When Gary Wasserman, editor and publisher of Mole magazine, Washington's new political satire publication, was having trouble getting advertisers "to put their money where their mirth is," he contacted the MIT Enterprise Forum for help.
What he got from the panel of Baltimore-Washington-area business experts was a lot more than a pep talk on marketing. "You want money and you get advice, which is also very important," Wasserman says. "It's a good way to network in Washington."
Wasserman is just one of 40 small-business owners who have sought advice from the three-year-old MIT Forum, one of two organizations formed by local businessmen to help area businesses survive and prosper.
The forum, composed mostly of alumni of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, takes the Harvard Business School's vaunted case-study approach one step further by examining the problems of live -- not theoretical -- businesses. "The case can talk back," explains outgoing forum chairman Leo Weiss.
The forum meets in Washington and Baltimore each month to analyze and advise businesses on specific problems. Presenters are asked to submit a business plan detailed enough to allow a thorough discussion; they also pay $200 to cover expenses.
In return, business owners get the chance to bare their souls -- and their companies' problems. The intense scrutiny can be humiliating, but from the shards of shattered egos, solutions often can be pieced together.
The presenting businesses are mostly start-up firms looking for additional financing. Often, the panel suggests they return to the drawing board to refine their ideas in what usually amounts to a blistering criticism of their ideas, operations and methods of approaching investors.
Incoming forum chairman Cyril Draffin Jr., vice president of Greater Washington Investors Inc., says that "most presenters already have seed financing and come looking for outside financing." But, Draffin adds, "They often find they have a major problem and it is usually in the marketing area. It's a common flaw. . . . They don't come looking for marketing advice, but they often leave with it."
The panels are chosen from more than 100 forum volunteers and have expertise in the presenter's field as well as in management, finance and marketing. Members of the audience, who are mostly business owners, entrepreneurs and college professors, add their own keen and pointed observations in the discussions following the panel critiques. Attendance is free, and as many as 150 people attend each presentation.
Weiss says the forum exists primarily to help entrepreneurs, whom he calls "America's secret weapon." An engineer and successful entrepreneur himself, Weiss got his start in business in 1948 at the age of 29 when he founded Avien Corp. around a gauge he designed to measure the weight rather than the volume of fuel in aircraft.
Recent presenters included a company seeking $1.5 million in equity investment to develop touch-screen and what it calls "touch mouse" computer technology; a start-up company with new software programs for cataloging information in archives seeking a critique of its business plan; and a 22-year-old nuclear radiation decontamination company seeking capital to expand.
Draffin is pleased with the forum's direction, and doesn't plan to change much except "to set up workshops with other organizations interested in business development." The forum also publishes a free newsletter with a circulation of about 3,000.
The area's other business forum, the Baltimore-Washington Venture Group, holds monthly lunch meetings throughout the area for a variety of entrepreneurs, business owners and local government officials. Investment banker John Ver Steeg, the group's co-chairman, says the lunches provide an ideal setting "where business and technical innovators can mix with and meet the venture-capital investors, individual investors, bank lenders and others who provide risk capital for enterprises."
Since its first meeting in the spring of 1983, the number of participants has grown from fewer than 30 to about 80 in July.
A typical gathering attracts entrepreneurs seeking development funds for a broad range of projects. At one recent meeting, the ideas included a device to convert an ordinary word-processing computer into a Chinese-character system; a holograph maker; advanced marine propulsion systems, computer vision systems, and a "hacker's pack" of computer supplies for sale by convenience stores ("the market is ready," the entrepreneur insisted).
The investors are almost as diverse, and include everyone from local independents to representatives of national organizations, such as the National Association of Small Business Investment Companies and Legg Mason Wood Walker.
Following lunch and a short speech, the meetings often dissolve into smaller groups, where business cards are passed around and follow-up appointments are planned.
At a recent gathering, Ver Steeg sat on the sidelines, watching entrepreneurs and investors mingle and make important contacts. He grinned. "This is why they're here," he said.