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TechVibe Geeks out with Rivers Agile and Next Act Fund

Interview by Audrey Russo and Jonathan Kersting

Podcasts

TechVibe Radio is back on air at ESPN 970 AM every Saturday at 8:00 a.m. from the Huntington Bank Studio.

The Next Act Fund, an early-stage investor in female entrepreneurs, is celebrating its 5-year anniversary. Learn how the fund was founded in Pittsburgh in 2017 to give female investors a vehicle to invest in early-stage, women-owned/led companies.

TechVibe regular Ben Wilson of Rivers Agile is stopping back to update us how the software development company is driving growth by merging strategy with engineering to craft meaningful software solutions.

Transcription:

It is Saturday morning it is time for TechVibe Ribe and Audrey I am very excited about our kickoff guests today because he is no stranger to TECH VIBE or the Pittsburgh Technology Council. I call him a Pittsburgh's most kick butt tech. Now we have such great, that's the like the end watching Ben Wilson just sort of blossom, it's been great. I can think back of standing outside our old place off of Bates Street on Second Avenue and him having like a bunch of stuff in his hands and him being him and one other person and go, I'm gonna do this, I'm really gonna do I know you are going to get started like that. And really think you have a plan and then watch a company actually mature after that idea. You know, you were I remember that moment, Ben. for ever. I know exactly like the time of day, I know where we were standing. And I'm like, you're gonna make it man. I know you're gonna make it. And then you've grown.

A cool, cool company that talk about our founder, CEO Ben Wilson. Who how many years ago was that? Then? We're gonna turn 13 at the end of this summer. Oh, my God, I had just started. They just started going. Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. And I remember saying I believe in that guy. I believe in that guy. I remember, work. I mean, honestly, will work. I'll tell you, you know, we were having fun right now. You know, I think all companies have have learned how to navigate a sort of an upside down world. And of course, we were one too. However, you know, what, what we're offering and what we're working on right now is, you know, it's not hard to come to work every day, we're excited about it. We're growing as an organization.

You know, I can say, it feels like things are getting better around around here. And, you know, we still have not had any layoffs or anything like that. We've, we took the opportunity to sort of grow internally, you know, things like, you know, Business Continuity Planning, and really infrastructure type things that any good organization should have. We focused on that. Because as a young company, we didn't have to before, right, but another thing we focused on was just reinvesting in our own employees. Right. What else can we get them trained up on? Can we free up some time so they can do that? You know, what about little r&d projects, we started doing that as a company last year, which has been fun. And you know, that's a whole other creative layer added on to this consulting services company that focuses on putting other people's products into market. We know what if we had our own so that has spawned a lot of creativity within your organization. It's been like level set with us. First of all listeners in case someone has not heard of the quick elevator pitch about kind of all the things you do, because there's a whole lot of ground that you guys come from. And it's really been something that we've matured into this role, right. As we stand today, we are a Pittsburgh based consulting company aimed at high tech. We are right at 40 people. And most of the work we do our clients come to us to help help them put products into market. And that's something that's sort of grown over the years, obviously, you know, starting off as a QA consulting company that wasn't within our scope. But as we grew, and as we got kind of better what we did, that's what what people come to us for. And sometimes that's because they want to introduce it to the market. Or maybe their clients want them to introduce it to the market so they can buy it from them. Right. And so there's as it's you know, Jonathan Adria, you know, there's so much money coming into the city and so much innovation being blossomed because of that, that there there is a genuine need for partners that are not not think that they can be that product company that are already doing that for others, right. And so we've seen a nice, a nice uptick in new projects, projects that I didn't, hadn't even dreamed of, you know, a fair amount of IoT plays that are helping industries evolve, which is really interesting. And right now, it's just, you know, we're excited. We're excited about what

