If the recent VentureNet 2000 investor conference in Laguna Niguel is any indication, it could be a long summer for local technology companies in search of funding.
"A lot of them are trying to find money to ride out the summer," said Mike Harris, an organizer of VentureNet, an annual forum hosted by the Southern California Software Council. "You do what you can to get by the summer and hope the IPO spigot is back on by time you need more. It's kind of like a submarine that goes underwater as the storm passes overhead."
Organizers said the feeling among the 400 or so attendees, while short of panic, lacked the exuberance of the past few years. As investors once ravenous for the newest dot-com stock offerings suddenly lose their appetite for unproven business models, companies that had planned to raise money through IPOs are scrambling for more venture capital instead.
Trouble is, many venture capitalists aren't biting either.
Many entrepreneurs at VentureNet said the funding process is taking longer than it did before, largely because investors are being choosier. Disagreement about how much young tech companies are worth is another sticking point.
"It's certainly had an impact on our angel funding," said Jeffrey Rigby, founder and chief executive of Virtual CEO Inc., a San Juan Capistrano company that has created a computerized employee performance review system. "The unsophisticated investors tend to get skittish about what they're seeing going on in the market."
Despite market troubles, he hopes to snag $2 million to $3 million in the next couple of months.
He adds that venture capitalists, who typically are better qualified to discern between a promising startup and a dot-com dud, are taking a longer-range view.
The first casualty may be the notion that a good idea and a little elbow grease are enough to create the next big thing on the Internet. In trying market conditions, financiers are looking more to fundamentals.
"We're seeing a lot of good companies having trouble because their management team is green," said Christine Comaford, a partner with Artemis Ventures LLC, a Sausalito-based venture fund, who spoke at VentureNet.
She and several other venture capitalists said companies that specialize in Internet infrastructure the not-so-sexy nuts and bolts hardware of the global network will continue to garner interest. So might any company that has a practical, money-generating solution for corporate inefficiencies, they said.
Frank Creer, managing director of Los Angeles-based Zone Ventures, had an equally sanguine outlook.
"It's a fantastic time to invest," he said. "Valuations are down, and people need cash."
Venture capitalists might be holding back now to see how the market plays out, he said, but they've got plenty of money and they have to invest it somewhere. While just months ago tech companies could take their pick of venture capital backers, the scales appear to have tipped back in investors' favor.
If anyone summarizes some entrepreneurs' sense of tempered optimism, it's Adam Whizin, vice president for business development at High Tower Software, an Irvine company that last year grew out of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. He said the environment hasn't worsened only changed.
"The landscape is different," he said. "What people are looking for is different. That's just evolution."
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