Value Added: Is her million-dollar pitch the next Facebook?


Janet Van Pelt, founder of Course Maven, and Duffy Mazan, her CTO (in pink shirt), present a powerpoint presentation to John Backus and Thanasis Delistathis in the Reston office, May 28, 2013. (Dayna Smith/For The Washington Post)
Thomas Heath
Reporter June 2, 2013

Janet Van Pelt, dressed in black slacks and a brown sweater, holding a Diet Pepsi in one hand and cradling her Hewlett-Packard laptop in the other, slides into a seat at the head of a conference room table in a Reston office building.

The 49-year-old entrepreneur wants $1 million.

Thomas Heath is a local business reporter and columnist, writing about entrepreneurs and various companies big and small in the Washington Metropolitan area. Previously, he wrote about the business of sports for The Post’s sports section for most of a decade. View Archive

Waiting for her at the table are the guys with the money. The VCs: venture capitalists.

The VCs are John Backus and Thanasis Delistathis, seasoned investors and co-founders of Reston-based New Atlantic Ventures. The fund’s other two co-founders, Todd Hixon and Scott Johnson, are also present via a two-way video screen, following from NAV’s Boston office.

This is what is known in the VC world as a “pitch meeting.”

A pitch meeting works like this: You — the entrepreneur — have an idea. The VCs have the money. If they like the idea, they give you money in return for a share in the company. They might insist on a seat on the board. They help you run it. Then together, you all build the company up so it can be sold or taken public, and everyone gets rich.

That’s the plan, anyway.

VCs are often made out to be money-hungry sharks, trying to horn in and take over someone else’s great idea. But they serve a crucial function in the capitalist system: They raise money from pension funds, foundations, universities and wealthy individuals and try to put it to optimal use by turning a big idea into a real business.

The thing to know about venture capital is it’s an educated crapshoot.

These NAV guys are smart. They ask good questions. Their résumés are stocked with A-list universities, top business schools and prestigious consulting firms. Each of them is probably a millionaire many times over.

But the vast majority of companies that VCs invest in fail. Some investments are singles and doubles, earning the VC and his investors an okay return. But one of out 10, maybe one in 100, is the big home run, making up for all the money lost.

The pitch meeting is where the Facebooks, PayPals, Twitters, Microsofts, Groupons, Googles and Instagrams are born. If you go way back, it’s where the Alcoas and U.S. Steels of the world began, as well.

What everyone is here to find out, 10 floors above the Reston Town Center, is whether Van Pelt has brought them a home run.

NAV hears 150 to 200 live pitches a year from the 500 to 1,000 business plans that they read every year. About five or six businesses a year receive NAV investments.

She is pitching Course Maven, which she started with $300,000 of her own money (a good thing, as it shows she believes in her product). Her start-up is located in nearby Leesburg, has five employees and not much revenue. She needs $1 million to hire salespeople and grow the business.

This is Van Pelt’s second meeting with NAV. Backus invited her to present after meeting her at a venture capital meeting in March. She came in about a month or so ago with her initial pitch. NAV invited her back to learn more.

Course Maven is in the education space, which NAV likes and where it has had previous success.

The business idea is this: Colleges and universities use Course Maven software to create an online marketplace where students can shop for courses at different schools. The students can take those courses and credit them toward their degree.

The second part of the business is this: Colleges will use the Course Maven software to help them decide whether to give credit for courses taken at other colleges.

Van Pelt knows her way around the technology sector, having worked on successful businesses up and down the East Coast. She has walked away with some nice paydays after those companies were sold.

She is smart, calm, direct, methodical. She appears authentic. She tells me later, after the pitch, that she approaches pitch meetings as conversations more than sales meetings.

“I don’t view it as a hard sell,” she said. “I wouldn’t wear the traditional battle gear . . . IBM blue suit, white shirt, red tie.

“I am very direct,” she continues. “I don’t dance that well. I am what I am, and you get what you get.”

She walks through her presentation with the help of charts and slides that are projected on a flat screen at one end of the room.

This isn’t sexy stuff, but I bet neither was the first pitch meeting for Google or Yahoo.

As she moves through her presentation, Backus and Delistathis, in the VC uniform of slacks and open-collared Oxford shirts, take notes. One uses an iPad, while the other writes into a leather-bound binder.

The VCs interrupt occasionally with questions. Who did you work with at [a company called] Webs? If I called so-and-so, will he acknowledge your contribution? How do you grow the college base?

Van Pelt, who learned patience raising three children and running companies, fields the VCs’ questions with aplomb. Most of the inquiries usually get back to the same point: Will this work as a big business? If so, how big?

It’s 3:15, and she has been talking and answering questions for more than an hour.

When she finishes, she asks politely: Did I complete the assignment?

“It’s less confusing to me,” says the noncommittal Backus.

After Van Pelt leaves, the after-action debriefing begins. The VCs talk about some holes in the presentation.

Johnson speaks first on the flat screen from Boston.

“Well, she’s done a lot with 300k,” he says. “It’s amazing how well you can do when it’s . . . your own money.”

Delistathis, who with his colleagues thinks higher education is ripe for new business models, likes the idea but is cautious.

“It sounds like it’s still a work in progress. One thing we have to figure out is where the product is. Get some feedback. . . . That’s part of the next-step diligence.”

Hixon questions whether the colleges will be financially motivated to sign on.

Backus said using software to ease the cumbersome process of transferring college credits “sounds like she’s solving a real problem for someone. Whether it’s a real big problem or not, is an unknown.”

“For sure it’s going to happen,” Delistathis said, but “is it five years out? Is it 10 years out? And how big is it?

“I don’t have a picture yet in my mind of how this company can get to a couple hundred million in revenue.”

And that’s the real question here. Should NAV invest $1 million and untold hours of its partners’ time helping guide and grow a business that might get to $5 million or 10 million in revenue? They need a business that is going to get to $200 million — or $1 billion to make it worthwhile.

“Investors are funny,” Van Pelt said to me in a follow-up phone call. “On the one hand, they want something that has the potential to be a billion dollars and change the world. On the other hand, they are reasonably risk-averse. There’s a natural tension.”

But she is confident that some VC will bite. She is talking to several others.

“I have a business I believe in and think is going to be interesting and do some transformative things in higher education,” Van Pelt says. “Not everybody is going to have that same vision.”

But maybe NAV does. They are inviting her back for another round of questions.

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