by RENEE PATRICK Cascade Business News Feature Writer
When James Gentes and Rys Fairbrother entered the 12-week VentureBox program, both were intent on using the format of the new business incubator to create their own technology-based ventures. But eight weeks into the lean-start-up curriculum, the two men found that a commonality in their ideas could be combined, and The Social Business was created.
Gentes came to VentureBox with a background in project management and software startups. Fairbrother has been involved with the internet since the late 90s as well as sales, project management and property management. The two discovered their similar but diverse backgrounds and expertise could compliment each other, and the result was not only a stronger business model, but a unique partnership.
“We just happened to be lucky that the dynamic worked between us and our products. All of the other companies are so dramatically different,” said Gentes. “I would strongly recommend VentureBox for people who have ideas they want to cultivate. I had the business idea already but would have never been able to accelerator it and be as confident as I am, and to be able to find a partner to work with.”
“They deserve all the credit,” said VentureBox Executive Director Jim Boeddeker. “It has been amazing… they have accelerated since they have been together…It was really obvious when we did the document review at the beginning,” he said. “I have known these guys for a long time and they had been pointed at the same customer and same problem. We let them explore the path we placed in front of them, and the idea to merge together came about when we started talking about structure and funding and the ownership pieces…They have different skill sets but are complimentary.”
The Social Business
Fairbrother entered the VentureBox program with an entrepreneurial idea revolving around a creating a referral service for local businesses. The concept developed as he was working in the vacation rental market and encountered people interested in previous guests’ experiences. After finding that many property reviews were being fabricated by property owners/managers, he saw a niche for providing customers with trust-worthy feedback. Starting with audio testimonials, he soon saw the potential for a bigger vision. “I found I was pigeonholing myself to a market segment with audio only. I decided to try video to place on websites,” he said.
Gentes’s initial business idea formed around his experience founding a social media marketing company two years ago. “I found that businesses try to use social media as a way to generate leads, and is largely ineffective. I wanted to try and find a solution to service businesses in particular.” He approached VentureBox with an idea for a Facebook App (Good Peeple) where friends could recommend trusted services and businesses to other friends. “By generating referrals through Facebook we would be able to provide a solid return on investment,” said Gentes.
The synthesis between the two ideas came together when the men realized that Gentes’s focus of working with the users on Facebook was free, but with a way to bring them together in great volume. Fairbrother had a product that was about helping businesses build a solid referral program. By combining the two approaches to generating quality referrals, the partners discovered each idea would become stronger. “So what we saw was I had half of the puzzle and he had the other half,” said Gentes.
“James provides a service, the Facebook application, which lists people’s trusted businesses. When that happens we recognize the lead and contact the business to see if we can help by including a reputation score based on their internet presence. It is a two punch, you have been added by a customer, and if your reputation is lacking and we can help you get more referrals and get a better reputation, Fairbrother explained.”
The Good Peeple (goodpeeple.com) App will be available in June, and once launched locally, the partners plan to expand their service to other communities.
The first class of companies to go through the VentureBox program was whittled down to seven during the interview process, and the entrepreneurs then started a rigorous 12-week program designed around lean-startup principals with a culminating Investors Day when the companies pitched their well-honed business ideas to potential investors. Assisted along the way by a team of mentors (experienced founders, CEOs, presidents and executives), the companies are now launching their various enterprises.
“We are all so busy, and to be able to carve out enough time to build out a real business plan or develop a new idea is really challenging. It often gets put on the back burner,” Gentes explained. “Being part of VentureBox forced me to do the upfront planning tasks”
Both Gentes and Fairbrother stressed one of the most helpful dynamics in the curriculum was the mentorship program. “Having successful entrepreneurs who can provide experience is incredibly useful, it is an education. There is learning that goes on that helps you focus on how you are going to make the product successful,” Gentes said.
“The mentors were exceptional,” said Fairbrother. “They were there throughout; we would meet outside of the classes and they really dove in deep to understand our business.”
“The first VentureBox was a monumental effort,” said Boeddeker. “We established a couple of really important milestones. These organizations like VentureBox are mentored service businesses, they are as good as the mentors that step up to participate. Bend benefits from a strong and knowledgeable business population with a strong entrepreneurial thread in it. The people I was able to enlist put a lot of work into it, way beyond what you would expect from a volunteer bunch. They were really into growing the companies.”
“Every entrepreneur has that gut of an idea, this process extrapolated that. There are so many facets to be able to scale a business. Through lots of exercises, workshops, working with subject matter experts and really defining what that target market is, you learn to focus on one single idea,” Fairbrother said.
The first session of the business accelerator proved to be a challenge, due in part, said Boeddeker, to creating the program and running it at the same time. He states the team did a fantastic job integrating the heavy content into the 12-week period, but in the future they will be looking for creative ways to cover the extensive material. Solutions could make the program longer or break down the content down into several pre-program activities. “There was a lot of discovery,” Boeddeker said, “but I’m not sure we got to the depth I wanted to.”
He stated the need for an alumni structure as the graduates of VentureBox will in effect be the best ambassadors of the program. “We are not done with them, the goal is not just to get them through the program but get them the funding they need set up their businesses.” Boeddeker and the mentors plan to create opportunities for the participating companies to speak to investors in other markets such as Portland and San Francisco. “We are still in the learning curve, and are humble and willing to work hard,” Boeddeker finished.
VentureBox Success Bodes Well for Central Oregon
“Bend has never really had a business incubator and that is one of the indentifying factors in high growth markets,” Gentes explained. In a time where new jobs and businesses are closely tied to the health of a community, both men believe the atmosphere VentureBox is creating for the tech start-ups is important for the local economy.
“It could be a huge boost and bring people to Bend,” he said. “We will soon be able to show that we are creating businesses and there is capitol that is being invested here.”
The next VentureBox session is scheduled to start July 25. Those interested in participating (new businesses at either the conceptualization or early development stage) can sign into the website (www.venturebox.org) using the company portal where they can build up their company profile. Companies will be evaluated until mid-June when the 5-7 companies will be identified for the second session.