Entrepreneurship Sections

A Priceless Gift

Entrepreneurs Gain Insight at Valley Venture Mentors Program

EntreneurshipDPartThe idea for Marcie Muehlke’s business was born when she went shopping for her wedding gown. “I wanted something that was beautiful, but also had a beautiful story behind it; I didn’t want a dress made in China in a sweatshop or by children,” said the Amherst resident.
Her search proved futile, but after talking with friends, the 29-year-old realized they shared her values — and so did many others.
“So I founded Joya Bride with the idea of having women’s cooperatives in Southeast Asia produce wedding dresses that would make women look beautiful and feel joyful on their wedding day,” Muehlke said, noting that her goal since she was a college undergraduate has been to figure out a sustainable way to help women in the developing world.
Muehlke recently returned from three weeks in Southeast Asia, where she met with silk makers and independent craftswomen. “It was an amazing trip,” she said.
It was also a journey she might never have undertaken without the help, support, and guidance she has received from Valley Venture Mentors, or VVM. The Springfield-based group provides critical support to entrepreneurs by linking them to business professionals who act as mentors during structured monthly pitch-and-planning sessions as well as in private meetings between sessions.
Although Muehlke had conducted academic research before making the decision to launch her company, the guidance she’s received from the group has been invaluable.
“Each month they posed questions about things like price points, sourcing, and supply-chain marketing, and through long conversations with my mentors, I was able to nail down answers and move forward,” she said. “They provided me with lots of valuable advice as well as help in making overseas contacts.
“I haven’t signed any contracts yet, but I have sample dresses and a few orders, and when I graduate next month from the Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst, I’ll devote myself to this full-time,” Muehlke continued. “It’s a decision the group really helped me with. We talked through the pros and cons, and they gave me the moral support to take the risk. They’ve helped me make critical decisions and move forward to make this business become a reality. It would have been a lot more difficult and slower without them.”
Muehlke’s comments are typical of those who have received — and continue to receive — support from the program. And for this issue, BusinessWest talked with several individuals on both sides of the mentoring spectrum about the VVM and its potential to spur business growth, and thus employment, in this region.

Valuable Exchange
Muehlke was one of more than 60 people who met in the Springfield law offices of Bulkley, Richardson and Gelinas during the VVM’s monthly meeting in April, where the degree of energy, enthusiasm, and intense interest in new business concepts was certainly palpable.
Four groups who hope to be accepted into the program delivered timed presentations. Their auditions had to include an executive summary, a video, and a pitch focused on how and why their company could work. When they finished, three teams already accepted into the VVM program reported back to the group on progress they have made since the last meeting.
Scott Foster, a partner and business law attorney with Bulkley, Richardson and Gelinas who started VVM with Paul Silva, managing partner of Angel Catalyst, said two main premises must be incorporated into each presentation. The first is called the ‘pain,’ which translates into the need or problem the entrepreneurs will fill or solve, as well as “why the world needs it.”
For example, a company dubbed Mission Control presented an idea for a software product that would be affordable and easy for nonprofits to use and noted that the market lacks software that meets the needs of such organizations.
After explaining why their product or service is valuable and viable, the entrepreneurs finish their presentations with the second critical component of the program, termed the ‘ask,’ which is a problem they must solve to move their venture forward — and a matter they want and need help solving.
Foster said entrance into the program is determined by the degree of maturity of an idea, and what the presenter has already accomplished. “We’ve had people present ideas that were not developed enough for us to be helpful,” he said.
Those who are accepted must be willing to accept what Foster refers to as “lovingly critical advice.”
“But this is not a shark tank — even if a mentor thinks an idea is the worst thing he or she has ever heard of, their job is to think about the challenges the business will face,” he explained, adding that groups who are not accepted can return and present their ideas again after they have done more work on them.
After the presentations, mentors meet with the presenters in two short break-out sessions where they pose questions aimed at helping the fledging entrepreneurs hone their ideas, identify exactly who their product or service will appeal to, where they might get financial backing, and the best way to market their idea. After those sessions, the mentors meet with teams already accepted into the program.
Foster said mentors refrain from giving advice, but may introduce solutions they have found helpful in solving similar problems. And between meetings, mentors, as well as the facilitator assigned to each group, often reach out to teams with help that can include introductions to people outside of VVM.
“We had one team that was creating a commercial coating to reduce the drag on ships,” said Foster. “One of our mentors knew someone at the Navy laboratories and was able to help the group get their product tested by the Navy. It’s a lot of work because the mentors and board members are all volunteers, but although it takes an enormous effort, it is very rewarding.”
Gourmet food and beverages are served to create a convivial atmosphere, and when the meetings finish, people often go to the sports bar in Tower Square to continue talking. “We’re hearing about innovative concepts and ideas that can change the world,” Foster said.
As word about VVM spreads, the number of people wanting to present ideas has mushroomed. “The majority of people we accept are still in early stages of establishing their company, and many are operating out of their homes, which is the stage where the least amount of assistance is available,” Foster told Business West.
The original concept called for a six-month membership for entrepreneurs accepted into the program. But that model has changed. “Some only need four months, while others come to a few meetings, then take time off to apply the advice they received before they return,” said Foster, offering the example of a person who came to the group with a viable concept, but needed time to bring it to fruition and figure out what the appropriate market for the product was before he was prepared to return. “But this is a lifeline for people. It’s the difference between sitting at home and thinking about a good idea and getting out there and getting it done.”
Nathaniel Davis was accepted into VVM last June. His company, Play/Give/Win, offers nonprofits and other people who want to raise money an innovative way to do so. Instead of asking for donations, charities can invite people to pay to play online games with prizes, or go on ‘missions’ that range from ‘liking’ a Facebook page or Twitter account, which translates into a cash value due to business sponsors, to checking in at a location where they can redeem a coupon.
“VVM has been absolutely pivotal in helping us create a working product, get customers, and generate our first revenue,” said Davis.
Before he found out about VVM last spring, Davis said he spent a large amount of money trying to make connections in Boston, and believed he would eventually have to relocate to a major hub such as New York or Silicon Valley, where there is strong support for technology entrepreneurs, in order to be successful.
But all that has changed as a result of his involvement with VVM. Davis had outsourced his Web development to India, but the relationships he made through his mentors allowed him to bring it back to Massachusetts at a lower cost, convey the concept in simpler terms, and define his product so the average person can understand it.
“They also helped me discover whether I was actually onto something,” he said. “I believed I had a viable idea, but they helped confirm it and provided valuable feedback that helped me redefine my business model. It’s a good place to come and pitch an idea; you will be among professionals in the area who have already succeeded and can help you avoid pitfalls and mistakes they made along the way.”

