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New Friends, New Technology and an Imaginary Resort

November 21, 2010 3 comments
Terry Williams at Brasserie 73

Terry Williams, venture capitalist, at Brasserie 73 sharing insights into the new economy over a glass of wine.

Between the money spent on our house in Skippack, the ravages of the current economy and news about full body scans and pat downs at airports, I do not anticipate any vacations to exotic destinations in the foreseeable future. Fortunately the immediate surroundings here in Skippack provide variety.

For example, one of my favorite places to enjoy a drink in our quaint hood is Brasserie 73, a restaurant inspired by a building on the French Riviera. With dark wood paneling, a fireplace, high ceilings, candelabra-style lighting and large French doors, this stylish room creates an atmosphere of elegance and cozy luxury. The fine meals served here I reserve for special occasions but if I need a change of scene, I can get a glass of wine in the bar and soak in the lush atmosphere.

Another way to experience the world without leaving town is getting to know new people, especially people whose orbit is a bit out of my reach. Or so I think sipping wine at Brasserie 73 with a new friend, Terry Williams, a local resident who I have gotten to know during the months I have lived in Skippack. Terry is a venture capitalist who invests in new companies. For twenty-three years, he has helped build companies in the technology and service sectors. In addition, he describes himself as a serial entrepreneur and an angel investor, meaning he not only starts new companies but also invests his own time and money in other businesses.

Right now, Terry is drawing his concept for a new start up company for me on a cocktail napkin and I am nodding my head hoping he thinks I understand. Shooting the breeze with Terry in the surroundings of Brasserie 73 I feel like I am traveling beyond the dingy office cubicles where I have eked out salary, and entering a world where the making a living is an adventure. In this world, technology is slick, a false move is costly, and a profitable deal sends adrenaline flowing through your body like an electric current.

Terry is soft-spoken and modest, and if he perceives I am a step or two behind his conceptual thinking as he starts labeling his diagram of a new company, he does not show any impatience. Terry’s ideas are big but they are rooted in the reality of experience. He has learned how to cross that great divide between entrepreneurial dream and financial reality. I wonder if he will reveal to me any secrets of his success.

Terry tells me that people like him who become risk-taking entrepreneurs are rarely A students; they are B students, who commonly participate in sports or other organized social activities. Terry himself ran track and cross country and played basketball in high school. It makes sense. To get an A in class one has to be a bit too obedient to authority, a bit too much of a conventional thinker, and a bit too eager to please others to grow up to become an entrepreneur. Oh, young people, strive for Bs, not As.

After college, Terry began his career as an executive recruiter and worked his way to become co-founder and managing partner at Next Stage Capital; You can find a brief history of Terry’s career here.

Terry tells me about a new company called Movitas he helped to develop and finance and now oversees as a member of the board of directors. His fellow co-founders, partners and board members are Pat Croce, former President of the Philadelphia 76ers, entrepreneur and author and Mike McNulty, former co-founder of the high-flying Internet company, VerticalNet.

Movitas is a mobile marketing software company that serves the travel and tourism business sector. It provides hotels and resorts with ways to make additional revenue through mobile commerce, messaging and social media. One way Movitas software benefits hotels and resorts as well as tourists: It enables delivery of marketing messages and announcements to prospective visitors and guests who use PDAs or smartphones, mobile devices that can connect to the Internet. Popular examples of such devices include the BlackBerry, Droid and iPhone.

Since my wife Debby and I put our travel plans on hold and I have yet to buy a smartphone, I must use my imagination to understand Movitas: I imagine Debby and I are planning a vacation to a luxury resort:

• Before we arrive, using technology supplied by Movitas, the resort sends us enticing email messages, connects us to local tour operators, informs us of special offers, and enables us to easily make reservations and plan activities by pushing buttons on our imaginary smartphone.

My wife Debby after makeover

My wife Debby shows off the results of the makeover she got at the imaginary resort we visited.

• Once we arrive, my wife Debby decides she wants a makeover at the salon, but the salon is booked up. At the last minute, another guest cancels her reservation and creates an opening. Movitas technology provides a way for the resort to let my wife know about the sudden opening at the salon, and believe me, she will take it.

• Once we go back home to Skippack, thanks to Movitas, the resort has an electronic record of our likes and preferences. Armed with this information, they can sell marketing services to other restaurants and entertainment venues in their local area. The next time we make a reservation at the same imaginary resort (we had such a good time the first imaginary visit), we receive information about additional restaurants, activities, and services, precisely matched to our taste and preferences.

Movitas uses mobile technology to add a new dimension to travel for the tourist and new opportunities for revenue the hotel and resort industry. And someday, Debby and I will be taking to the road again and what I imagine here will become real.

