By Dennis Kneale
Even for a guy who loves words, it is difficult to pick the perfect adjective to capture the buzzy, techie totality of the Montgomery Summit in Santa Monica, Calif. last week: Buoyant. Ebullient. Jubilant. … Energized. Enthused. Intense. … Gung-ho. Can-do. Kick-ass.
Or maybe all of those labels are just another version of this one: Happy.
A thousand or so beaming investors, entrepreneurs and founders of 145 private companies gathered for intensive face-time and muscle-flexing at the 12th annual Montgomery Summit, sponsored by Macquarie Capital. More than 2,000 face-to-face investor meetings were arranged by Monty’s incredibly well-organized staff, in the midst of salon discussions, Starlight Room presentations, onstage interviews and chats in “the Bungalow.”
The summit began on Monday night with an ADP-hosted dinner for female tech entrepreneurs, packing the room with striving capitalists who were more intent on talking about their products, technologies and teams than about their status as the rare female in a male-dominated business.
“We are leaning in enough, we are getting the right experience,” Niloo Howe, chief strategy officer at cybersecurity firm Endgame, a Monty presenter, told the predominately female audience.
By the end of day one on Tuesday, a three-way “Moneyball,” offering a $100,000 investment to the winner, had five VCs onstage grilling the CEOs of three Monty presenters: an Internet-of-Things platform called Foghorn, an 800-merchant anti-Amazon online mall known as Shoppable, and Heal, an Uber play on doctor house calls at $99 a visit. And the winner is . . . Heal.
It was my first Monty, and having attended dozens of conferences in years past, I was struck by some key differences. This one had higher stakes—real investments being negotiated right then and there, rather than just high-minded talk. It had legions of giddy people who clearly love what they are doing and are driven to pursue it. And Monty was brimming with cool, mind-boggling tech at a pivotal time in business and Internet evolution.
Herewith a few highlights that can’t possibly do Monty full justice:
Pain points and personal grudges
As some Monty denizens make clear, the inspiration for a new business often comes from a need to solve a “pain point,” or offset a past offense. That is the case for Matt Burton, CEO of Orchard. His business model arose from a simple, frustrating truth after the meltdown: “Banks don’t lend anymore.” Not to small and midsized businesses, anyway. Orchard connects big investors, who have money to lend, with agents that can place that capital with the businesses that need to borrow it.
The same glaring gap inspired Al Goldstein of AvantCredit, also a Monty pick. AvantCredit has loaned some $750 million to more than 150,000 consumer borrowers, letting them access a $6,000 loan within minutes online, without the need for human intervention.
Bridie Lee created an online wedding-planning platform after enduring the hassles of planning her own nuptials. She teamed up with twins Feven and Helena Yohannes to form I Heart Savvy, another Monty presenter. It provides a single site where brides can shop a soup-to-nuts lineup of vendors, starting with “beauty” and including cake, catering, coordinator, entertainment, floral, officiating, photographer, transportation and venue.
For David Barrett, CEO of Expensify, the inspiration for forming his company came from the horror he felt the first time he had to file an online expense report. Similar motivation drives René Lacerte of Bill.com, who still can’t believe that 80% of bill-paying in many businesses still is done by paper check. “It annoys me,” he says.
On the need for “kindness”
Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel, onstage as the last speaker on the last day of Monty, was asked about the luck of timing and said, “I think we’ve been lucky in, like, a million ways.” He spoke of Snapchat as an outlet for storytelling: “Storytelling is the core way people connect with each other.”
He described his app is one of the first to let us post stories the way we tell them to each other: beginning, middle and then the end, whereas on Facebook each successive post goes to the top, LIFO style (last-in-first-out), the reverse order of storytelling. That dovetails nicely with the new Snapchat Live service, which the lanky 24-year-old demo’ed on the big screen.
James Montgomery, Founder of The Montgomery Summit and Managing Director of March Capital Partners asked Spiegel to describe the Snapchat company culture in three words. “Creative, hardworking and kind,” were his choices. He spoke about the need-for-speed and agility, which requires transparent and brutally honest feedback, and a kind atmosphere can enable that.
“Focus on kindness, be really, really kind,” Spiegel said, explaining that only in this environment can his young staff “learn and grow.” “People need to feel safe in getting direct feedback.”
It seems a startlingly simple prescription in this era of rapacious corporate cutbacks and the never-ending push for productivity. When I asked him about is as he came offstage, Spiegel reiterated his point and referred to Google’s stated corporate ethos: “Don’t be evil.” “Don’t be evil? What’s that? How ’bout: Be nice!”
Show ’em where you live
For years we have celebrated the fabled startup whose first office was in a garage. Now the focus may have moved to the entrepreneur’s home.
As Snapchat grew, Evan Spiegel dropped out of Stanford and returned to his hometown of Los Angeles, where he moved in with his father. This was out of necessity: He couldn’t afford to rent his own place, he told the Monty crowd. “It sounds much cooler now.” Snapchat has swelled to a $15 billion valuation, reportedly.
Ben Conway of VNTANA, a Monty presenter that pulled off impressive, live holograms onstage, lived at work because he couldn’t afford to rent anywhere else. For months, he slept in a backroom at VNTANA’s offices in Santa Monica, Calif., with only a sink nearby. He had to walk into the main office to get to a shower, sometimes getting caught clad only in a towel by an earlybird just showing up at work.
Because his company, co-founded with CEO Ashley Crowder, couldn’t afford to rent storage space, it kept all the heavy hologram equipment stacked on a loft-like pallet over his makeshift bed. An accident waiting to happen: When an earthquake rumbled him out of bed in the pre-dawn one morning, “I was out of there in five seconds, standing outside still in my boxer shorts,” he recounts. The gear didn’t fall; he has since moved to West Hollywood.
On women in tech
CNN’s Cristina Alesci, onstage last Monday night with Polyvore CEO Jess Lee, asked a straightforward question and got a straightforward answer.
Cristina: “Is Silicon Valley sexist?”
And that was it: No horror stories, not even a complaint, as Lee told of how she was a fan of the site and quit Google to work there. The three men who had founded Polyvore ended up naming her CEO and a co-founder. She was employee No. 4. The next day, on Friday, Lee made her pitch for Polyvore, with three million members and, among social nets, the #2 driver of traffic and fashion sales, after Facebook and ahead of Pinterest (#3) and Twitter (#4). A powerful presence.Jess Lee: (pauses, almost shrugs.) “Yeah.” (Audience chuckles.)
Just as powerful were presentations by two other Monty presenters, Ashley Crowder and Shradha Agarwal. Crowder, the co-founder and CEO of VNTANA, stood onstage with a hologram-camera trained on herself, waving to the crowd—and, instantly, the hologram of her on the screen next to her waved, too. This, she says, is a first: Holograms don’t do real-time.
Agarwal, co-founder and president of ContextMedia, wowed the crowd with her knowledge of healthcare costs and stats. She aims to help save billions of dollars in healthcare costs by delivering the right video message to the right chronic-care patients as they sit in their doctors’ waiting rooms an average of 34 minutes per visit, posing a captive and receptive audience.
Her data show that diabetes patients who see ContextMedia content order insulin 32% more than those who don’t see it, and advertisers reap $7 in sales for every dollar they spend in ads on her waiting-room network. A real win-win.