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Business Observer Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020 3 months ago

Area angel investing group evolves, plans for future deals

Bridge Angel Investors has invested in four companies, most recently Knack and Next Big Idea Club.
by: Grier Ferguson Sarasota-Manatee Editor

Chasing what works has led to an evolution for Bridge Angel Investors.

Since 2017, Bridge, a Sarasota and Manatee-focused group-funding entity, has invested in four companies. The group continues to seek more opportunities — for investing both members’ money and mentorship energies. A new partnership that could increase Bridge’s impact is also potentially in the organization’s future.

Courtesy. Bridge Angel Investors was co-founded by Tom Gardner.

One of the most challenging parts of running Bridge, says Executive Director Wendi Chapman, is keeping members engaged and moving forward on the same path. That's one way the group has gone after what works. 

Bridge started with about 40 members. But Chapman says without strict membership requirements, at first it was harder to get people to focus. So Bridge instituted a mandatory raise, with members required to provide a $20,000 investment each year and a $2,000 membership fee. “Mandatory funds allow us to invest more easily and more frequently,” says Chapman.

Members are also required to provide more than money. “They have to be involved,” says Chapman. “They can’t be a passive investor.” That means supporting entrepreneurs through mentorship and providing feedback about companies within the group.

At first, the requirements led to the membership shrinking. “A lot of folks weren’t as committed as they needed to be to make it work,” says Chapman. It has about 20 members now, but that smaller number doesn’t mean Bridge hasn’t grown, as far as Chapman is concerned. Members are more dedicated, spending considerable time supporting companies. “We are attracting more diverse subject-matter expertise, which is fantastic,” she says. “People are generally coming from other areas where they’ve generally been involved in angel investing. They’re able to bring their experience to Bridge.”

Business and entrepreneurial heavyweights Tom Gardner and Sam Guren co-founded Bridge. Gardner is a former Johnson & Johnson group executive and Founder and CEO of Sarasota-based medical technology and consumer health care products company Omeza. Guren is a managing partner for Guren Capital and helped fund Apple, Yoplait, Staples, Sports Authority and Ulta.

Courtesy. Bridge Angel Investors was co-founded by Sam Guren.

Bridge members now include entrepreneurs, executives, nuclear engineers, software engineers, venture capitalists and consultants. Chapman, former vice president of the San Francisco Marathon and former general counsel and executive manager of Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, thinks Bridge has barely scratched the surface of potential members since the Sarasota area is a haven for highly accomplished retired executives. Chapman is also president of Chapman Capital Development, where she supports development and operations for small businesses, including the Brenn Foundation and Omeza. 

In addition to chasing what works, Bridge has upped its presence in the community by participating in events and connecting with area groups such as Tampa Bay Wave, Upsurge, University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee, State College of Florida, LECOM, SCORE and economic development agencies. “People hear about us usually via word of mouth,” says Chapman.

Bridge focuses on investing in companies in the Sarasota-Manatee area and in Florida, but in 2020, it also started accepting applications from out-of-state companies, if brought to the group by a member.

Companies seeking funding from Bridge can apply through its website. Bridge also hears about companies through incubators, referrals and calls with other Florida angel groups.

‘We already have a success story. We got a bunch of people together and invested in local companies so they could grow and expand and we could talk about Florida as place to start and grow your business with the type of resources and mentorship that’s here.’ — Wendi Chapman, Bridge Angel Investors

Bridge’s investment in companies varies. In general, the average — and what Chapman says is the group’s sweet spot — is about a $200,000 investment. Sometimes, though, individual investors put in more. With one deal, Chapman says a member got so excited, that investor put in $600,000, and Bridge’s deal came in close to $1 million. “That’s more of a one-off, but it can happen,” she says.

Bridge has closed two deals in 2020, investing in peer tutoring platform Knack and book subscription community Next Big Idea Club. Last year, Bridge closed a deal with digital marketing tool VuPulse, and the year before, it invested in recruitment platform Rewired.

Potential return on investment is usually a minimum of five years away, says Chapman. “Folks are in this because they know that the two fastest ways to wealth are either being an entrepreneur or investing in an entrepreneur,” she says.

They’re also passionate about helping entrepreneurs. “We already have a success story,” says Chapman. “We got a bunch of people together and invested in local companies so they could grow and expand and we could talk about Florida as a place to start and grow your business with the type of resources and mentorship that’s here.”

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