Tuesday, November 15, 2011
Interview with Howard Marks, Start Engine
Story by Benjamin F. Kuo
Are you an entrepreneur hoping to startup a company in the Los Angeles area? In what has been an unprecedented surge in interest in helping entrepreneurs, there have been more than a half dozen accelerators--most patterned after the successful YCombinator and TechStars programs elsewhere in the country--established in Southern California in the last month or so. Southern California apparently has no shortage of investors, entrepreneurs, and others eager to help budding entrepreneurs. The latest to enter the scene is Los Angeles accelerator Start Engine (www.startengine.com), which was created by Howard Marks and Paul Kessler. Marks is the co-founder of Activision, and Kessler a prolific investor in the region. The program launched today, so we spoke with Howard to learn more about the Start Engine program, and what it is going to do.
Talk about your accelerator?
Howard Marks: We're a startup accelerator, which will help entrepreneurs become successful in 90 days. The program is basically to take entrepreneurs, pair them with a mentor who is also an entrepreneur themselves, either a CEO or a CTO. We will provide them with a lot of resources, a lot of knowledge, and inspiration and motivation, so that after 90 days they will be ready for presentation to angel investors, seed investors, and venture capitalists.
Are you making investments in those firms as part of the program?
Howard Marks: Absolutely. We're following the model you've seen in other cities, up to $20,000 in each startup. And, even though the program itself is structured, it's no a classroom. It's structured so that they get funding, office space, all of the Internet resources, tools they need from mentors. There might be one or two mentors, one might be a CTO, another, a CEO. We've got a lot of CTO mentors, which is one way we're going to distinguish ourselves from other startup accelerators. Our mentors are not financial professionals, they are entrepreneurs themselves. They have a lot to share, and lots to offer entrepreneurs who need inspiration and guidance. The financial professionals and venture capitalists are going to be involved, to come and see presentations from our startups, but they are not the ones who will be doing the mentoring.
Are there specific kinds of companies who would apply?
Howard Marks: Yes. We want to include companies that illustrate what LA does best. Don't forget, as you know, I moved Activision from Silicon Valley to Los Angeles, which is why we were able to make it a number one company. It's one of the few instances where you take a company out of Silicon Valley, because it was more logical and better to be here. Silicon Valley cannot take credit and own every industry. Los Angeles is an amazing place, and we have fashion, e-commerce, advertising, games, media, entertainment companies which I think make Los Angeles a phenomenal place. We need to enhance those, and provide resources for entrepreneurs who have a vision for conquering the world. We need the resources here in Los Angeles, and not force those companies to go elsewhere. For example, I've met several entrepreneurs who had to leave town to take place in accelerator programs out of town, because they wanted to participate in an accelerator, but there were none here for them. We think there is a clear, gaping need that needs to be filled.
When is your first class?
Howard Marks: Our first class starts in January, and we're already accepting applications. We've been able to get a bunch of applications already through word of mouth, from talks at different classes, and most recently at the UCLA Business School. There are some very talented students who have a vision, and have been interested in participating.
Your background is in gaming--will you be including companies in that space?
Howard Marks: Absolutely. I was just judging the USC gaming hackathon. USC is producing lots of very talented game professionals, and so is UCLA. We believe that Los Angeles is probably the best place in the country to have a game company.
How many companies will you be helping in each class?
Howard Marks: Our goal, which is really audacious, is 120 startups a year. We're stating that publicly, and we want to be able to accelerate 120 startups a year, with four starts a year, one every quarter. We've got a schedule and calendar on our site with details. We'll be presenting all of those companies, and there will be lots of startups to show to the community here. I think a high quality group of entrepreneurs, with the right resources, will be able to do amazing things. We've also got an amazing angel and seed community here in Los Angeles. There are lots of entrepreneurs who are putting money back into the community as investors, lots of people who are interested in technology, and would rather invest here than go up north. In many cases, they're not even being invited into deals up North. So, there's a really big opportunity for everyone here, including the press, investors, entrepreneurs, the mentors. Everything is coming together.
Activision has been one of the few technology success stories here which have stayed independent, rather than merging or being acquired by someone else. What was the reason for that success in staying independent?
Howard Marks: I think it was because of our mission. We wanted to build the most engages games that people ever played. We had a big strategy for CD-ROMS just as they came out, and that was something the other companies in the industry were not prepared for. Because we were here in Los Angeles, which has the artists and creative talent, we were able to make games that were much more compelling to play than the others. At the end of the day, it also took lots of business smarts, too. Our mission was to build the best online entertainment company in the world. We were able to do that, but it was not easy, and it was not simple, and there were lots of pitfalls around the way. But, when you have the ambition, and are in the right location, with the right mission, it's possible.I see that now with different startups in Los Angles, and you see some really exciting stuff happening here. However, whether an entrepreneur decides to sell or continue is a very personal decision, there's not always a right answer--many times startups get sold at different stages of their life, and no matter where, success can happen at different levels. But, I think that we'll see more of those big successes staying in town, as entrepreneurs watch how others have been able to stay successful and independent.
Finally, what's the next big goal for StartEngine?
Howard Marks: The main goal right now, is to attract the most talented, passionate, mission oriented entrepreneurs we can to our accelerator, and to get them started and funded. Our long term goal, is to help build the number one tech community in the country. That's our mission.