Meet-Markets For The New Economy First Tuesday's parties bring entrepreneurs and investors together in a networking frenzy. Is that a business plan?
(FORTUNE Magazine) – On a humid, drizzly evening in June, a line of new-economy hipsters snakes out the door of Ohm, a dimly lit Manhattan nightclub, and onto the street. The queue at the coat check inside is almost as long, full of men and women waiting--some in suits, others in Silicon Valley chic--to check coats, umbrellas, and anything else that might hinder them during the networking extravaganza on which they are about to embark. Unencumbered, they emerge into the cavernous space, business cards in hand, and join the 500 or so others already clustered around tasty arrays of finger foods. To ensure maximum networking efficiency, the attendees have been assigned color-coded nametags to hang around their necks: green for entrepreneurs and other money seekers; red for venture capitalists and other money dolers; and yellow for consultants, lawyers, and other service providers trolling for fees, not seed money.
The occasion of this capitalist revelry was the inaugural New York meeting of First Tuesday, which started as a series of informal London parties and now aspires to transform networking into an honest-to-goodness, revenue-generating new-economy business. Instead of testimonials from happily married couples, this dating service for the entrepreneurial age trumpets its startup success stories, like the wireless communications company RedMessage, which got $20 million in funding from Goldman Sachs after its chief marketing officer spoke at a First Tuesday event in Milan. The company claims that about $150 million in startup funding can be traced to introductions made at its events. Since the first meeting 18 months ago in a small London pub, First Tuesday has spread by word of mouth and enthusiastic volunteers to more than 80 cities across six continents. Londoner Nick Denton, who had glad-handed at Internet events in Silicon Valley as a correspondent for London's Financial Times, helped start the regular gatherings on the first Tuesday of every month for his city's Netizens. "London was a ghost town, Internet-wise," he says.
He aimed to change that with cool parties that would appeal to everyone from uptight bankers to the hippest of geek programmers. First Tuesday's monthly get-togethers quickly spread and became the gathering place for Europe's burgeoning Internet cognoscenti. In places like Budapest and Bratislava, new entrepreneurs hungry for advice, money, and talent flocked to the events. Co-founder Julie Meyer, a San Franciscan who moved to Europe three years ago and is now First Tuesday's chief marketing officer, realized the company had arrived when her then employer, a London firm that earned fees for matching startups with venture capitalists, ordered her to disband the event. "You know you're onto something," she says, "when someone tells you, 'Please shut down your cocktail party because it's threatening our business.'"
Rather than disband, Meyer decided to convert their informal network into an actual business. They approached Chase Capital's Episode-1 group, whose partners had been frequent First Tuesday participants, for funding. With $1 million in seed money from Chase, Meyer quit her job, and last September, First Tuesday launched in 17 cities across Europe. (Co-founders Denton and Adam Gold recently launched their own Internet startups with money from people they met at First Tuesday events.) "There was a hunger out there for a marketplace that would give aspiring Internet entrepreneurs access to capital and services," says Episode-1's Simon Murdoch. He does concede, however, that "there is a very big difference between attracting people to free events and actually making money."
No kidding. Even First Tuesday beneficiaries like RedMessage VP Mandy Balla say the events--especially in major business centers like London--have become too large to be useful. And with VCs more cautious and Nasdaq stumbling around like a drunk at the end of the night, you have to wonder whether First Tuesday is a little late for the entrepreneurial party.
CEO Reade Fahs doesn't think so. "In this volatile market," says Fahs, "a service that links entrepreneurs with the right sources of capital and talent becomes even more valuable." Fahs, a brand management specialist with experience at General Mills and LensCrafters, came aboard in November and is working to leverage the First Tuesday brand and its database of 100,000 or so entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and service providers. Besides generating revenue through sponsorships--Andersen Consulting and Morgan Stanley are high-profile examples--Fahs is branching out into First Tuesday conferences, seminars, and other services. First Tuesday now posts jobs online in 24 of its member cities. The London site--the busiest--gets about 1,400 listings a month, according to VP of business development James Phillips. First Tuesday also plans to build a Web marketplace to sell office supplies and other entrepreneurial necessities at reduced prices. (The company has signed agreements with four suppliers, which will share a portion of their revenues with First Tuesday.) Another service will find office space for startups. But each of these markets already has established competitors, like job-board giant Monster.com and office-placement firm HQ Global.
The company's best chance to make money may be in leveraging its matchmaking reputation. First Tuesday now offers more-focused events between VCs and early-stage startups. It screens hundreds of business plans and chooses 30 or so. On the day of the event, the startups get about 15 minutes to pitch their business to a VC, who pays a small, undisclosed fee for the introduction and agrees to pay First Tuesday 2% of the capital for any company that gets funding. "It is a very efficient way to meet entrepreneurs," says Jorg Uberla, a partner at Munich-based Wellington Venture Capital who attended a matchmaking event in London. "We saw eight companies and are close to signing a deal with two of them--an incredible hit rate for us."
Those are statistics Meyer likes to hear. "What's important to me is how many people get deals done," she says. "Frankly, if nobody does and we're just pulling people into a room together, that's not relevant. That's a networking group, not a business."
Back at Ohm, the party is in full swing. Daniel Mota, a green tag who came all the way from Germany to seek funding for his startup, Wireless Interactive Media, decided to forgo the coat check and is wheeling his suitcase through the throngs. "When the people who came for the free food go home, maybe the rest of us can do business," he says with undisguised frustration. Michael London, CEO of application service provider Teralent, doesn't mind the buffet grazers. He shows off a wad of business cards. "These events are definitely not for the meek," he says, "but that's what the Internet is all about."
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