Thursday, 9 May 2013


Tech entrepreneurs check in to Silicon Valley hoping to cash out

Raissa Nebie
Age 31
Company Spoondate
Description Spoondate lets you explore your culinary cravings and meet new people at the same time.
Photo by Scott Council
Raissa Nebie has always been a risk taker. The intrepid nature of this Côte d’Ivoire émigré with roots in Burkina Faso has taken her to the halls of Howard University, the rough-and-tumble offices of Wall Street, and the kitchens of the top-rated French Culinary Institute in New York City. She even left her position as a private equity associate to pursue her passion for fine cooking at Le Citrus Etoile, located steps from the Champs Elysées in Paris.

She quickly discovered that preparing food didn’t prove as rewarding as bringing people together through food. That epiphany led her to the idea for Spoondate—an online/mobile, location-based service helping food lovers make social and romantic connections.

“Culinary school led me to the Web,” says the 31-year-old entrepreneur. “I came home one evening and booked a one-way ticket. I got to San Francisco at the end of last summer and didn’t have a clue about what the city was about. I just knew there were lots of engineers.” But Nebie has now come to understand what so many entrepreneurs knew: Silicon Valley is to tech startups what Hollywood is to budding filmmakers. It’s the place where dreams come to life.

Nebie, who hadn’t used a computer before the age of 18, decided to learn several Internet languages, including CSS, HTML, and Java Script, enabling her to craft the user interface she wants her audience to experience.

Spoondate helps you find food based on people or people based on food. After entering the types of food you are craving and your location into the website, you will see a stream of all of the people in your area who are also craving that same type of food. You can scan the list for someone you want to meet and have dinner with. By handling the programming chores, Nebie saves as much as $115,000 a year until she can afford to hire a front-end engineer. The back-end code that runs the algorithms that produces matches was created by co-founder Van Nguyen, a software engineer who once worked for Metamoki, a social gaming company that at one time drew in $1 million per month from the multiplayer game Mob Wars during Facebook’s early days.

Together Nebie and Nguyen own more than 90% of the company. Less than a year after teaming up, they’ve raised $50,000 in seed money from 500 Startups, a Mountain View, California-based incubator for newly minted Internet ventures, for a 5% equity stake in their company. They raised additional capital through issuance of a convertible note to The Initio Group, a Vancouver, British Columbia-based early stage investment firm. The note will convert only after Spoondate raises its priced equity round, a set price that will allow investors to purchase a stake in the venture.

Spoondate was so popular that when it first launched in private beta in June, signups occurred so fast that it reached its membership quota within a couple of hours and the site almost crashed. This led Nebie to limit users to invite-only in San Francisco until it’s ready to launch publicly this month. Right now, membership is free, and Spoondate generates revenue by selling dining experiences in the Bay area. They are also finalizing a paid membership that will include special dining perks. To grow Spoondate and offer dining experiences outside of San Francisco. Nebie and Nguyen need $500,000 in capital, which they will use to round out their team and push sales and marketing efforts in other major cities such as New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, and Miami.

Nebie won’t be the first or the last black entrepreneur to travel to the tech mecca to advance her venture. In fact, eight black-owned startups traveled to the Valley this summer for a similar, though less permanent, experience through a nine-week program called the NewMe (New Media Entrepreneurship) Accelerator. As members of the program, these innovators are part of an incubator that provides instruction, technical expertise, and financial assistance—building blocks necessary to propel a rough idea to a viable venture.

Programs such as NewMe will drive the type of transformative industrial innovation that will lift American enterprise to “out-innovate … and out-build the rest of the world,” as stated by President Barack Obama. Capital is the lifeblood of innovation, an elusive commodity for African American startups. The number of African Americans launching tech firms nationwide is dismal: Less than 1% of venture capital-backed companies were black-owned in Q1 and Q2 of 2010, according to a survey conducted by CB Insights, which tracks venture capital, angel, government, and private equity-backed private companies.

There have been recent attempts to level the playing field though. Earlier this year, the Small Business Administration committed $2 billion as a match to private sector investments for high-growth ventures over the next half decade. Of that, $1 billion will go to funds that invest growth capital in companies located in underserved communities. And the Obama administration introduced Startup America Partnership, an independent nonprofit to work with corporations and foundations to further develop high-growth firms. Moreover, some private corporations have initiated financing programs of their own. For example, as a result of its merger with NBC Universal, cable giant Comcast pledged to invest $20 million to expand such opportunities for minority entrepreneurs.

Even with these developments, blacks still are not plugged into prime capital sources in Silicon Valley, birthplace of the semiconductor and home to leading tech giants Apple, Intel, and Google, among others. To position their companies for financing and create a platform to grow into industry leaders, black entrepreneurs must take a number of steps: develop a strong concept; build a top-flight, technical team; create an infrastructure to protect ideas and fully execute business models; and cultivate a powerful business network.

Says Stanley T. Smith Jr., a principal at Syncom Venture Partners (No. 7 on the be private equity firms list with $410 million in capital under management): “Venture capitalists are skilled at pattern recognition and tend to invest based on identified patterns that have resulted in successful investments. One of the most common patterns employed by investors is investing in entrepreneurs from their ecosystems—people they know or people that have been referred from trusted sources. If you are not a member of an investors extended ‘trust’ network then it is proportionally more difficult to earn their trust and investment dollars. Often, but not always, investment decisions are made based on access and familiarity rather than color or ethnicity.”

Source: Black Enterprise

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