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VCs search for nuggets at DemoFall

Among hundreds of tech showcase attendees, few groups are better represented than venture capitalists.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
4 min read
SAN DIEGO--During the morning session at DemoFall here Tuesday, one presenting company tried a novel gambit to generate investor interest.

Onstage at DemoFall, a presenter from BuzzLogic, a San Francisco start-up whose technology identifies the influencers driving traffic to Web sites, told the crowd that the company had just opened a new funding round and invited any venture capitalists in the room to stop by its booth later in the day.

It may have been a hokey attempt at humor, but it may well have worked even better than intended.

The reason I come here is there is really no better forum for seeing so many companies quickly and efficiently.
--Doug Pepper, partner, InterWest Partners

That's because at least one prominent VC at Demo, Mitchell Kertzman of Hummer Winblad Venture Partners, said he did indeed visit BuzzLogic on the show floor afterward.

He would not say, however, if he intends to invest in the company.

Kertzman is just one of dozens of VCs in attendance during this two- day festival of technology start-ups. And like many of those here, he has been coming to Demo for years, in large part because of the quality of the companies showing off their wares.

"Demo, by its nature, tends to have some very leading-edge companies," Kertzman said. "There are a lot of conferences for schmoozing and networking...but there aren't others so focused on presenting companies."

At Demo, which traditionally occurs once in late winter and again in the fall, about 70 high-tech companies are invited to show off their products or services. They then take turns giving high-pressure, six-minute presentations that they hope will give attendees a reason to stop by their booths later on.

Kertzman--who was a board member of News.com publisher CNET Networks until May 2005--said he'd been coming to Demo as a VC for only three years. But in that time, along with his many previous years coming as the CEO of a technology company, he has gained a lot of experience seeing how much benefit the confab offers to people in his current line of work.

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At DemoFall 2006, Zing CEO Tim Bucher shows off a radio with Sirius, MP3 storage and Wi-Fi.

"This isn't a theoretical conference on hypothetical trends," he said. "There are not many places a VC can go to see so many start-ups in one place."

Doug Pepper, a partner at Menlo Park, Calif.-based InterWest Partners, agreed.

"The reason I come here is there is really no better forum for seeing so many companies quickly and efficiently," Pepper said. "I think (Demo lead organizer Chris Shipley) does a fantastic job of picking interesting companies with interesting (management) teams and products."

Pepper said that another important element in drawing him and his InterWest Partners colleagues is the fact that Demo attracts an elite group of reporters, technologists and other venture capitalists. And that, he said, makes Demo one of the top five most-important events his firm attends each year.

It's interesting that it seems many of the dozens of VCs at Demo don't show up feeling certain they'll walk away with new investment targets.

It's not that they don't want to find such opportunities at Demo, several said, but rather that the landscape makes it hard to find the right company to put money in.

Yet they said that if they find even one company to fund, they consider the event to be a winner.

"For us as VCs, if we can find one company here that's a candidate for funding, that's a success," said Kertzman, who added that he has yet to fund a Demo company in his three years attending as a VC.

Pepper agreed.

"If we came away from here and found a company we wanted to invest in," Pepper said, "I would say that would exceed expectations."

Which raises the question: Why else would so many VCs come to Demo?

Navin Chaddha, managing director of Mayfield Fund in Menlo Park, Calif., said the answer is in what he sees as Demo's true utility.

Essentially, he said, he comes to Demo having already spoken to at least half of the companies presenting at the conference.

But because he generally already has investments in companies in the same fields as some of the Demo presenters, he thinks the event provides an opportunity to stay abreast of the competitive landscape.

"Since we fund companies, there are always competitors," Chaddha said. "So you want to know what (else) is going on in the industry. So (Demo provides) competitive intelligence."

Pepper, too, looks at Demo as an opportunity to gauge the competitive landscape, as well as a source of other ways to help companies in which he invests.

He said he uses Demo as a way to look for potential partners for his portfolio companies, and overall as a way to "get a better understanding of the ecosystem around (InterWest's) portfolio companies."

In fact, some VCs here see the event as being much less about finding new funding opportunities than making sure that ecosystem is nurtured.

Also, the VCs here are not fond of having to compete for investment opportunities that are so public.

"A concern about a company here looking for money is that it may be too late," Pepper said. "By the time it gets (to Demo), it's likely that there's already significant venture interest."

Chaddha echoed that sentiment and said that while Mayfield may well take a meeting with a company it meets at Demo, it is more interested in companies that are less-well known.

"You have to be selective," Chaddha said. "The good deals--everybody ends up chasing them and you end up in a Dutch auction. We like doing proprietary deals."