So what kinds of things if people are listening? What kind of problems are they having that they should reach out to you? Well, it ranges there's, you know, this is a trend that was well before COVID, which is digital transformation, right? You know, we, one of our clients is in the business of manufacturing, orthopedic, knees, hips, etc, right. And in the world of lean manufacturing, there's a term called hour by hour. And so what we did is we took a engineering Look at that, and we decided, some parameters put around it. And now what we can do is have a digital platform. So paper replaced by digital platform is what we did for them. And that platform gives them the ability to see, okay, so hour by hour, this hour, you're supposed to create this many items, whatever the items are, and you did it. What's different? What What happened? Was the machine broken? Was it out of parts? Or was our part broken? Was it a 10 minute training for the operator at the beginning of that hour, things like that, you can equate that to, you know, maybe maybe in the world of economics, maybe like an earned value management type of report, right? what you're supposed to do, versus what you did, or maybe in our software world, maybe a burn down, right? This is what we planned on the sprint, we were going to do you know, 20 story points, we got to 17. Why? What happened? What was his non productive time, what what scope, change, etc. And so that project was a big success, we did it during the pandemic. And now they've applied it to four additional manufacturing sites. And so they as a company, are for really what ended up being a relatively small investment, are really growing and thriving because of that. So we're really working on some pretty interesting things, that our customers, new and old, are coming to us and challenging us, right? Because there's not a lot of vendors you can come to, they can actually solve it right? If you need three web developers that you can go to any of a number of great Pittsburgh companies to get that right. And also solve the problem, right? It's a different conversation. Well, you've also been known for, and I just want to push this and, and you have a sweet spot for startups, obviously, because you have been a startup. So I'm not saying that's your whole business, but you are thinking about building something, and they're at the nascent stage, you, you really do embrace that. It's gonna be so cool. The workshop program has really been well received, I have to tell you, we just finished up the virtual invent Penn State Conference, and the number of entrepreneurs that want to work with us is exciting. Now, not everyone's a match one way or the other, of course, I but the amount of demand that we're seeing is very refreshing. And it tells me and it assures me that we're doing what's right for the region, right? We did, although a little delayed by COVID, we did invest in two different organizations to different startups. And that feels good for us. Because now part of that lens was what does this region need right now? Right? Also what is scalable and profitable for everybody? Right? But that works out program, which you can you can find at River'sAgile.com/raw provides a program where you can hire a product team like rivers agile to do the work at a discount, right? And everybody wins in that conversation. Right? That entrepreneur gets the right vendor, we get the right type of client for innovations that we want to work on. And, you know, it's a win win Really? Well, so what what's next? What's next for the rest of this year? We're almost at half point, what's the events coming up? And something is pretty cool. Very interesting. And this is something that I think a lot of organizations are wrestling with, should we have in person events?

I don't know. We say yes, we say we say by mid summer, it's ago, and we're gonna try outside first, we're gonna do it, then you know, and we're going to ease into it. And I know that everyone has different opinions on the topic, but we as a city, and as as a innovation of tech, we have to move forward, right? We have to get moving forward and not everyone's going to want to at first right, we're going to, we're going to start pursuing that. So in June, we're going to host a PBX event here at our offices and on the roof. That's gonna be very exciting. That's a pure networking event, I would encourage anyone to attend. In July, we're actually sponsoring a panel discussion on data security.

And I put a interesting panel together, you could almost joke and say, panel matters, hurry and an architect and a hacker walk into a bar because that's essentially okay. Because if you think about if Jonathan's my attorney, and we're entering into some, some contract with Audrey for some product build, there's going to be some data security considerations in there, right? And what to do with that data and when to destroy that data where you shouldn't save it like locally, for example, right? And that makes sense on a contract. And then you have an architect that says, Well, this is how it actually works in the real world. But this is how it actually has to be transmitted or whatever, right? And then you have another role from, from the hacker type to say, Well, this is how exactly I would get it, by the way. And so I think it's really interesting. And what our goal really is to have a, a real conversation about where data security is today, and how businesses are treating it. And what is actually possible, not just written in a document, right? Because at some point, you have to touch the data, right? You have to store it, you have to run it, you have to access it through the API's, things like that. But also, there is no scarier topic than a miss in data security. Right.

And so I think it'll be a pretty interesting conversation. So that'll be in July. We already have a lot of interest there. And I think, I think it'll be well well attended as well. Then all the details be on rivers agile.com to register for the event and learn more about the topic and so forth. Yes, it will. And not only that, but you will notice the fresh face on represent calm, yeah, only website goes a while to get there, as most organizations, but we finally did, and it better reflects who we are today. So pretty excited with that had a lot of positive feedback as well. Great. All right. So hey, guys, just kicking some butt. We just loved seeing the dragon. We said you're up to 40 people, My mind went like this, because I'm like, I remember when you're a small little shout out cannonsburg I remember that. Like, it was like to see you guys grow and scale like this is just such a tremendous story. Well, like I said, we're having fun, we're happy to be where we are. And I would say that that's the current state. We plan on growth for sure. throughout the remainder of the year. So stay tuned for sure. That's great. That's awesome. stuff, good rivers agile.com check out the new site, register for the event and check out everything around his workshop. Man. I think you'd have so much fun with the workshop working with startups and making an investment and then putting the tech into into play. Great, great stuff. And we are taking a quick break. We are coming back with more tech vibe radio more awesome stories like Ben's Up next. Everybody. This is Jonathan Kersting. And this is Audrey Russo wasn't the Pittsburgh Technology Council. We have awesome members like River's Agile. You can go to PGH tech.org. To learn about us and them right back. We all need a little help. Sometimes at people's we want to make sure that you have safe natural gas service. Whether you need help with your utility bills, or you're looking for some breathing room in your budget. We're here to give you options. Just visit our anonymous program finder will show you which programs you may be eligible for and how to apply. Learn more at people's hyphen gas comm slash safety people and essential utilities company.

