Friday, February 10, 2012

Start-up guru aims to build investment fund

By J.D. Harrison

After more than a decade working for a number of start-ups, Charlie Kiser decided to finally pursue a venture of his own a couple years ago. He had an idea for a company that would fill a gap in automobile maintenance, and before long, he started pitching his idea to venture capitalists and angel investors.

It didn’t take long for them to pitch him.

“Some of the local investors asked me whether I had considered taking my skills to the seed and angel investor side of the business instead,” he said. “Basically, they told me there was a demand here for people to educate start-ups and investors and help them interact more effectively.”

Kiser took heed of the advice, and has tabled his original business plan in favor of another: a consulting and investment venture that would connect local, early-stage technology firms to investors. He has not settled on a name for his venture.

The West Virginia native first entered the world of technology start-ups in 1999, working in sales for life sciences bioinformatics firm InforMax based in Bethesda. Later, after brief stints with young companies in New Jersey, Boston and Ohio, Kiser returned to the area to take over executive-level sales positions at the mapping firm FortiusOne (now GeoIQ) and open-source management firm Bluenog, both in Arlington.

There, he took part regularly in boardroom dealings between founders, board members, investors and clients, and he said he began to fully understand the nuances of the entrepreneurship ecosystem and how strategic business relationships were formed. Most importantly, though, he said, he made invaluable connections with the important players in the D.C. area and started gaining their trust and respect.

“A lot of the deals and new companies I know about now, ones I can then present exclusively to my investors, many of them are thanks to the connections I made during those years, interacting with their boards and investors and pitching them to venture capitalists around town,” Kiser said.

Kiser is busy expanding that network now as part of his new enterprise. He is taking on temporary or on-call consulting assignments, allowing him to work with a large number of firms, and he’s come up with an unusual title: chief reality officer.

“A lot of times, these early management teams just need a truth-teller, someone to tell them straight up that they need to change their product or pivot to appeal to investors, or that they need to take something off the pipeline or get rid of their CTO. That’s the role I try to fill,” he said.

Now, with enough connections under his belt, Kiser has started building the funding side of his business. He plans to pursue a slightly different model than the structure of traditional angel investment groups, which rely on a select few investors with tons of wealth at their disposal.

“My plan is to reach out to a larger number of potential investors, and include those who are new to the game and maybe have smaller amounts of capital to play with,” he said

Kiser has begun contacting doctors, lawyers and family office managers – individuals, he said, who are often intrigued by the possibility of backing young technology firms but often don’t know how to enter that world or how the ecosystem functions.

For now, Kiser is working with investors on a one-on-one basis, helping broker individual deals between them and the start-ups with which he is currently consulting. But already, a few have expressed interest in putting resources into an eventual seed fund.

Kiser has also recruited a 10-person advisory team, which includes Joshua Konowe, chief executive of Uppidy, a message sharing service in Reston, and Navroop Mitter, head of Gryphn Corp. in Washington, which is developing ways to secure text messages. That team will help him determine the potential of future investment opportunities, and Kiser said he expects they will add a degree of credibility to his eventual fund.

“We have a lot of wealth and resources here, and there are a lot of great ideas worthy of investments,” Kiser said. “I’m trying to introduce them and help them understand how to work together, and that’s where we are going with the seed fund.”

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