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Eyes on the road, and on the money


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Sue Heilbronner started her business accelerator, MergeLane, because she noticed something about female business owners: There weren’t many of them.

“We were seeing a discrepancy in the concentration in leadership positions in important stages of the startup journey,” says Heilbronner, who cofounded MergeLane with angel investor Elizabeth Kraus. “We got curious about why.”

Heilbronner knew that it helps to have an accelerator like Techstars, a 12-week residential program that brings together technology entrepreneurs, mentors and investors who provide seed money. She runs a business consultancy, Boulder Ideas, and also serves as a mentor at Techstars in Boulder. She decided to start her own accelerator for woman-owned companies that were not necessarily technology related. “We wanted to create an accelerator that had more diverse teams participate,” she says.

Heilbronner and Kraus launched MergeLane last year in Boulder. Hundreds of entrepreneurs applied for the inaugural 12-week session, which began with eight teams in February. Participants stayed onsite for the first two weeks, then returned to their homes and their companies and participated virtually. They reassembled for the last week, which took place in April.

The teams receive $20,000 in exchange for a 6 percent stake in their companies, and have the potential to receive more funding moving forward. MergeLane mentors include venture capitalists, angel investors, and founders or CEOs of national companies.

Among the important lessons was how to ask for capital. “What we saw in this class is that women are more inclined to do it themselves,” Heilbronner says. “They have a bias toward taking the more challenging path, which is bearing the full financial burden and creating growth from current income.”

That works for some early-stage companies, but others find they need capital to grow more quickly. That’s what Elisabeth Saucier learned with her nut butter company Zaza Raw. The products have distribution in Natural Grocers by Vitamin Cottage, Whole Foods and other stores.

Saucier soon realized more growth takes more dollars.

“Raising money was not something I thought I would have to do,” she says. Retailers who agreed to stock her Pumpkin Cheezecake, Key Lime, Chocolate Ganache, and other dessert and snack items needed Zaza to produce enough product for 100-plus stores. That meant more expenses.

Saucier, who worked in restaurants before she started Zaza Raw in Boulder, says women approach investors differently from men. “I think men are more aggressive, as opposed to us saying, ‘You’re not interested – OK, no problem,’” she says. “Guys are not shy about the whole thing.”

Elizabeth Sopher, owner of The QuickZip Sheet Company in Denver, says this reflects a difference in risk tolerance. “We started out more organic, raising capital from sales,” she says. “Women feel like we have to show people we can do it ourselves.” QuickZip sheets are made for cribs and designed to be easy to change because of the zipper. The company is currently working on new applications such as bunk beds, RV beds and other mattresses for close quarters.

Sopher adds the accelerator did more than offer her investment capital. “The community of people interested in helping us is huge,” she says. “It’s amazing. You can ask people for help and they were extremely generous with their time.”

Elisabeth Vezzani, who runs the online candy gift company Sugarwish, says there is another difference in how women seek funding for their ventures. “Women, from a very young age, are perfectionists,” she says. “We like to do what we’re good at, so going outside that, we don’t love. Men who played more sports and failed more and recovered more are more apt to put themselves out there.”

Denver-based Sugarwish is a website where a gift-giver buys candy and recipients can choose which sweet treats they want. Vezzani is presently focusing more on expanding into the corporate gift market. 

The next group of companies interested in accelerating their businesses can apply in September and begin the next session in February 2016. MergeLane is a big change from Heilbronner’s previous careers. She worked as a federal prosecutor with the U.S. Department of Justice. Later she started an online baby gift company, which she sold in 1999. MergeLane is what makes her proud, though. “I’m more happy about how companies exited the accelerator,” she says. “Most are doing it with some success.” cb

3 Elizabeths: What they learned at camp

Sue Heilbronner owned a baby gifting company years before she cofounded MergeLane. Heilbronner says owning a company “is like getting an MBA without going back to school.” Here is what some participants in the first 12-week session of MergeLane learned either during the 12 weeks, or in the course of running their businesses. Their first names are nearly identical, but their takeaways differ.

Elisabeth Saucier, owner, Zaza Raw: “You have to have an open mind. If you’re not willing to change anything or accept criticism it’s not going to work. You are not just going there to raise money. There are many other things involved.”

Elisabeth Vezzani, owner, Sugarwish: “The more risk you take, the more you fall, so I can trip a little and get back up. When you do start a business, it’s just with you 24 hours a day, no matter what else you’re doing. You’re having dinner and you’re thinking about marketing.”

Elizabeth Sopher, owner, The QuickZip Sheet Co.: “We got placement in buybuyBABY, not all the stores but many of them, and we started doing the numbers and saw there is no way without some investment you can fulfill that type of inventory demand.”

MergeLane companies

Companies that participated in the first 12-week session of MergeLane, a business accelerator for woman-owned businesses:

Havenly, based in Denver and New York, is an interior design firm that allows consumers to choose various pieces online for a flat fee per room.

Idaciti, based in Las Vegas, is a platform that provides real-time access to global financial data for journalists, investors and analysts.

Intelligent Eyes, based in Berkeley, Calif., is a platform that consolidates clinical, regulatory and financial data for hospital staff and others involved in clinical trials.

Mapistry, based in Oakland, Calif., provides a tool that helps scientists, civil engineers and city planners produce maps.

Sugarwish, based in Denver, is a website that allows gift givers to purchase a candy box of a certain size and recipients choose among 80 popular candies.

TomboyX, based in Seattle, is an online boutique that manufactures and sells menswear-inspired fashions for women.

The QuickZip Sheet Company, based in Denver, sells easy-change, zip-on fitted sheets designed for cribs, bunk beds, beds of the elderly, and other applications.

Zaza Raw, based in Boulder, makes cashew, almond, and other nut-based treats that are gluten free, soy free, paleo, vegan and non-GMO verified.

See the complete Top Woman-Owned Companies list for 2015.

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Nora Caley

Nora Caley is a freelance writer specializing in business and food topics.

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