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He's start-ups' best friend

Ron Conway is not a household name. But this 'angel investor' has helped many Silicon Valley ventures take off. His support is considered the kiss of life for people with an idea searching for funds.

April 29, 2010|By Scott Kraft, Los Angeles Times

An important part of what he does is make introductions. He hosts a spectacular annual holiday party and regular outings in luxury boxes at sporting events to bring together start-up founders and Silicon Valley luminaries. He serves on the boards of several charities and often leans on wealthy friends for contributions.

Shawn Fanning, founder of the audio file-sharing firm Napster, said Conway "is like family to me. He is such a big part of who I am today, and I know a number of people who feel the same way."

Napster failed, as did Fanning's next venture with Conway. Still, "Ron was right there to invest and support my next start-up," Fanning said. That one, a social gaming firm, was sold last year for $25 million.

Fanning is now on his fourth venture, and Conway is again backing him. "Shawn and I have been to hell and back together," Conway said.

"I do this because it's in-ter-esting," he said, drawing the word out. "It's time-consuming, it's demanding, yada, yada. But it's hugely satisfying to listen to an entrepreneur tell you how his idea is going to change things – and then seeing it happen."

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One of Conway's axioms is that the best new ideas arise from the personal frustration of an entrepreneur.

For Evan Beard and Howie Liu, the source of frustration was managing their on-line conversations with friends and family. Their answer, Etacts, tracks on-line and phone relationships, automatically reminds people when they've fallen out of touch and provides easy access to past messages.

At first, Conway's team decided not to invest. One reason was that when one of them installed the program, he stopped receiving messages from a pretty important person – Conway.

That turned out to be a problem with a spam filter, though; and two weeks ago, David Lee, Conway's associate, e-mailed the duo to say he was enjoying the product and "we're at the opposite end of ‘buyer's remorse.' You free for a call?"

That afternoon, SV Angel invested $100,000. Within a few hours, other wavering angels followed.

"We're so excited," Beard said in an e-mail that day. "And Ashton's in, too!"

scott.kraft@latimes.com

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