Changing Direction
“Entrepreneurship, whether for profit or nonprofit, is what changes an economy to make it more responsive to the region,” said mentor Rick Feldman, who has been involved with fledging firms for 30 years. “My world is the world of enterprise development; I’ve started and sold two companies and, years ago, started the Western Mass. Software Assoc. to do this type of work.”
Feldman enjoys his involvement with VVM, and says part of the group’s goal is to help people figure out the right path to take and think seriously about whether they are prepared to own their own business.
“In some cases, that means rethinking their plans; they may actually want a job or career, and you find that out through lovingly critical conversation,” he said, using a phrase other mentors employed on a frequent basis.
He’s worked with two people in VVM who decided that going into business was something they were not prepared to do. “They found their niche in another way, through a job,” Feldman explained.
Mentor Mike Ippolito had the same experience. He was mentor to a group he met with four or five times. “They couldn’t seem to get their business model down, and eventually they all found good jobs,” he explained. “When you are in a startup, you have to look around and ask if the path you are on is the right one. We encourage people to look at all of their options and hopefully come up with a decision.”
However, those who decide to move forward get help from a variety of professionals, who essentially urge them to think globally. “We’re not looking for companies that want to stay small, but for those who want to swing for the fences, hit a home run, and become as big as Facebook,” Foster said. “It’s a little crazy, but we want them to think big, become very successful, and employ hundreds of people.”
Cloud2Market founder Robert La Ferla said VMM has been very helpful to him and his partner, Chitra Dwarka. “They showed us gaps we needed to address as well as areas in which we needed to communicate more effectively. And our mentor gave us ideas about different markets to target,” La Ferla said.
Their business is aimed at redefining the call experience for consumers and businesses via a visual, branded, interactive, and easy-to-use mobile app and cloud service designed as a single integrated solution for customers that will increase satisfaction and reduce costs.
Mentor Daniel Lieberman says VVM also benefits those who volunteer. “It gives the established business community an opportunity to meet people and get new ideas for growth,” he said, adding that he was a mentor to Davis’s company for three months and has been part of the program for nine months. “It is very fulfilling, and I’ve learned a lot. I’m in Internet marketing, so it is good for me to be aware of what the business trends are.”
Mentor Jim Mumm looks forward to the monthly meetings. “It’s exciting to be around people with great ideas who are working long hours to make them happen; the caliber of people who come here and help is incredible,” he said. “This keeps me in an entrepreneurial mindset as I am around other like-minded people, whether they are wildly successful or just getting started. I get more than I give, and it makes you rethink what you are doing in your company and why.”

Positive Gains
Muehlke said the monthly presentations at VVM helped her to polish her public-speaking skills. “You have to explain your concept, present any updates, and defend your decisions; public speaking and pitching a business is not easy, and this has been a great way to practice,” she said. “This is a community of support, and their energy and enthusiasm are as important as their actual advice. I’m so glad I have been able to be part of it so I can provide brides with dresses that make them look beautiful and feel more joyful, knowing they are helping women around the world.”
It’s a goal right in line with the purpose of VVM. “These people are building ventures and satisfying significant niches,” Silva said. “They may not all be high-tech, but they are all high-scale.”