November 14, 2013

With UnPitch, Boston's TightKnit Tech Community Sends Message - Don't Take Advantage of Young Entrepreneurs

A few weeks ago, a little online skirmish started on meetup message boards and Twitter involving a very suspect and questionable group that organizes events to take advantage of inexperienced young startups and unwitting entrepreneurs. (We don't want to give them any more press than they deserve, so we won't even mention the name of the organization.)

The group was going to charge some pretty outrageous fees for companies to pitch their ideas to what the group markets as a group of prestigious venture capitalists. When some Boston tech folks caught wind that the organization was returning to town and up to their usual antics, a bunch of people spoke out. HackerChick Abby Fichtner encouraged young entrepreneurs not to fall for the scam, Scott Kirsner took them to task on Twitter and engaged in what was supposed to be an actual dialogue with the group (they didn't really allow any criticism on their blog), and Objective Logistics' Phil Beauregard exposed the operation to the national tech media with a piece on PandoDaily.

Needless to say, many people in the Boston tech/innovation community were pissed that a group that had burned so many entrepreneurs (many who spent what little money they had on the event), was trying to take advantage of people once more. No one could stop the group from coming to town, but, an idea was floated to create an event to counter the bad mojo of the nefarious organization. As Abby Fichtner said of the initial reaction to the whole brouhaha, "It's not okay to come into Boston and take advantage of our entrepreneurs."

So at the recent MassTLC UnConference, people started casually chatting about creating an alternative, free pitch event. By the end of the day, the idea had gained light-speed momentum, and resulted in the creation of UnPitch Boston, a one-of-a-kind pitch contest open to sixty startups/entrepreneurs. The event will feature some of the most influential and most successful venture capitalists, VC firms, and angel investors in Boston. There are so many highly important investors involved, I don't have enough space to list all of them and would be doing a disservice by leaving one of a list of those who will be there.

Basically, the companies who sign up for the event will have the chance to sit down with any of the VCs and angels in attendance and pitch their ideas. UnPitch is meant to be a relaxed, low pressure affair. So instead of sixty young startups pitching to a room full of "intimidating" investors, they will have the opportunity to sit down at a table and present what makes their company the "next big thing", get feedback, and possibly develop relationships that could end up being fruitful for all involved.

As I was sitting down with Abby Fictner yesterday to talk about the event, I got pinged by a whole host of other tech folks who wanted to talk UnPitch. This is truly a passion project and something that a lot of people in the Boston startup community are pushing to be an event that is not just a great opportunity for entrepreneurs, but a knockout success (and a big "F - You" to people trying to take advantage of young, inexperienced startups).

The UnPitch event is one-of-a-kind and should be epic, and maybe even life-changing for a couple startups, but the bigger story here has to do with the Boston tech/innovation community.

For a long time, when local and national media members, and pretty much anyone with a soapbox and an urge for some quick attention, has thrown down the gauntlet for the "Who is the Best/Smartest/Most Successful Tech City?" argument, almost everyone is Boston gets their back up when told we've been eclipsed by New York or Los Angeles, or are light-years behind Silicon Valley. While the entire argument is at this point pretty tired and even to a point almost sensationalist, lazy journalism, the point that people involved in the debates have constantly held up as Boston's greatest asset is the tight-knit, almost familial nature of its tech community.

It is a truly special fact that the Boston UnPitch was borne out of the anger of company founders, journalists, investors, and startup mentors, in reaction to someone coming into town to make a quick buck off of hopeful entrepreneurs who wouldn't know that an event was a scam or not. It is also unique and the example that the tech community has been looking for to show others, "This is what makes Boston the best place in the world to start a company." The UnPitch story is proof of what a lot of folks in the innovation economy have promoted and argued is the defining quality of Boston as a tech hub, its closeness and supportive community.

Boston is truly the only place that I can think of where people without a dog in the fight, unite and stand up for other members of their community that don't even know.

As Fichtner told me, "It's amazing how everyone came together. A couple of us spoke out defending our community, and then NEVCA came out and said we are going to organize this, we are going to get the investors involved. TUGG got involved, Phil Beauregard got involved, and Terrible Labs and Jeremy Weiskotten built the website and app in a day."

The investors involved are fired up and excited about the event as well. I ran into Shereen Shermak of LaunchAngels and all she could talk about was the UnPitch event. She's not alone. At TechCrunch's event, at the CIC, at Evertrue's office opening last night, all anyone wants to talk about is UnPitch and special the event will be. More than that, everyone realizes, and is taking pride in, how a community of what should be disconnected and competitive companies and investors can unite so quickly for a cause that might be ignored in other cities.

UnPitch is taking place on December 11th, and the group that has organized it is still trying to choose a venue for the event (they have been offered space by pretty much everyone in town and are just trying to pick one place).

If you are a company or entrepreneur who wants to pitch your idea to what in my mind is the best collection of VCs and angel investors I have ever seen at an event, the deadline to do so is December 1. Go to the UnPitch website and sign up before the company list fills up.

Dennis Keohane is a staff writer for VentureFizz. You can follow Dennis on Twitter (@DBKeohane) by clicking here.