The Download: Meet the navigators

By Steven Overly
Monday, January 24, 2011

The Northern Virginia Technology Council plans to present awards this Thursday to regional "navigators," people whom members of the technology and business community nominated for their commitment to entrepreneurship.

The nominees have connections to local law offices, universities, venture capital firms and business consultancies. They've worked with some of the region's biggest and smallest players, from billion-dollar enterprises to entrepreneurs with only an idea.

Don Rainey, a partner at investment firm Grotech Ventures, is receiving the Lifetime Navigator Award. Finalists for the Navigator Award include Steve Meltzer, partner at Pillsbury; Frank Blackstone, founder and principal attorney at Blackstone Counsel; and Jim Wolfe, founder and chief executive of J Street Consulting. Here's a peek at why they attracted notice:

Don Rainey

Washington-based LivingSocial saw exponential growth in the last year, adding millions of subscribers in dozens of new cities around the world. Rainey, an investor since July 2008, recognized that potential early.

His portfolio as a venture capitalist at Vienna's Grotech includes several other Internet-savvy software companies, including Clarabridge, a text analytics software provider; HelloWallet, a personal finance software company; and Personal, a consumer data protection company.

"I'd say the technology base [in Washington] has broadened away from government-centric technologies, which is where it was 12 to 15 years ago," said Rainey, who also teaches at American University.

But Rainey lends his experience and advice to companies and entrepreneurs outside Grotech's portfolio. For about five years, he has participated in DeVenCi, a group that finds emerging technologies for the Defense Department, and Mindshare, an invitation-only meeting of chief executives for networking and information sessions.

"Entrepreneurship is a vocation and avocation [for me]," Rainey said. "It was kind of inevitable that I am like I am today, more of a coach than a player."

Steve Meltzer

Meltzer held many jobs growing up. He drove a delivery truck, manned a bowling alley cash register and, in high school, answered phone calls and typed invoices from his bedroom. Yet his employer was always the same: his father, a serial entrepreneur.

Though Meltzer chose to become his family's first lawyer, entrepreneurship remains a cornerstone of his career. Now a partner at law firm Pillsbury, Meltzer has served as an adviser to start-ups and assisted them with mergers and acquisitions.

Active beyond his office, Meltzer helped NVTC start FastTrac, a multi-week Kauffman Foundation program that covers the basics of business for entrepreneurs. He's also helped create investor groups, including the Maryland Angel Council and Dark Angels, which focuses on investments in defense and intelligence.

The biggest mistake he has seen entrepreneurs make?

"All too often you see an entrepreneur who builds a business himself and has no board, and in my view that person, talented though he may be, is missing a tremendous resource," Meltzer said.

Frank Blackstone

Blackstone spent much of his career inside corporate legal departments and large private firms before opening his own shop in 2003. That's his most entrepreneurial moment, he said.

Ever since, he has acted as counsel to start-up companies and entrepreneurs, helping them to navigate the legal complexities of taking on investor capital and selling their businesses.

"I'll tell people if I think they should not do something, which I think is what a good lawyer will tell them," he said. "And they can choose to either follow or ignore the advice."

He worked with Mercury Interactive during its $4.5 billion sale to HP in 2006. On his client roster today are companies such as GigaTrust, a Herndon-based e-mail security and content protection company, and Velaro, a live chat software company in Elkridge.

"My job is on a day-to-day basis to help protect these guys from doing bad deals," Blackstone said. "I say here's what your risk is and those oftentimes relate to protection of intellectual property, limitation of liability . . . and also how quickly you get paid."

Jim Wolfe

FirstGuard Technologies is set to license landmine detection technology this year from a George Mason University lab to deliver it to market. The company will be Wolfe's latest entrepreneurial venture.

Wolfe has launched a few other start-ups in his career and acted as adviser to dozens of others. But he insists that entrepreneurs aren't always fledglings. Past clients of his firm, J Street Consulting, include heavyweights looking to innovate, including Mitre and Lockheed Martin.

Washington is "a tough region for entrepreneurs because of the overwhelming dominance of the government sector," he said. "But if you can get going and find one of these larger government contractors as a partner, that provides some stability."

Wolfe teaches graduate classes in George Mason's School of Management and runs the university's entrepreneurship lab, which partners groups of students with new businesses. It's a living lesson in entrepreneurship, he said.

"The financing and legal aspects of being an entrepreneur aren't rocket science, but they aren't simple," Wolfe said. "I can't teach someone to have a more risk-taking personality, but I can give them the tools that they need."

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