I just got the first

by francine Hardaway on November 1, 2002

I just got the first personalized license plate I have ever owned. My father viewed vanity plates with derision, saying that if you didn�t know who you were, no license plate could tell you. But I now own a Toyota Forerunner of a color � like a metallic baked potato skin — that matches all the other SUVs in any parking lot. Tired of wandering around acres of asphalt trying to identify my car, I got on the Arizona Divison of Motor Vehicles web site and went through a process very similar to that of selecting a domain name.

And guess what was available? STARTUP!!!! Can you imagine a population so lacking in entrepreneurial spirit that the quintessential license plate for entrepreneurship hasn�t already been taken??

I am now the proud possessor of STARTUP, black letters against the hot pink �protect the environment� background. It was that easy to have two of my major passions stamped on one piece of metal.

To make the money to pay for the personalized license plate (and the dog food I�m buying for the other two occupants of the Forerunner), I�m working on my own little startup project for this year. Since nothing I do is ever in stealth mode, here�s the thought process so far:

In beating the drum for small amounts of funding for early stage companies, I�ve spoken to many people in the community who could be angels, but don�t feel comfortable investing in technology companies or investing in any kind of companies they don�t control.

I�ve been trying to figure out how to engage people like this in the entrepreneurial community in a way that makes them feel comfortable � after all, most of them are entrepreneurs themselves, but in fields other than technology. And they are generous, contributing to their alma maters, buying tables to black tie events, underwriting everything from Little League to the Science Museum.

About six months ago, I got the idea that if I started a not-for-profit, or a foundation, it could give small grants to entrepreneurs to get them off the ground or see them through emergencies. (�I�ve got this order, and I can�t afford the supplies to fill it.� �He said yes, but not until the first of the year.� �We need $10,000 to make a working prototype/protect the intellectual property/have the business plan written/make the marketing materials.� )There is always some situation facing an entrepreneur that is too risky for a bank to lend on and inappropriate for a hard money lender.

These grants would be in the form of �l.oans,� which could be paid back to the foundation down the road, rather than to any individual lender. The fund would grow, based on the interest on the loans and perhaps even on some warrants. The investors, who would be contributing to a not-for-profit rather than to an angel fund, would not expect a 25% IRR; they would be content to reap the economic development benefits of increased jobs. The money would be from their philanthropic or marketing budgets, not from their investment budgets. And if these people wished to share their expertise, they could make themselves available as mentors to young entrepreneurs.

Who would choose the companies to receive the loans? A group of experienced VCs or angels � the ones who would have to do the subsequent funding rounds (if there were any needed). I�d be happy to lend my own experience with startups � I�ve probably seen a couple of hundred of them in the last three years � but I�d want many sets of eyes on the companies that got the loans.

Who would be the contributors? Ten community leaders, probably in real estate or retired corporate executives, who want to help the technology community and aren�t sure how to do it. Ten donors of $50,000 each (this is my dream). A minor blip on the screen of what�s needed for capital formation, but at least a beginning.

IN order to avoid making any political mistakes (such as the ones I�ve been known for in the past), I�ve been running this idea past everyone I can think of in the local community that would be served by such a fund. It has met with quite a bit of interest, and has evolved a bit with each conversation.

And yes, I�ve even written about it before. I keep thinking that if I put it �out there,� it will happen. Amidst all the state by state competition for economic development (Pennsylvania is running ads on TV), someone will think this is a good idea. It�s almost ready for prime time.

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