Angel Boot Camp: The Peace Corps for millionaires

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If you missed the Angel Boot Camp at MIT’s Tang Center the other day, you missed a lot. Organizers Jon Pierce, Rob Go, and Jay Acunzo put together an amazing lineup of angel investors and brilliant startup savants.

Looking around the room, one could easily think, “Whoa, there’s a lot of millionaires in here.” But they weren’t the arrogant, entitled, alpha males and females you might expect of investor-types. The room was actually filled with a very exclusive club: seasoned angel investors who were not exclusionary, but welcoming.

It felt a bit like the Peace Corps for millionaires: They wanted to do good and help the audience of angels-in-training.

Three themes emerged from the event. First, anyone can become an angel: just jump in and invest. Second, syndicates on new platforms like AngelList and Funding Club are changing the game. Third, these experienced angels who came to speak really want to give back to the Boston startup community, in the form of capital, knowledge, networks, and encouragement to new members.

David Tisch of Techstars NYC exuded his usual ironic wit, giving new angels solid advice about how to start investing. “I don’t think there is any science in angel investing … it’s art. It’s all in the eye of the beholder.” And he also added a quite different perspective to investors, that of the entrepreneur: “You’re gonna lose a lot doing this. So be a good loser. Know the entrepreneur sacrificed more than you,” Tisch said.

Wayne Chang got the crowd going by reminding everyone that his company, Crashlytics, was born in Boston in 2011 and sold to Twitter in 2013. Even a small angel investment in 2011 would have returned 44-to-70 times the initial investment, he said. “That can happen here in Boston,” Chang told the crowd. Shareen Shermak later said she had Wayne to thank for her daughter’s college fund since she got in early on the Crashlytics deal. (Scott Kirsner wrote about Wayne here back in 2011.)

Katie Rae of Project 11 had lots to say on her early start as an angel investor, encouraging others to try it even if they don’t think they’re ready to do it. Paul English of Blade, spoke about his wins and losses and how he spots good opportunities. English also did some math for us, “Angel investing is 70 percent team, 20 percent problem they’re solving and market space, 10 percent the idea. Entrepreneurs often have it backwards.” Jean Hammond talked about her many deals and founding LearnLaunch, giving an inside tip that the EdTech startup space is very hot now. Like many of the other speakers, the message she shared was to jump in and not be afraid to try angel investing.

The event shifted gears midway through to focus on the future of funding platforms. Jeff Fagnan from Atlas Ventures discussed AngelList and Alex Mittal gave the inside scoop on his company Funders Club. Both explained how these new platforms and their “syndicates” were creating new opportunities for angels and radically changing how people can invest in private companies.

In his detailed wrapup of the conference, Rob Go, one of the event organizers, put it this way, “What struck me overall was the scale of these platforms, and how successful they have been. Both platforms boast really extraordinary companies coming through their platforms and really impressive performance.” (Angel — and Vermonter — Ty Danco also did a terrific live blogging of the Bootcamp.

Towards the end of the day, it was great to see a panel of five experienced angel investors that featured more women than men. Maia Heyman of Common Angels, Shereen Shermak of Launch Angels, and Nicole Stata with Boston Seed outnumbered the two men on the panel, angel investor and Acquia co-founder Jay Batson, and Freddie Martignetti of Suffolk Equity. The panel delved into questions about pro-rata rights, how much money you should set aside to invest as a first-time angel investor, and how best to build out the New England entrepreneurial community.

Diane Hessan, the new chief executive of Startup Institute, encouraged everyone to start like she did, with a small amount of angel money ($10,000), and work along side other experienced angels and follow their lead. The last speaker, David Cohen, the founder and managing partner of Techstars, offered the audience the chance to do just that. He invited anyone interested in working with him on his next angel investment to simply e-mail him and he would bring them in on the deal.

These angels feel optimistic and deeply committed to the Boston startup community, and they are here for more than just money. They want to teach others how to invest time and capital in Boston’s startup ecosystem and help build it out and share success across the board for angels, entrepreneurs, and everyone involved in startups in our region.

Halley Suitt Tucker is an author, entrepreneur, TechStars alum, and two-time successful Kickstarter campaigner. She lives in Arlington.
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