BEN's growth experts help move later-stage companies to next level
Tuesday June 16, 2015
DENVER -- If you know anything at all about how new and emerging companies are funded, you know that altruism is not usually the No. 1 motivator for those offering assistance and advice.
But at Blackstone Entrepreneurs Network (BEN), they see the expansion of what Executive Director JB Holston calls “later-stage companies looking to go to the next stage of growth” as simply vital to the overall economic growth and stability of Colorado and worthy of assistance without fees or other charges.
Founded in mid-2014 with a four-year, $4M gift from the Blackstone Charitable Foundation (the charitable arm of the New York-based Blackstone Group, which bills itself as the world’s largest private equity firm with total assets under management of over $280B), BEN works closely with organizations and individuals throughout the state, including Senator Michael Bennet, Governor Hickenlooper, the Colorado BioScience Association, the Colorado Cleantech Industry Association, the Colorado Technology Association, The Foundry Group, the Colorado Space Coalition, the Colorado Impact Fund, the eSpace Consortium, and the CU Law School Silicon Flatirons initiative.
These relationships form the backbone of a network of “serial entrepreneurs” with whom BEN -- with organizations now operating in Colorado and North Carolina -- matches owners and executive-level management of private, Colorado-based companies that are growing but “need access to a network of people who have done it already, several times over” to take their companies to the next level and keep those jobs in the state.
According to Holston, BEN’s “mandate is to grow Colorado’s later-stage entrepreneurial ecosystem.” The reason BEN chose this segment, he said, is that, “Colorado is good at innovation. There’s lots of help available for startups and scale-ups, but we need work in the area of later-stage firms growing and staying. We do everything we can to help companies grow and stay in Colorado. That’s where the future employment opportunities are for Coloradans.”
And by “later-stage” he means companies that are “fairly far along and have big outcome prospects.” The smallest company they are working with now,for example, has $10M in annual revenue.
Companies currently working with BEN include Accuvant, Cool Planet, Craftsy, Hosting.com, LogRhythm, Ping Identity and Silvergate Pharmaceuticals.
Unlike incubators or accelerators, BEN doesn’t offer “heavy-duty mentoring.” Holston says, “It’s more of a network of folks who have built large companies multiple times already.” Those people agree to make themselves available to talk to, work with, advise, and assist those companies who pass the stringent requirements for acceptance get to the next level – whether that means helping them access innovative sources for capital, advising them on their growth and expansion plans, assisting with the process of going public, and/or providing a sounding board for their expansion ideas."
BEN does this by matching members of their network with what they call “gazelles” and “unicorns,” titles their website defines as “high-growth companies that have the clear potential to quickly scale to very large economic profiles and outcomes.” By selecting these companies and matching them with ideal sources of assistance, BEN said it intends to “ensure that Colorado companies have the necessary resources and networks that they need in order to scale up in Colorado.”
For that reason, BEN's initial focus is on companies in the five industry sectors it sees as having the highest growth potential: tech and telecomm, biotech and health, aerospace, energy, and natural products.
Holston has had “25 years of success as a global scale-up CEO and entrepreneur,” work that garnered him Colorado's Technology CEO of the Year award in 2010. His background includes a BA in Creative Writing and an MBA (both from Stanford), teaching secondary English, consulting for the Boston Consulting Group, studying abroad, working with Jack Welch at GE, two stints in strategic planning at NBC, running operations for Ziff Davis across more than 100 countries and launching Yahoo! Europe – all before he began the first of his multiple successful startups including Newsgator.
On July 1, Holston will take on another role as dean of the DU Daniel F. Ritchie School of Engineering and Computer Science while remaining a member of BEN's Steering committee. A search for a new BEN Colorado executive director is now underway.
Holston sees Colorado's collaborative spirit as part of the answer to how to help scale up promising companies.
“Colorado already has a very dense ecosystem for entrepreneurism – four of the top 10 cities for entrepreneurs in the country are in Colorado,” he says. “And one thing that differentiates Colorado from other states is that we have a very collaborative environment. There’s much more alignment across the different traditional silos – political, academic, industry – everyone tends to be very supportive of growth.”
The Colorado Small Business Development Center (SBDC) agrees, posting on their blog: “While Holston loves the entrepreneurial spirit here, he cautions that ‘if we don’t have some of these (companies) become really big employers down the line, we’re going to have a real imbalance in the ecosystem, particularly with the influx of Millennials and a general influx of highly talented, highly qualified folks looking to build their careers here on the Front Range.”
So while no one has to pay to play and no one gets paid to offer assistance, there is a payoff for everyone in the end -- more jobs created in Colorado that remain in Colorado.
And BEN is “just one piece of the puzzle,” says Holston. “Everyone working together just adds to the pace at which we can develop the economy.”
To see a YouTube video about BEN, click https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YBwmN2hNQSc