bumping, thus muting the meet and greet of business men and women. Investors, at the crux of everything Tech Wildcatters does, were seated in the VIP section, front and center. With the glow of laptops and iPhones providing a little light in the audience, the spotlight shined, and Youngblood came on stage to kick off the anticipated presentations.
“Behind every logo is people,” he told the audience. These are some of the people, the startups who graced the stage that day to pitch their innovative ideas in hopes of gaining investors’ attention—in hopes of getting funded to move their business forward to success:
HedgeChatter.com James Ross, CEO and co-founder, says his company needed to be a part of a group with strong impact and influence in the investor community, so they applied to Tech Wildcatters—and ended up on the Pitch Day stage, which he compares to an American Idol for startups, directly in front of said investors.
“Tech Wildcatters was like a rocket ship on a trajectory to destination success,” he says. “We had access to some of the most prominent investor and mentor minds in the country that helped us navigate start-up landmines.”
HedgeChatter.com correlates social media financial chatter to stock price—it’s a dashboard of hot stocks based on what people are saying. Behind the scenes, HedgeChatter can determine which stocks are receiving large amounts of negative influence—and it’ll alert traders to perform additional due diligence or simply avoid the stocks altogether. The goal of the company, with its advanced financial indicators, is to guide retail investors to better trading decisions.
Ross’ big question to the investors that day: “Will social media have an effect on the stock market?” The answer is yes, and someone else in the theater agreed. “I literally walked on stage, did my HedgeChatter pitch, walked off stage, got into a car with my potential investor, drove to his lawyer’s office and signed the deal!”
GroupRaise.com The people at GroupRaise.com say it’s the most delicious way to change the world. GroupRaise helps nonprofits and their supporters organize fundraisers online at local restaurants.
“Our mission is to make the world a better place, one meal at a time,” says Devin Baptiste, founder and CEO.
The idea was born in 2011 in Houston, Texas, and before Tech Wildcatters, the company had 300 restaurant locations. After graduating from the Tech Church, GroupRaise has more than 550 partnerships and has built leads with major chains through the program.
“Graduating from our undergrad gave us a diploma, but Tech Wildcatters left us with vision, people and the confidence to make our dream happen,” Baptiste says.
Talentize.com Talentize is an online stage for empowering talent, and Regis Mejia, founder and CEO, believes an accelerator was the perfect way to fuel this vision.
“From models, actors and athletes to non-traditional talent like wake boarders, graffiti artists and break-dancers, Talentize.com allows people to showcase their talent to the world while being discovered by industry professionals,” he says.
It all started out with a PowerPoint presentation, a splash page and a three-member founding team. Now, it’s a functioning product with a legitimate business plan, financial models, active users and growing clients.
“I think an accelerator brings out the best in most people because it encourages healthy competition under accelerated timelines, and there’s pressure to execute at your best.”
After just three months, Mejia says he walked away feeling accomplished and with invaluable confidence to run his startup.
Klick Push Ben Jorgensen, co-founder of Klick Push, says his team left San Francisco for Dallas—for opportunity. “Dallas knows business and how to create sustainable business models, and that’s what we were looking for.”
His startup, Klick Push, is making advertising a more valuable experience—by creating an engaging consumer experience with brands. They want to reward people for clicking on an ad with premium digital content, like a free download. The Klick Push model engages consumers and gives brands a way to build customer loyalty.
“We wanted to build a GREAT company,” Jorgensen says. “Tech Wildcatters presented that opportunity.”
501Fund Kara Brown and her co-founder quit their corporate jobs to work on their true passion, the 501Fund, an online platform and mobile technology that simplifies the process of non-profit fundraising.
Their mission? “To enable merchants and non-profits to jointly increase their engagement with individuals, ultimately allowing them to be both loyal customers and loyal donors through their everyday spending decisions.”
And their vision: “To make giving an everyday practice.”
“Before Tech Wildcatters, the 501Fund was just an idea on a napkin,” Brown says.
Now, they have an online platform built, clients lined up and an alpha test read set to launch this summer.
“It took a lot of hard work and determination on our part, and like all startups, we will have to continue working hard and smart in order to truly be successful. But because of Tech Wildcatters, we are miles ahead of where we were three months ago.”
Eleven pitches later, the buzz of business was back in the audience, and founders and investors were off to meet and make deals. It was a rapid fire of inspiration.
“I can’t wait to see where this class is in one year’s time,” Youngblood says. “They’ve all made significant strides while they were here and are all now poised to make a big splash in their respective markets.”
The ultimate goal of this seed accelerator is to get a significant return on investment. But Tech Wildcatters also wants to make Dallas among the top three innovation capitals in the world.
So far, the Tech Church has fed out 37 companies. They have raised $25 million and have made $10 million in revenue. By definition, a wildcatter is an independent oil entrepreneur willing to take chances with regard to where they drill. In this modern day definition, a wildcatter is a focused entrepreneur who will overcome any set of obstacles to succeed—and this accelerator’s pack of wildcatters is drilling for success.