A changing of the guard at the New Jersey Entrepreneurs Forum does not mean any major changes in the way things will be run at the 25-year-old organization.
“The lights are on, the doors are open, come on down,” says Dan Conley, right, who replaces Jeff Milanette as president of the non-profit business group. Conley formerly served as vice president of programs for the group.
Milanette, who ran the Westfield-based tech management firm Innovative Partners from 1984 until its closure this year, left the NJEF when he “got a chance at his dream job as manager of the Port of Los Angeles incubator,” Conley says.
While the natural focus of the organization is New Jersey businesses, its members are not bound by state, or even national boundaries. “We have entrepreneurs who attend our meetings who come from the Great Lakes region, from Florida, and even from Iceland,” says Conley. NJEF programs, designed to assist and train technology entrepreneurs, are held on the second Thursday of each month, beginning at 4 p.m. at the Center for Commercialization of Innovative Technology in New Brunswick.
NJEF supports New Jersey’s technology incubator companies, bringing a reality check to valuable government-subsidized programs. It also directs dozens of entrepreneurs to a variety of venture fairs each year, Conley says. The group was organized in 1984 by entrepreneurs, consultants, and investors to help start-up technology companies commercialize their products and services.
By 1995 NJEF had transitioned from a branch of the New Jersey Commission on Science and Technology to a private nonprofit corporation. It is well-known for its “Fast Pitch 5+5 Venture Plan Forums” at which entrepreneurs give five-minute pitches that explain their business plans, products, and services to seasoned entrepreneurs, angel investors, and venture capitalists, then receive a five minute critique of their plan.
“Forum is both a noun and a verb,” says Conley, in describing the purpose of NJEF. While he may not be grammatically correct, his meaning is clear. The organization is both a meeting place where new entrepreneurs can meet with seasoned professionals, and a place of learning and discussion. “Our fast pitch programs give entrepreneurs a soapbox where they can discuss their ideas with savvy VC folks,” he says.
“We remain true to our initial mission of deconstructing and reconstructing an entrepreneurial business plan within a brief, intense training and coaching session before, during, and after our two-hour programs each month,” he says. The success of the program comes from the active support of managers and sponsors who are experts in a variety of areas. They provide real world feedback on the plans and give assistance in the basic skills required to start, manage, and finance a new company.
Conley is a native of Boston, where he grew up as one of six children. His mother worked as a nurse while his father, a salesman, was his professional role model. After high school he joined the Marines and earned an associate’s degree in technology from Saddleback Community College while still in the service. In 1986 he earned a bachelor’s in business administration from the University of Massachusetts. While working toward his degree he was a correspondent for a medical journal “The Lancet,” which he says is where he learned the basics for evaluating biomedical companies.
After college he worked as a sales contractor for a Philadelphia company that sold lines of credit for capital equipment expenditures and financing of assets. He was recruited by GE Capital, where he learned to dissect deals as program coordinator and closer for GE Capital’s commercial financing acquisition group. This, he says, gave him “accelerated experience” in how to originate, construct, and close many millions of capital for small entrepreneurial businesses.
He then worked with the Chancellor Group in Massachusetts before moved to New Jersey in the 1990s and became involved with several entrepreneurial and venture capitalist group, including the Venture Association of New York, the Venture Association of New Jersey, the New Jersey Entrepreneurial Forum, and the New Jersey Angels.
Conley explains his craft as “designing a win-win-win transaction that meets the pricing, structure, and cash flow needs of entrepreneurs and their teams.” In 1988 he incorporated a formal Angel network looking at 365 business plans each year, three dozen of which are selected.
One of the biggest mistakes new entrepreneurs make when raising capital is to be reactive, rather than strategic. “Rather than waking up and saying, ‘Oh gosh, we need money, instead they should be planning at least a year ahead,” he says.
Entrepreneurs need to develop a “sell-book” that is about 10 pages long, he says. It should include a one-page introduction to the company and the product, an executive summary, a five-minute slideshow, biographies of the key players in the company, and a comparative analysis of its market niche. The goal is to put together proof of concept that builds a compelling story for why your business is fundable.
While the term “angel investor” may make you think of a guardian angel bestowing a gift, entrepreneurs need to remember that prospective investors want a return on their money. That means they want to know all of the details about what the entrepreneur plans to do with their money.
Conley suggests keeping the conversation specific: “With our next $100,000 we are going to go about doing the following three things in the next three months,” for example. A great idea is not the only thing that is needed to develop a profitable company. You have to understand the revenue stream and how the money will be made.
Most entrepreneurs start out with knowledge of their field and the product they plan to develop, but that doesn’t mean that they have experience in business, or understand areas such as marketing. While it is great to “have some idea of basic business skills,” it is even more important to know how things operate, and what making a profit means,” he says. That includes looking at the hidden costs of business and learning exactly how much it will cost to produce the item you are making.
It is also important to make sure that you are pitching in the right place, Conley notes. Venture capitalists and investors who attend NJEF are primarily focused on technology ventures in both the medical and communications areas — nano, bio, tools, materials and devices, says Conley. The cycle of spring venture fairs is just beginning, so he recommends entrepreneurs spend time and money talking to the people who are interested in their type of business. Make sure you can be very specific about what need your product fills.
The drive to go back to the drawing board, even when an idea has failed, is one of the marks of a true entrepreneur. You need a passion for your business, the ability and the desire to live your work 24/7. That’s the passion that makes the difference between a successful start-up and one that fails within a few years.
The past two years have been difficult for entrepreneurs in search of investors, but according to Conley, “the tide is coming back.” Many investors who were holding on to their money are now ready to step back into the investment market.
“We are open for business again,” he says.
New Jersey Entrepreneurs Forum Inc. , 32 Cedar Brook Drive, Somerset 08873; 732-873-1955. Dan Conley, president. www.njef.org.