It’s OK to invest outside Silicon Valley, including in Pittsburgh

I hung out with the Pittsburgh Tech Council when the group came to town last month with more a dozen member companies and others from the area’s investment community.

Thankfully, no one from the ’Burgh rubbed it in too much that the Penguins beat my San Jose Sharks for the Stanley Cup earlier this year.

Instead, the Tech Council and its contingent were in the San Francisco Bay Area on a mission, under the hashtag #PTCventureout, to find out more about PR for startups, what journalists look for in tech stories and how best to find and work with venture investors.

It was that last one in which I probably helped out the most. I assembled and moderated a panel of VCs consisting of Paul Willard from Subtraction Capital, Marvin Liao from 500 Startups, Alex Lim from IVP and Amit Mukherjee from New Enterprise Associates to talk with the entrepreneurs about fundraising.

They had plenty of honest feedback to convey, including how best to get a meeting with a VC (get a referral from a current portfolio company) and advice on how to work with a VC (do your homework and find out what makes the VC firm tick and how it likes to work with startups).

One of the main takeaways from the panel was that “it doesn’t matter if you’re located in Pittsburgh or outside of Silicon Valley. What matters is if you’re a good company and in a compelling market.”

Helping drive that point home was Mukherjee, who has worked on NEA’s investment in Duolingo, a Pittsburgh developer of a language-learning app.

That notion of it’s OK to be a startup outside the confines of the Valley was hammered home recently by a couple of stories we published on VCJ. Last week, Mark Boslet posted that the major tech hubs nationwide are seeing a drop in deals this year, but not so in Pennsylvania as well as in Texas, the Southeast and the Midwest.

A couple of weeks earlier, I posted how Pittsburgh-based Innovation Works, which joined the Tech Council on the trip to the Bay Area last month, was the most active venture investor in the United States during September, backing 10 seed and pre-seed startups.

After the Tech Council came to town, I traded messages with Zach Malone, an associate from Pittsburgh-based Draper Triangle Ventures. He also was part of the group that visited the Bay Area, and he noted that no more than four venture funds are in the ’Burgh, and that often times early-stage companies tend to blame the funding environment in the city, rather than potential flaws in their business models, for their inability to attract capital.

Malone said that the VC panel’s advice helped alleviate any sense of hopelessness entrepreneurs may have felt from being outside a major tech center.

I asked one of the attendees, Mike Embrescia, founder and chief executive of Pittsburgh-based WorkDesq, what he thought of the advice from the VCs. WorkDesq is an early-stage company that helps connect freelancers with job opportunities, and Embrescia said he definitely received helpful advice from investors on what he needed to do to raise capital.

In two decades as a business journalist, I’ve seen firsthand how startups feel anxious and unsure when they’re not located in a tech center, like Silicon Valley. So whether you’re in San Francisco, Austin, Cincinnati or Pittsburgh, geography should be no reason for a company not to compete on a national or even international stage.

“Listening to representatives from NEA and IVP probably helped to humanize these firms to a degree,” said Malone from Draper Triangle, which invests throughout the Midwest.

“For a lot of companies based in Pittsburgh, the idea of raising funds from firms of their ilk may seem impossible,” Malone added. “The opportunity to sit in the same room and see how approachable they are probably made the idea of engaging these funds seem much more realistic.”

Now if only my Sharks can realistically snatch that Cup away from the Pens.

Photo courtesy ©iStock/klenger