Shouting into the unfunded abyssMay 6, 2011: 12:54 PM ET
When the founder of an unheralded startup offered a cri de coeur about the inanities of the funding process, he heard hundreds of voices crying back.
FORTUNE -- If there is a tech bubble, it certainly hasn't given lift to Adam Neary. Neary is the CEO of Profitably, a financial analysis service for small businesses. It doesn't feature check-ins, a bespoke social network, or a game layer. Its cofounder hasn't crashed and burned at another startup that was once the darling of TechCrunch. And most of you will never have any reason to use it. It's just an app that saves people time—and the people, in this case, are the decidedly unsexy demographic: finance professionals.
But wait! Don't go clicking into another tab. What makes Neary important isn't his app -- it's how he sees the app economy. "When they say there's a tech bubble, I think there's an emerging fear that some deals are being overvalued in some sectors. Not for me. I don't know one way or the other." Over an oatmeal and smoothie breakfast in Manhattan's Union Square, Neary explains that a tech bubble may exist for the startups bending their business models to the latest trends, but for the rest of the crowd, the ones that don't want to make a QR-code scavenger hunt that doubles as a five-person social network in which you can only communicate through images and local coupons, the bubble isn't exactly a fact of life.
"All I see are entrepreneurs all around who are struggling to get funding. Everyday. People are calling me, they want my help. People are asking for directions to investors, investors are not interested. I see people who are struggling all the time. I see smart people not getting deals done."
They're calling Neary because, for a brief moment a few months ago, he became the face of the non-bubbled. In March, after months of searching, he finally finished Profitably's second round of funding, at $1.1 million. To celebrate, or perhaps just to find some closure, he took to Profitably's blog, where he wrote a 3,000 word post about "plunging into darkness" of one failed fundraising meeting after another, and the ultimate luck involved in finding the money Profitably needed. Neary published the post the same week that Color, the photo-sharing app that does next to nothing, debuted with $41 million in funding. The contrast was jarring. Here, in the midst of the bubble, was someone left behind, a landlubber waving his hands, reminding us that not everyone can chart a course for a South by Southwest afterparty.
Neary made sure to describe only Profitably's experience, careful not to extrapolate its plight into a trend. But something about it resonated for others. Neary says he received three to four hundred emails responding to his post. Entrepreneurs left him dozens of comments. New York Angels, a funding collective, changed some of its processes in response to Neary's critique. And the tech press, jarred by an entrepreneur teething on the hands that chose not to feed it, covered him like it would a politician making a Kinsley gaffe.
Neary says he wrote the post in an effort to inject a little transparency into the startup world. "The reason why a lot of these blog posts don't happen are people are terrified. Entrepeneurs are afraid of doing it. They're worried they're going to scare off future investors." Internally, everyone at Profitably knows what everyone else makes, so Neary figured he should graft a bit of that transparency onto Profitably's external dealings as well. With transparency, he hoped, would come community -- a community of people who were ready to give up, just like Neary was at one point.
Talk to enough entrepreneurs and you're bound to hear many of them mention this craving to know that they're not alone -- ironic since they spend so much time at the office. It's why incubators -- the umbrella groups that give startups a network to help groom them into real companies -- have become so popular. But even the incubators aren't building the community that Neary set out to create.
Since the market is so flooded with startups, incubators have become aggregators. They attract attention regardless of their quality. A top-flight incubator's Demo Day, the strange ritual where entrepreneurs get on stage and try and seduce the monied class, has become such a spectacle that the startups on display are now likely to get funding simply for having partaken. Their membership to that community promises them as much.
Neary's post was as much a note of caution about that dynamic as it was an ode to it. Profitably fell victim to fundraising's "herd mentality," in which it's hard to prove to someone you're worth an investment if someone else hasn't already invested. That's when entrepreneurs like Neary get thrown into an exhausted pit of despair. And that's where incubators aren't of much help -- there's no community for the ignored, the unbuzzed, and the not-quite-disruptive-enough. Hundreds of startups fester in this nether layer, folding in on themselves until there's nothing left but a story somebody tells their grandkid.
But some startups, like Profitably, scrap and luck their way into something else. Eventually, Neary found a lifeline for his startup. How? By finding a community. He moved into General Assembly, a coworking space for startups in Manhattan. All of a sudden, when venture capitalists came to visit a startup down the hall, they came to visit Profitably too. Here was the community Neary was searching for. And here, finally, was the money.
So perhaps we're not caught in a tech bubble. Maybe we're caught in a Tech-22.
-- This was another column in Fortune's regular look at startups and the tech bubble that may or may not exist. Send all of your own cri de coeurs to my email, or offer concise ones to my Twitter feed.
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