By Micheal Bradley for Main Line Today, May 2014
Rachel Zeldin has worked for a global financial-services company and isn’t a naturally shy person. Even so, she confesses to being a little intimidated at one particular business meeting last February. She didn’t doubt the quality of her product, I’m Sorry to Hear, a website that made a strong debut with a wealth of information and resources for those seeking practical funeral guidance after the loss of a loved one.
Now, though, she was in front of 60 heavy hitters at Overbrook Golf Club. And top it off, there was a panel of three experts offering criticism and advice, Shark Tank style.
“I did a quick scan of the room, and I was one of only five women,” says Zeldin of her first run-in with The Entrepreneurs Network (TEN) in its full glory. “I wasn’t that nervous, because I’m usually one of the only females, and I’m usually about 20 years younger than everybody else.”
Zeldin had no trouble commanding the audience with her presentation, which traced the site’s history from its genesis (Zeldin’s family had struggled getting good information after the death of a great uncle) to its late-2012 launch and subsequent growth from a regional concern to one that offers services to people in 17 states. “I know my story inside and out, and the reception was amazing,” she says. “Everybody was really engaged during the question-and-answer session, and there were some valid points made.”
Fred Catona, head of Blue Bell-based Bulldozer Digital and one of the sharks, was quite direct with one suggestion. “You need a celebrity spokesperson,” he told Zeldin, who was suitably impressed. “I never heard that before,” she responded.
Since her presentation, Zeldin has received calls from five to 10 people, who’ve offered support and counsel. She’s met with Catona and TEN founder Rick Anthony to discuss strategic initiatives—in particular, how to acquire capital in a tough environment. “It’s harder to raise money on the East Coast
because people are more conservative about giving it,” says Zeldin. “You can’t get any money here until you prove you’re successful. It’s a chicken-and-egg thing.”
While Zeldin works to grow her business, TEN forges on, offering promising business types chances to build relationships with investors, marketers and others who might help them succeed. The one thing TEN meetings are not are your standard business-card swaps—and Anthony makes it quite clear that job seekers should go elsewhere.
It’s not a particularly diverse group (you’ll see a lot of middle-aged men in blue blazers), but there is some firepower in the room. Catona, for example, started
A Taste of Philly following 13 years as a teacher. “I made $17,500 a year teaching and $900,000 mailing hoagies,” he says.
It’s quite obvious that the draw isn’t the “parsimonious” (Anthony’s word) continental breakfast. Rather, it’s the chance to connect with other people who have started their own businesses—and potential investors.
Early last year, Anthony decided to “freshen up” the meetings by adding the Shark Tank concept. He insists they’re all “friendly sharks,” offering observations, suggestions and constructive feedback. Zeldin and two other presenters made their pitches, just as other trios have presented at previous meetings. It’s a low-key setting, with introductions preceding the presentations, and networking concluding the morning. Anthony presides, and he reiterates that there is to be “no overt proselytizing” by anyone in attendance. But he does concede, “Everyone here is looking for a deal.”
Still, no matter how cool everyone is
expected to act, the goal is the same. Some, like Catona, come to look for clients and offer marketing expertise. “Any problem you have with advertising and marketing, I can solve it,” he says. “For entrepreneurs, that’s their weak point. They have their plans all worked out, but they don’t have the slightest idea about marketing. I’m trying to educate people.”
Adam Greenspan made his TEN debut this past September. His product: anti-microbial hospital scrubs and other clothing designed to repel 11 different
hospital contaminants, including MRSA. At the meeting, he discussed the process used by his Aries Medical Textiles to treat the fabric—and how hospital-
acquired infections cost between $30-40 billion a year To the untrained business eye, the idea had plenty of potential. Then came the questions.
“Is it able to withstand 50 wash cycles?”
A good point. Any fewer washes than that would make it cost ineffective. Greenspan hadn’t looked that far ahead.
“Why don’t you license the process to a uniform company and cash out fast?”
That might not be a bad idea, but Greenspan was more interested in seeing the concept through.
Entrepreneurs don’t always look for the fast buck. They thrive on the excitement, the stress, the uncertainty of being in charge of a business and working to make it successful. That’s why Anthony created The Entrepreneurs Network in the first place back in 2000. The founder and president of the Anthony Group, a management consulting firm, he was responding to the desires of the many budding entrepreneurs he’d frequently come in contact with.
During the ensuing 13 years, TEN has compiled a database of more than 1,000 people. They don’t all find their way to the meetings, but they serve as valuable resources for those interested in launching businesses. Not everyone who presents at a meeting, or looks to connect with financiers or marketing experts, is making his or her maiden voyage in the uncertain waters. Anthony speaks of many “serial” entrepreneurs, who move from one business to the next—succeeding, suffering setbacks, cashing out. It’s almost as if they’re perpetually chasing uncertainty. “We’re not a membership organization,” says Anthony.
Nobody pays dues; there’s no special inducement to come. “But we’re able to deliver the secret sauce: the collegiality of people who are friendly, helpful and willing to extend themselves,” he says. “That’s the general ambience.”
The addition of the three-person panel has allowed for greater dialogue between those pitching ideas and those in the audience. Catona was a natural for the first group of evaluators, given his expertise, success and instincts. Ask him something, and he’ll give you an answer. He can be intimidating, but he’s committed to helping fledgling business owners. “I like to ask questions; it shows respect,” he says. “If you ask people the right ones, they’ll come up with the right answers. That means they now understand what they should do.”
It’s not easy for young businesses to find funding in this area. Innovation and risk-taking have always been more Western traits, so finding investors in this time zone can be a challenge.
Although money isn’t falling out of the pockets of venture capitalists at TEN meetings, it is a “step in the right direction,” Catona says. “I saw a stat that said something like 1,700 deals get done in Silicon Valley, versus 400 in New York and like three in Philadelphia. Everything in business is about relationships. You have to build relationships.”
Anthony has supplemented the work of The Enterpreneurs Network with a like-named TV program taped at Radnor Studio 21, which can be seen on the local access channel and YouTube. Anthony also hosts a TEN radio show with Lonnie Sciambi. They promote themselves as the Business Impresario (Anthony) and the Entrepreneur’s Yoda (Sciambi).
At the meetings, it’s not the same group every two months. Anthony reports a 40-50 percent turnover, which prevents the proceedings from ever getting dull.
As continues to spread the word about I’m Sorry to Hear, Rachel Zeldin still needs the sort of feedback and support TEN provides. Oh, yeah, and she’d to find the money to hire that celebrity endorser and expand into more states. TEN can’t guarantee her all that, but it has helped her make the contacts that could lead to something significant.
“I had no idea what to expect, but I was floored by how well it was put together,” she says. “The attendees really wanted to see how they could help each other.”
And maybe spark a feeding frenzy.