Jeffrey Robbins sensed that the early stage investment community in Minnesota had completely bottomed out in 2010.
“You wouldn’t be hearing about it in the mainstream media yet,” he recollects, “But having been around the startup and corporate finance community over the years, I could just feel it. And I wasn’t alone.”
As the year came to a close, Robbins would consider the situation at length, studying the issue while observing the various events, groups and cheersquads that had all talked about increasing action among angel investors and startups. “…but nothing was really working for the investors,” he realized. “And if it doesn’t work for the investors then it probably wouldn’t work for the entrepreneurs either.”
And by springtime, he had decided to do something about that, birthing AngelPolleNation (APN) and kicking it out of the nest over the summer.
“It wasn’t that original of an idea, just that no one had been able to get it right and make sustainable. At the least, I knew was worth a shot,” he says of the unique challenges associated with convincing busy, wealthy people that they should try out his new and untested approach.
“I followed the money and there really was nothing that offered the combination of awareness, education and communication amongst solo accredited investors and various members of established organized clubs,” he admits, pointing to what he identified as the three largest unmet needs.
“Investing in early stage companies is like a gang war, it works better in teams. APN is a comfortable and safe environment where they wont get mobbed on.” He instinctively knew that no serious and able angel investor wants to repeatedly throw themselves into a lions den of starving entrepreneurs seeking capital.
Creating a loose knit, invite-only angel group posed a risk on many fronts to Robbins, but he fundamentally approached it just like an entrepreneur would: solve a real problem, add legitimate value, and capture a business return for risk assumed and resources invested.
A UMN Law School grad and attorney with Messerli and Kramer by trade, Robbins has served and advised numerous business ventures in his time, placing bets on entrepreneurs and executives along the way. He considers his own tech startup rendezvous circa 2001 as ‘an unforgettable learning experience that reminded him to stick with what he was good at,’ which, needless to say, did not include the successful creation of a new technology company.
“Entrepreneurship is about taking the resources you’ve got and finding a better sum,” he says. “I’ve embraced the challenge through APN,” which naturally has raised his own professional profile between the investors and entrepreneurs he connects.
Seven meetings later, 21 different startups (typically tech) have pitched at APN; the presenters are not revealed in advance, while on occasion, certain startups are invited back to share milestones and traction updates.
“It’s a point of discovery for the attendees, the goal is for the startups is to be fresh and compelling.” Of course, he has an incentive to bring investable opportunities to the table that will keep the angels coming back and the startups hungry to get in.
Robbins figures that 300+ unique angel investors have come through the doors of Interlachen Country Club so far for APN, many repeat. But the deal flow is just one component of his program, as each event features a guest lecturer.
“The goal is to pick speakers familiar with angel investing from a point of view different than their peers, but also relevant…that could be super angels/VCs, finance advisors or domain experts,” he says.
The communication aspect is perhaps the most anecdotal value-add, and the trick to making it all work out, as it puts the pollination in APN. Demonstrating that it’s worthwhile and perhaps even enjoyable, “Investors are now coming early and staying late.”
He maintains that those who pitch at APN tend to move through a cycle — leading to connections, referrals, follow-up pitches, and due diligence. More specifically, one company he declined to name “had investors write checks within weeks of their pitch,” while another “had an intro to a big client.” APN doesn’t charge entrepreneurs to present and they are considered on referral basis only.
“If it sounds exclusive, that’s because it is, which is what’s working for AngelPolleNation,” he quips without hesitation.
As for the angel investment climate in Minnesota overall, “It’s improving here, slowly, but surely. Now we need to start seeing more liquidity so that money can be recycled.”