Tom Douglas Serving Local, Sustainable Startups to Would-be Investors

Tom Douglas, builder of food empires, is putting his imprimatur on a new Seattle startup event meant to bring together wealthy, connected professionals and entrepreneurs in what organizers bill as “Shark Tank with a soul.”

Some 300 people—mainly accredited investors—are expected to fill Douglas’ Palace Ballroom on Thursday night, paying $15 a pop to hear from six area startup companies, selected from about 100 that applied. This is the inaugural outing for The Lion’s Den, which organizers hope will become a semi-annual event showcasing entrepreneurship and creativity in a fun atmosphere accessible to angel-investing newcomers.

Jeri Andrews, Douglas’ partner in the effort, says she’s become acquainted with professionals who have significant capital to work with in her career as a sales leader for Russell Investments and Xerox. Often, these would-be investors “don’t necessarily know what’s happening from a startup perspective,” she says.

“There’s a tremendous opportunity—and it’s being validated—to cross-pollinate those two worlds,” Andrews says.

The Lion’s Den is another attempt to address a problem we hear of frequently from Seattle’s startup community: There’s lots of money in this city that could be backing new companies, but for some reason, isn’t. (See for example, this profile of the Seattle Angel Conference, which aims to educate would-be angel investors on the nuts and bolts of due diligence and deal structure.)

“We have a city full of wealth, and yet import capital,” says Luni Libes, one of six “lions” tapped to judge the presenting startups and the prime-mover behind Fledge, an accelerator for social-purpose startup companies. “In terms of business, the angel groups, First Look Forum, MIT Forum, TiE events, accelerators, and so on are not succeeding at getting most high-net-worth Seattleites interested in angel investing.”

“The creators of Lion’s Den have promised a room full of such people, who have yet to plug into the other organizations and forums, with a hope that this new format will show off the excitement of early-stage companies,” he says.

That hope was echoed by three of the other judges. “There are countless brilliant business leaders in this city who have the means, skills, interest, and experience to become valuable advisors and successful investors in Seattle startups,” Julie Sandler of Madrona Venture Group says. “And yet, the path to becoming an angel investor is not always obvious to those who are interested. This is one very meaningful way that The Lion’s Den is aiming to make a unique impact on the Seattle startup community.”

Chris DeVore, of Founders’ Co-op and Techstars Seattle, says professionals like the ones Andrews knows, and investors in food and hospitality that Douglas knows, tend to have shared values and culture with the tech startup community, “but historically haven’t been well-integrated locally.”

“Their idea to bring together the investor community they know with the early stage tech scene—and to do it with signature Tom Douglas flair—is a flash of brilliance,” he says.

Andrews says showmanship and fun are a big part of the event, which will loosely follow the model of ABC’s “Shark Tank” reality show, in which entrepreneurs present their businesses and then get grilled by a panel of judges who are also would-be investors.

Like “Shark Tank,” this is about entertaining as well as investing. But it’s not a traditional pitch event in which the entrepreneurs will be directly soliciting investment, Andrews says. “There are some non-solicitation rules that we have to be very cautious of,” she says. (Other startup pitch events, including Techstars, have nixed mentions of specific fundraising activities in deference to new JOBS Act rules.)

“What we’re really trying to do is just educate people on what’s happening in the startup community … and what some of the creative ideas are,” Andrews says.

The presenting companies include two high-tech businesses, two no-tech businesses, and two that fall somewhere in between. While you’d think a celebrity chef and restaurateur would attract food-related startups, only two of the six are focused there. Andrews says they favored companies with a social purpose that resonated with her and Douglas’ values—that’s the “with soul” part—though it wasn’t a requirement.

Sujal Patel, Isilon Systems co-founder and another of the “lions,” says he’s excited for the new crowd of potential investors, as well as exposure to new companies.

“There’s not one company that’s presenting that I knew about,” he says.

Make no mistake, there’s an implicit goal of matching potential investors and startups. “That’s absolutely a benefit. But more importantly are the mentorships, the strategic alliances that could be built, the inspiration that people walk away with,” Andrews says.

And Douglas and company may be laying the scaffolding for a more formalized investment group. First and foremost, they want to put on a great event and solicit feedback from attendees to plot the best way forward.

“We may or may not look at ways to actually fund some of these businesses,” Andrews says. (The Lion’s Den website mentions an “underground investment collective” that Andrews and her wife Amy Andrews are starting.) “We may look at having a fund ourselves. We may look at other ways we can bring capital into startups and use our deal flow in a creative way. It might make sense to bolt on to another organization. We just don’t know and we’re keeping that very open.”

As for the format, the audience Thursday should expect more constructive criticism and questioning from the judges, not the sort of public skewering that would-be company builders on “Shark Tank” face.

“It’s not about bringing someone in and beating them up and having them walk away with their tail between their legs,” Andrews says. “It’s about lifting them up and helping them find a way to succeed.”

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