Time flies by quickly like in ways that it's like oh my goodness, when I heard that the Next Act Fund was turning five years old  I just went Whoa, whoa, oh my god. Like this is just I think maybe this whole pandemic thing has just made our sense of time go crazy, but man, I can't believe what a milestone for the next act fund. Yeah, I was most surprised and  it seemed like maybe just a couple of couple months ago you were putting your cool pink like flyer up around our offices when you'd had your meetings coming in. So we're really really excited to have you on the show today. Audrey, I know you've got lots of insight on I love it. I'm I can't believe it's five years but let's just go back really quick and then and introduce our guests because we have the founder of next app fund. Eve on campus is no stranger to tap because she herself has sold the company and then decided she want to keep herself off streets and busy.

I was getting into trouble. I was getting into trouble. Tell everyone what were you thinking five years ago? I was in the right place at the right time with a with a great opportunity. I had a good friend of mine that was starting another company. I'd known she was a serial entrepreneur very successful. She had started to raise money, and was having a difficult time raising money as a as an experienced successful several exit kind of companies woman. And so we were having coffee once one Saturday morning, and she was you know, talking about what how difficult it was. And I thought to myself, well, I have some money because I had just sold my company. And I know some other women with money I can I let me see what I can do. All of a sudden, it just comes together. Hmm.

And really all I get what I did is I found 10 women that invested in that company. single purpose LLC never done that before in my life. First time ever, probably get it all wrong, but we did it anyway. And then really the way nextech phone came about was people heard that I did that deal. like as if I was really doing these deals. And all of a sudden, I had women coming up to me saying, I heard you put a deal together. I'm very interested, I have resources I I never have the opportunity to get involved in any angel investing and so forth. So and so then I did research to find out what was going on in the marketplace, not only in Pittsburgh, but in Canada. And there was zero, there was a big gap in the marketplace here. So it just seemed like the right thing to do at the time. So we we took it on and move forward. And Margo Matouk, who's with us today was one of our very early investors, except financially. And so Margo, introduce yourself, so everyone knows who you are and how you fit into this amazing puzzle. Yeah, sure. So I'm Margot Matouk. And I fit into the puzzle because I basically read about what Avon was doing what she was starting up, I think it was on in one of the local Pittsburgh newsletters, and I said, I want to do that I didn't know what it was, but I knew what I wanted to do. And so I basically hunted her down and fat went to one of her information sessions and I what I you know, fell in love with Avon, which everybody does, the moment they meet her and sort of hopped on board this concept.

I was at a point in my life where I was really looking to transition I had been in corporate America, I stopped out to raise some babies, I had just come out of business school, and I was looking for my next thing. And so this was it. And, you know, I really sort of joined and led the educational piece of the fund and recently sort of took on the role of Treasury.

So tell everyone about so thank you have a website. So I want you to just say that so in case people are listening, they can they can multitask. And that's next that fun.com. Exactly. So So how many companies have you invested in so sort of tell us the narrative a little bit, we have we've invested in right now we have invested 22 companies, not 19 of them are active at this point. In addition, we have invested in three other that well in Nova funds, blue trees and Nova funds one through five, and also in portfolio firms out of California. Three of their funds. One is femtech. One is rising tide for people of color who are founders or people of color. And why is active aging and healthy lifestyle? Are those three funds we've investigated. Awesome. Wow. So what do you think both of you five years now what do you what do you what have you learned What's different? What's the same?

Women are brilliant. That's all I can tell you agree? No, it's I just find it so amazing that this is women focused, right?

We have we have 57 investors, five of our investors are males. Right? We do have some male investors, wonderful man. perfect fit for us. And I will tell you that the growth of these women, actually not it hasn't taken five years, it took us about three years, I think, is amazing how talented and how competent these women are with regards to investing at this point. We had, we had an investment committee meeting this morning. And I was thinking to myself, I was listening to the way the pitch of the current portfolio company coming to do another race. The questions that were being asked the thoughts that were being new dots are being connected. I was like, It surprises me, even if this day how, what a good team of women we have and one great angel investors. Marga. Don't you agree? I mean, the difference? Yeah, I agree. And I think part of what happened is because we all started at the same playing field have, you know, really basically no knowledge, we had to educate ourselves and ask all the questions and get all the experts in and, and there was really no pride involved. It was, you know, it was by necessity, that we really had to do that. And so we really, together grew, I grew up in this and, you know, now we're sort of a well oiled machine.

