About Astia

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Observations From SXSW

I just made it back from Austin’s South By Southwest (SXSW or South By for short). Think spring break meets TED: part music & film festival, part interactive conference, and part college party.

As a panelist addressing entrepreneurship, it was a privilege to be a part of the agenda. As an industry veteran I was pleased by the number of women I saw on panels, in the halls, and as keynotes. It appeared to me that almost one third of the speakers were women. Cool and good on you SXSW for getting women to the party!

  • We are going to be the inventors of the technology in the future: in 2008 women were 57% of the undergraduate degrees, 18% of the Computer and Information Science degrees, and 15% of the Computer Science degrees; and 28% of computer scientist were women. (source: NCWIT)
Now let’s work on getting South By (and other tech conferences) to be a more comfortable place for women to participate - because almost as soon as I arrived I started receiving tweets and texts – mostly from women - about their perceptions of the scene.

There were some really basic things that should not be done at a professional conference that wants to attract diverse talent. Period. If we really want women and minorities to come to the party, the party must change. And I do not mean political correctness run amuck. I mean real change that includes some basic respect for people’s differences and what will or will not make them feel a part of the community.

I am going to make a HUGE assumption here that people would like to see more diversity at gatherings like South By. With that is mind, I thought I would get the conversation started by highlighting what I think SXSW did well and where they left me out.

What they did well:
  • Every panel I visited had at least one woman.
  • There were two female keynotes (one more than I have ever seen at a comparable conference) that drew big crowds.
  • SXSW gets it that people need to connect in person and create real relationships that will last. This message resonates with women; we value our relationships and will invest time and energy in them.
  • The program book was thoughtful enough to recommend I wear comfortable shoes (although I love my heels).
  • Crowd sourcing of panel topics and speakers: the impact was that you hosted relevant conversations where women were represented.

Where they left me out:
  • A corporate sponsor missed it when the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders were the headlined guests. Really? Really?
  • Speaking of sponsor’s value alignment: Miller Light as a sponsor? Nothing screams college party quite the way that beer does.
  • The emphasis on night-time activity came off as more college party than comfortable networking space.
  • I leave it to my Latino / Latina friends to comment on the bag tag that said “nothing worth stealing in here, amigo” (included in the schwag bags). I won’t be using mine.
  • Where were the female VCs? I know a lot exited their partnerships this year, but none?
  • Crowd sourcing of panel topics and speakers: a not so great way to source topics from under-represented groups in technology.
As a conference that challenges its attendees to look at new business models and paradigms and new ways of engaging with our communities and society more broadly, how can we do it better next year?

I would like to hear from you – all of you – especially my female counterparts who found it difficult to find their own voices at SXSW and asked me to speak up. We each need to own our voice if we intend to create the change we desire.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Entrepreneur's Bill of Rights

The following is a guest post by Lara Druyan, General Partner, Allegis Capital and member of the Astia Investor Advisory Council.

I was recently on a panel for SVASE in which I was asked what opinion I had for entrepreneurs raising money. This question arises pretty regularly. So I thought I would take a stab at memorializing some of these thoughts.

Raising cash especially in the current environment is hard. However entrepreneurs have power in the process. Hopefully you have a selection from whom you raise money. Sometimes that isn't the case and you take money from whomever is willing to invest. If you do have a choice or even if you don't you should understand from whom you are taking money. This sounds evident except many entrepreneurs don't know much about either the firm (if a venture fund is involved) or the partner at that firm (often more important than the firm itself).

Entrepreneurs, you have a right to know the person and firm to which you will be wedded in your endeavor and make no mistake you will be getting married. You know for better... for worse... In other words, do as much diligence on your investors as we do on you. To help you with this I suggest the following:

1) Ask for CEO and Founder references. Call people on the list and not on the list. LinkedIn is a great resource to enable this activity.

2) Be urgent about the process the investors are going through when evaluating your company. Are they asking for customer references as a "way to get started" in diligence? Or are they offering their own customer introductions as a form of diligence? Note: asking for your customer references should come late in the process - not at the beginning.

3) Do your homework about the firm. Do they typically make seed investments? Later stage? If you're raising a seed round think carefully about pursuing a $400M fund's money.

4) Find out how many boards your prospective investor is on. Hint: more than ten means that the investor is not going to spend much if any time with you.

5) Figure out what matters to you in an investor. Are you seeking leads, advice, recruiting help? Assess the fit between your needs and what your investor offers (as told by references).

Remember even if it doesn't feel like it you do have power in the financing process.


