They came from Dupont Circle, Georgetown, Chevy Chase and Capitol Hill. Recent college graduates and former Fortune 500 executives lined up one after another, each making a three-minute pitch for their nascent business and asking for the same thing: money.
Many ended with the same closing line: “If you’re interested, come find me.”
They gathered not in some venture capitalist’s boardroom, but in the District office of Cooley, the 93-year-old law firm that opened its doors in Washington in 2005.
At least once a year, Cooley hosts what it calls “Capital Call,” inviting local entrepreneurs with emerging companies to network, pitch and possibly land funding from about 100 potential investors. Many of the companies and some of the investors are clients of the firm. Last week’s event was the 29th Capital Call that Cooley has hosted.
Carl Grant, Cooley’s executive vice president of business development, started the event 11 years ago. As Grant likes to say, Capital Call was an incubator before incubators were cool.
“We were doing this back before any of the accelerators that have popped up around town came about,” he said. “This event has been there through thick and thin, through the recession.”
Grant brought the idea with him from his former job at CyberCFO, a small Reston-based company that provided start-ups with outsourced finance functions, where it was originally dubbed the JumpStart Series. When CyberCFO shut down in 2001, Grant joined Cooley as a vice president of business development and rebranded the event for the law firm, unveiling Capital Call at Cooley’s Reston office in 2002.
Cooley’s outlook on entrepreneurship reflects the way the firm has built its own business from a small outpost of a Silicon Valley firm into a major player representing technology companies in Northern Virginia. The firm has drawn much of its success from representing technology companies before they become household names — advising on start-up issues such as early funding and, later, legal issues that more mature companies face, such as going public. The firm’s clients have included Nvidia, Yelp, Zynga and Facebook.
Capital Call has evolved with it.
“You have to modify these events to keep them fresh,” Grant said. “The first year, we had five or six companies making eight-minute pitches. Then we sensed that the attention span of investors was getting shorter.”
So after attending a venture fair in Connecticut where he watched companies make three-minute pitches, Grant adopted the shorter pitch for Cooley’s incubator.
“It was so exciting to watch,” he said. “I couldn’t even get up to go to the bathroom because I’d miss the whole pitch. I remember thinking, ‘This is the future of pitching.’ ”
Cooley, which has about 150 lawyers in the District and Reston, now alternates Capital Call between the two offices.
“Because so much emerging activity is in the District, it seems to be well-attended,” Grant said.
Cooley does not keep track of how much money is invested in companies through Capital Call, but many that have come through the process in years past continue to thrive, including Fishbowl, Digital Sandbox, GetWellNetwork and BuySafe, Grant said.
Anne Balduzzi, co-founder and chief marketing officer of SameGrain, was one of the 14 companies that pitched last week. The two-year-old Baltimore company functions like Match.com, but for non-dating purposes, such as finding teammates and roommates based on similar interests.
“When you get on Cooley’s radar and you’re able to present there, it helps funnel in the right investor,” she said. “In our case, the event led to more serious follow-up conversations with investors we encountered at prior events and opened doors to several new potential investors.”