And so are you taking new investors now? No, we were fine. We brought in investors for about a year and a half. And then the final clothes, were raised about $3 million.

We're looking at our options. Now. As far as our next step phone two, we're exploring whether that's even a possibility. But I tell you, Audrey, there's no question in my mind that there's a need.

And we're looking at options at this point. Right. So I mean, I wouldn't be surprised if that would be the next iteration at all. I wouldn't, it wouldn't surprise me at all. The you invest only in women.

75% of our dollars are required by our  bylaws being vested in women led companies 25% of our dollars to be invested in any company. That's how we invested actually in the Blue Tree Funds. Not necessarily all female friends. But it was an interesting point, I have noticed I have to really, this is what I'm so excited by. Since we came on the scene that has been so much more focused by other people, in addition to us on female founders and females and investing in female led companies. we're not the only ones that has grown that focus in that emphasis, because you had to be intentional about it, you know. And so your your funds in terms of female runner, they are the 75% they are they do they have to be in the region of Pittsburgh, we they don't have to be in the region, we wanted to focus in our region, we I mean, that was originally focused. We didn't limit ourselves there, because we just didn't think that was smart. However, what we discovered in the first year, actually, in the first year, we discovered, most of the female led companies that were in our region were too early for us. They were startup, we do not invest in seed, early seed or startup, we're in early stage, we're an early stage investor. So we had to broaden our reach. We had to broaden our reach in order to find the kinds of companies we won't invest in, although, say a portion of our portfolio is obviously local companies that we're real thrilled to be investing in and always looking for local companies. So So Margot, you want to tell us what that means in terms of the difference between these early stage seeds and the stages that you invest in? What's the definition?

That Well, the definition is we're really looking mostly at companies that have already raised an initial friends and family round in the past. So typically, we look for companies that are already posting revenue, that already have a team worked out an exit strategy, you know, sort of on the horizon. And most importantly, you know, we we look to see that they have a lead investor already in place that's going to have really some sort of strategic alliance with them and help them to scale and grow and ultimately exit you know, our check sizes relatively small. So we normally come in to fill out the end of the round, not not the beginning of the round. And so, and that's really important to know, it's great that you know, your lane, right, I think that's all I know.

I think that's really clear that you're not pretending. And you can easily articulate that. Because very often that just, you know, that just frustrates everyone all along the way. So where, and that's good for our listeners to know as well when they're thinking about this, but you've also brought in and engaged other funds, can you talk about that like, because even though you come in at the end, sometimes we're gonna want to fill out around, you've actually partnered with other funds that are from outside of the region, because of our structure, we are able to invest in other funds. And one of the one of the goals of our fund next, that fund was obviously to invest in a broad array of companies, you know, you want to have a broad portfolio and invest as many companies as you can. So by investing in other funds, that gives us much larger number of companies we have, we may have a smaller piece of a company, but at least we have many more companies that run.

What are you excited about? Like in terms of tech? what's what's exciting the both of you right now, Margo?

Goodness gracious, um, let me say, Hi, Yvonne, I have something. I'm excited because the emphasis and the focus right now is on with women in many, many cases with FEM tech. And they're dressing the labs, the technology that's addressing issues that face half of the population of this planet, right. And so that has not been done in the past. And so and it not only helps women and helps everyone when those kinds of advances are being made. So in particular, I'm thrilled at what I'm seeing in that sector. It's stuff we got about 30 seconds left, I just love this story. I'm assuming that there's like other funds, looking to seven do what you've been doing, and people reaching out to you saying, we seen your success, we want to create an all woman fund like this. Oh, actually, we partner with on those funds, because we will be looking at the same kinds of companies, right. So we syndicate with other funds that are women focused funds, and we're able to do partnerships that way. So we established relationships all over the country as a result of that. Well, congratulations on five awesome years, I'm looking forward to five and 15,20 more. Other thing is is that you have helped put Pittsburgh on the map for different for a lot of different reasons. So I want to thank you for that. I'm working with a great team of women. And we all worked very hard and everybody contributed and that's why we've had success. Absolutely. Thank you for stopping by as well too great to meet on the original funders with this and you helping to grow this to what it is. It's such an awesome story. I say only here in Pittsburgh and you are making Pittsburgh proud. That is for sure. This is Jonathan Kersting and this is Audrey and of course we're in the Pittsburgh Technology Council. Learn more about us at d h tech.org. And please have an awesome and safe weekend everybody.

Transcribed by https://otter.ai