Lara Druyan is a General Partner at Allegis Capital a Silicon Valley based venture capital firm. Allegis invests in early stage companies developing enabling technology and software to serve emerging markets. Specific areas of interest include: enabling hardware devices, enterprise software solutions, broadband and wireless delivery techniques, and Internet infrastructure and services.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Astia in Conversation with TuitionCoach

Astia client, TuitionCoach, the leading website for personalized college financial guidance, was recently acquired by SimpleTuition, Inc. the premier destination for personalized student loan research and comparison. Astia CEO, Sharon Vosmek, interviewed TuitionCoach CEO and Founder, Monisha Perkash, to discuss the exit and her next moves.

SV: Congratulations on the recent acquisition of TuitionCoach! In a tough year it is impressive to see this exit. Can you talk about what the acquisition process was like for you as a founder and how you dealt with the opportunities and challenges along the way? And tell us a bit about your new role at SimpleTuition.

MP: Thanks, Sharon. Well, I'd say one word describes best what the acquisition process was like: roller-coaster (wait is that two words?). In completing an acquisition, there are so many moving parts (market-timing, financial goals of the respective parties, legal issues, technical issues, and logistical issues). Also, many parties are involved including the Company's founders, the team, and various classes of shareholders, as well as the interested acquirers' management teams, employees, and Boards. And of course, each of these parties has opinions about the course of things. So while on one hand, you're excited about the prospects of an acquisition, on the other hand, with so many moving parts and so many parties involved, you are bound to hit some rough patches along the way. Hence, the roller-coaster.

How we dealt with opportunities and challenges along the way: communications and negotiations. Through this process we learned the importance of understanding the goals of each party, highlighting the areas where there is alignment, and speaking frankly about areas where there isn't. That's where the real work is... getting to alignment, if not in goals, then in acceptable outcomes. And it's through these difficult discussions that we often realized whether a prospective acquirer was a good fit or not.

My new role at SimpleTuition is VP Advisory Products; I'm the general manager for a suite of existing and future web-based tools that provide families with personalized advice on the paying-for-college process. This role is a pretty natural extension of what I did previously with TuitionCoach.

SV: As the founder and CEO, can you speak to the vision you originally had for TuitionCoach and how does that map to the path that the company actually took?

MP: Actually, this acquisition allows us to get even closer to the vision that we originally had for TuitionCoach: to be the trusted online destination for college funding assistance. It turns out this vision was one that is shared by SimpleTuition; what differentiated our two companies was that we addressed consumer needs at different points in the customer lifecycle. Also, TuitionCoach and SimpleTuition held a common value: that there needs to be greater transparency in the paying-for-college process so that families can be better informed consumers of higher education. So, in many ways, we shared the same DNA which made the acquisition even more compelling.

SV: TuitionCoach built a distinguished online service that parents, students, financial professionals and counselors could all benefit from. How did you identify the target market for your site?

MP: We provided offline financial aid counseling to thousands of families before we ever wrote one line of code. From working with them, and also from being aware of those who could not afford private consulting, we knew that there was a huge demand for affordable yet personalized college funding guidance. So we conducted focus groups to further understand their pain points and devised automated solutions that would address their needs. We like to think that we are to private college financial consultants what TurboTax is to accountants.

SV: Your company has strategically and effectively used modern technologies such as webinars and Paul’s Corner blog. How did you decide on this strategy and what are the next steps for the site going forward?

MP: The Internet provides such a rich medium for interactivity and to "humanize" a guidance process you can't get from just reading a book. So, in building TuitionCoach we explored technologies and strategies that would provide customers with the richest, most robust user experience. You'll see even more of this approach in an upcoming redesign of TuitionCoach.

SV: You have been with Astia since 2007. Tell us a bit about how you came to us and how your relationship with Astia affected your business?

MP: I first got to know Astia by coming to one of its workshops on entrepreneurship. In that room of predominantly women, I witnessed a unique atmosphere: one that fostered collaboration, mentorship, and humility, elements that I hadn't always found present in a roomful of zealous entrepreneurs. Because our start-up was also raising capital, we decided to apply to Astia. It was one of the smartest things that we did. Through the mentorship (and tough-love) I received, my business plan was transformed and my pitch was sharpened. Through the Astia network, I was able to gain access to top-notch legal and financial advisory. And most importantly, I was surrounded by an incredible community of fellow entrepreneurs who not only helped me with day-to-day challenges, but also inspired me to keep going, even through the toughest of times.

SV: Oh, and of course, whenever we see an entrepreneur like you exit, we have to ask… when will you be starting your next start-up and do you already have something that you are tossing around in your head?

MP: My new employer might read this interview, so ask me later. Just kidding! The answer is I'm really not sure. I do know that I've been bitten by the bug for entrepreneurship and it will always be a part of who I am. And what is yet another very positive aspect of our recent acquisition is that I do play a very entrepreneurial role at SimpleTuition and still feel quite energized by working towards that huge vision we've had all along.