Networking Group Pairs Start-ups With Pros

TiE-DC, a Washington-based group of executives, is an innovation engine that has been fueling start-ups and entrepreneurs in the national capital region for the last 10 years.

The organization is the local chapter of the global outfit The Innovative Ecosystem, but was formed as the Indian CEO High Tech Council in 1997. It had a very tech-centric focus until about 2001. Along with the tech plunge, so went its membership.

After reassessing its direction, it merged with TiE, a group promoting entrepreneurs with 27 chapters in 13 countries. TiE-DC's members are executives divided into two camps -- those heading firms with less than $10 million in annual revenue, and those with less. About one-third of its members are the big bucks "charter" members. The annual fee is $1,500 for the over $10 million crowd and $200 for the "emerging entrepreneur."

The group has changed significantly since its inception. It now boasts 500 members from a variety of industries, not just high-tech, representing members in the tourism, telecommunications, venture capital and banking capital industries.

The non-political organization has members from New York to Richmond, Va., and has seen a rapid build-up in membership from areas with new economic activity, like Loudoun County and Fredericksburg in Virginia and along the I-270 corridor in Maryland.

"We've helped start-ups assemble advisory boards, find funding, and partner with bigger companies," said Steve Thomas, the group's CEO. "Basically, we do three things as an organization -- high-end networking, business matchmaking and executive education."

Four times per year the TiE-DC offers an "elevator pitch" event, bringing in 10 small business entrepreneurs to meet with three well-established charter members, who critique their products or ideas. A pitch event in January is open to an audience, while the others are closed.

"It's kind of like an entrepreneur's American Idol," said Thomas.

Tamer Ali, the founder of Digital Ignite, has participated in three TiE elevator pitches. A potential pitcher must submit a business plan to TiE, which then selects 10 proposals from TiE small business members. The pitch winners have 10 minutes to present their business plans to successful business executives or venture capitalists in preparation for the real thing.

"I received very effective feedback," said Ali, whose one-and-a-half-year-old firm is based in Reston, Va. "You kind of operate in a box when you're building your business plan so you think your idea is great."

He also has found success with the chapter's mentor program that matches a budding firm with a successful, established member.

"I meet with my mentor two to three times per month and we talk over e-mail four or five times a week," said Ali. "We may even do some business with each other." Ali describes Digital Ignite as something of a "CIO on demand." His firm handles outsourcing for small- and medium-sized firms that, as he explains, "can't really afford to send people to India to check on the people who they're doing work with."

Although Ali was attracted to TiE because of its opportunities for networking outside of government contracting, TiE also counsels a number of small firms interested in getting into the field.

"It's very tricky business with tricky timelines and terms of getting paid," Thomas said. "We've been helping a lot of newer firms navigate those waters."

About 75 percent of the group's members do some kind of federal contracting, according to Thomas.

TiE-DC hopes to host some events on state government soon. "It's become a bigger interest area as Virginia, D.C. and Maryland have grown and prospered," Thomas said.

It's also focusing more on media, sports and entertainment "as that's a big part of the D.C. metro area."

Summary: TiE-DC, a Washington-based chapter of a global group, links entrepreneurs with executives at established companies. Getting face-time and feedback from an executive who has experienced the challenges and opportunities facing an entrepreneur can give a small firm a much needed competitive edge. There are many similar organizations throughout the country.

By Sharon McLoone |  July 18, 2007; 6:00 AM ET Networking
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Thanks for this resource.

Posted by: Just starting | July 20, 2007 9:52 AM

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