Entrepreneurs gather for secrets to success

Guest speaker Brian Selander, executive vice president and offensive coordinator of Whistle Sports Network, gives a lecture about his life in business at the Governor's Entrepreneurial & Small Business Conference on Tuesday morning.(Photo: JENNIFER CORBETT/THE NEWS JOURNAL)

Rahim El wants to license the tools being developed by his Wilmington startup. Cathy Berzins wants to expand sales at her gluten-free café and bakery near Ocean View.

Focused on vastly different industries and from both ends of the state, both business owners sought tips, contacts and inspiration at the Governor’s Entrepreneurial & Small Business Conference held Tuesday in Wilmington.

“I’m an itsy-bitsy, teeny-tiny small business with a great vision,” said Berzins, owner of the Birch Tree Café.

“But to get momentum going in a big way, you need to be around people who drive that hunger,” she said. “Being a part of conferences like this is a huge help.”

Sponsored by the Delaware Economic Development Office, the daylong event at the Chase Center on the Riverfront featured some of the state’s biggest success stories talking about scaling their companies.

Tanya Bakalov, co-founder of the networking infrastructure monitoring company SevOne, spoke about growing her business from a handful of friends working in a garage to an international company with about 500 employees and more than $200 million in private financing.

Attendees listen to guest speaker Brian Selander, executive vice president and offensive coordinator of Whistle Sports Network, at the Governor's Entrepreneurial & Small Business Conference on Tuesday morning. (Photo: JENNIFER CORBETT/THE NEWS JOURNAL)

Mac Nagaswami, co-founder of the Wilmington startup Carvertise, talked about building his company, which wraps vehicles with advertising. He led the company from a college project into a business that recently secured its own round of venture capital.

Panels of local business leaders also detailed ways businesses can grow, including external financing.

“The focus of the conference is driven by what we hear in the marketplace and in the past year so much of that has been about access to capital,” DEDO Director Bernice Whaley said. “We wanted to get a lot of these resources in the room along with some really inspiring success stories.”

But while private backing may propel a business forward, investors said luring private equity should not be a company’s central goal.

“Don’t start with the money question.… Chase customers first,” said Michael Bowman, a partner at Leading Edge Ventures and director of the Delaware Small Business Development Center.

Business owners also should consider whether gaining private investment is worth giving up equity in their company, said Jeff Davison, another partner at the early-stage venture capital firm.

“I think most people, if they really had their preference, wouldn’t want partners,” he said. “Better questions to consider may be, ‘What’s your long-term objective?’ ‘What is it you want this money to do for you in the end?”

The Whistle Sports Network, a New York-based online media company, has raised more than $36 million in venture capital.

Ken Anderson director of Entrepreneurial & Small Business Support, Delaware Economic Development Office, listens to Brian Selander executive vice president and offensive coordinator Whistle Sports Network, give a lecture about his life in business at the Governor's Entrepreneurial & Small Business Conference on Tuesday morning. (Photo: JENNIFER CORBETT/THE NEWS JOURNAL)

But Executive Vice President Brian Selander, who gave up a job advising Gov. Jack Markell to help launch the company, told entrepreneurs Tuesday that his company’s success has been powered equally by networking.

“Delaware really is an amazing place to build a business,” he said. “But don’t be afraid to get on a plane to widen your circle a little bit.”

The chance to network with potential new business contacts was what drew tool-entrepreneur El to Tuesday’s conference.

El said his company, Moorway.co, has developed or invented a dozen new products for the construction trades in the last year, including a simple device to determine a paint’s color without opening the can.

“We’re looking to license our products to major manufacturers,” he said. “So I came here today to gather information and meet some of the big players in the state.”

Gov. Jack Markell speaks to an audience at the Governor's Entrepreneurial & Small Business Conference Tuesday morning. (Photo: JENNIFER CORBETT/THE NEWS JOURNAL)

Contact business reporter Scott Goss at (302) 324-2281, sgoss@delawareonline.com or on Twitter @ScottGossDel.