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Talking jobs, trading business cards, making pitches

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 24, 2009 - It’s easy these days to write about economic trends without considering the people or companies affected by them. So it was enlightening Tuesday afternoon to watch entrepreneurs, job hunters, students and regional employers mix it up at an event intended to spur innovation in St. Louis, particularly in the information technology and biotechnolgy sectors.

The Start-Up Connection combined recognizable elements of jobs-related events: the career fair, the economic roundtable and the hands-on workshop. So much was going on at once, perhaps, because the organizing committee consisted of three diverse groups – Greater St. Louis Works, Nidus Center for Scientific Enterprise and the Information Technology Entrepreneur Network, which recently launched a website to link start-up companies with business mentors and investors. This event joins a growing number of gatherings that focus on job networking and the economic health of St. Louis. 

Jim Brasunas, director of iTen, said the original idea was to get people who had been laid off connected with  high-tech companies that are hiring or looking to find people to fill eventual openings. An event in January had this career matchmaking component, as did Tuesday's expanded program. (Brasunas said he hadn't heard of hires being made based on the first event.)

Brasunas also works with people who are trying to secure funding to get start-up companies off the ground. Thus the idea for a seminar on how to pitch a business idea to a venture capitalist whom, in one hypothetical, a start-up leader encounters for two minutes in an elevator.

The so-called warm-up pitch workshop was run by Chris O’Leary, an Olin Business School graduate who has worked at several start-up companies and made scores of business pitches.

O'Leary distilled much of what he covers in his book, Elevator Pitch Essentials, into a 20-minute presentation on common mistakes made in such conversations. Some of those mistakes, he said, include failing to establish credibility, trying to close the deal right away and focusing so much on the business idea without addressing the problem it's trying to solve. O'Leary said some start-up teams don't ask their best spokesperson to do the pitching. Other groups, he added, simply seem too slick.

“I’m always nervous of teams that have only marketing people,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with some rough edges. I’m looking for people who are programming geniuses. I’m encouraged by geeks and nerds; it indicates that there's a special sauce.”

After the pep talk, people with the business ideas gave their pitches to a panel of judges as part of the start-up competition. The idea is to give those behind these start-up companies some practice selling their concepts. “The first time you pitch it’s going to be terrible,” O'Leary told me before the seminar. “By the 10th time it’s better.”

Jason King, 29, said he was looking for a chance to work on his sales pitch and meet potential business partners. He's seeking ways to capitalize on short and (he hopes) catchy domain names that he's purchased and is looking to offer to internet users. (His business plan calls on revenue through online advertising.) King said his pitching strategy is "to make the guy want to stop the elevator and go beyond the two-minute conversation."

O’Leary, who was one of the judges, said he looked mostly for quality of the idea -- although presentation mattered, as well. The pitching contest winners -– who won cash prizes up to $500 -- included spokesmen for a) a company that is developing a system to help doctors remotely care for patients who are located in nursing homes, b) a website that helps consumers compare prices for auto care, and c) a company that's promoting an efficient solar energy collector.

Meanwhile, in a nearby room, people sat at cafeteria tables and discussed issues relating to the St. Louis economy.  They mulled over statements and questions such as “What can you imagine that would really put us over the top in tech innovation in St. Louis?” and “in-migration will be critical; those markets that stand still will lose.” Much of the conversation focused on St. Louis's image as a city that, as one commentor put it, "has more of a workforce than a thought economy."

Participants spoke about ways to sell what St. Louis already has -- high-tech companies like Monsanto and a range of IT positions at major companies. The city has made an effort to promote itself as an IT hub with such events as Gateway to Innovation. People said that having increased mass transit service and more nonstop flights out of Lambert-St. Louis International Airport would make St. Louis a more desirable place for business. Others complained about the lack of biotech job openings and the difficulty companies have in keeping talented college students from leaving the city. That issue, too, is being addressed by the Regional Business Council.   

Feedback given during these sessions is being included on a social networking website intended to encourage dialogue and sharing of information about the future of science and technology in the St. Louis region.