But for now, I am still at the Brasserie 73 in Skippack. A couple thoughts cross my mind: Terry and I both passed the mid-century mark: It is cool to see a man about my age at ease with cutting-edge technology, confidently making deals on the frontier of a new economy. However, I can’t help but wonder what is my own place is this brave new hi tech world. I am an aging would-be poet, most comfortable in my library reading Charles Dickens. I eye my computer warily even as I use it to keep my skill set relevant. Somehow, Terry’s soft-spoken demeanor reassures me that the next economic wave is nothing to fear.

But what about my town Skippack, a town which stubbornly holds on to its identity as a quaint collection of locally-owned shops and restaurants: It is no secret that many stores here struggle to survive. How should our village navigate the new economy?

Photo of Terry Williams

Terry Williams believes business is now all about building community, a valuable lesson for our beloved but sometimes struggling town.

Terry explains his perspective on the Skippack economy: Small business owners with shared interests are learning they are better off joining together and marketing their goods and services jointly to a much larger group of potential customers. He advises the business owners in Skippack to work together to get the word out about this quaint, historic Pennsylvania town.

Business today is all about identifying the characteristics of potential customers and using social media to build communities where potential customers can interact with service providers and each other. Social communities provide the foundation for sharing information and creating greater awareness of products and services.

Start low-tech and then go hi-tech: Put an easily-recognizable bowl in every shop and restaurant in Skippack to collect business cards, email addresses and cell phone numbers of visitors. Then combine all the email addresses and cell phone numbers into a single electronic list that will serve the entire Skippack business community. Using this list as a foundation, leverage the opportunities offered by text messaging and social media. Use technology to create a much larger community out of the people who come to this town to shop and dine and who appreciate its wonderful uniqueness.

Talking about social media with venture capitalist Terry Williams at the lush but cozy Brasserie 73 in Skippack, my friendly mom-and-pop town: It seems like the best of the old economy combined with the best of the new economy. There’s a mixed drink for you. Cheers.

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Categories: Business, People

Coming of Age in a Housing Crisis

August 31, 2010 13 comments

I thought my Skippack adventure began in January 2008 when I put a considerable portion of my and my wife’s life savings down for a house in Biltmore Estates, right in the heart of the village. But the real adventure didn’t begin until about 13 months later, in April 2009, when the builder of my swanky new Skippack home, TH Properties, declared bankruptcy.

For my neighbors and myself, the housing crisis was no longer a matter of editorials in the Wall Street Journal. We looked outside our windows and saw economic reality in the form of unfinished construction, abandoned equipment, overgrown weeds, debris, a closed sales office and unleveled plots of land.

Everything is a learning experience. Or at least this is what I tell my friend Bob Biddle. Bob and I share an unusual connection: While I was absorbing the shock of the TH Properties bankruptcy as a new homeowner, Bob was reeling from the same crisis from the opposite side of the settlement table: He was a senior finance associate for TH Properties. He, along with his partners, negotiated the deals and financial arrangements that held the company together, at least until April 2009.

My friend and TH Properties Finance Associate Bob Biddle at the Roadhouse Grille in Skippack.

My friend and TH Properties Finance Associate Bob Biddle at the Roadhouse Grille in Skippack.

Now Bob and I walk across the divide that separates company from consumer to share a beer at the Roadhouse Grille in Skippack. Once we are settled and served, I ask Bob to tell me about his career at TH Properties. He explains that he had been hired immediately after graduating from Penn State in 2004. His job: To help obtain the financing needed to build new housing developments. Back then, the housing market was still booming.

With his career on a steady curve, Bob married the woman he had dated since high school and looked forward to starting a family. The career curve, however, did not hold its smooth trajectory. TH Properties was hit hard by the rapid decline in the housing market: On April 20 2009, TH Properties closed its doors to business. On April 30, the company filed for bankruptcy.

Prospective homeowners lost deposits; vendors lost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Some people lashed out. The day after TH Properties announced they were closing their doors, a crowd of reporters and angry homebuyers gathered outside the company headquarters. Threats were made against the owners of the company, the remaining staff members and even their families. The windows of TH Properties office building had to be covered with paper to allow business, now in a crisis state, to continue. To avoid the mob, Bob had to enter and exit the office through the back door.

Rumors and accusations spread across the Internet like wildfire. Some got under Bob’s skin, especially claims that the company principals had engaged in criminal activity or stashed away money and other assets before declaring bankruptcy. He knew people had a right to be angry, but he was not prepared for the level of anger, even hatred, some people expressed. It was a bitter awakening; the end of his young executive innocence.

“What” I ask, “did you learn from the experience?”

Bob looks back at me directly, almost defiantly: “Other people’s opinions don’t matter. Only your own convictions matter,” he answers. For a moment, he seems like a different man, older and grimmer; but soon the familiar casual, cheerful attitude returns.

Bob tells me he did what most people do when an employer is in crisis; he prepared his resume. However, he continued to work for TH properties, putting in ten and twelve hour days taking the first steps to rebuild the company. One change in the terms of his employment: He was no longer getting paid. A month earlier, his wife had given birth to their first child. Daddy was now a volunteer finance associate.

Unlike many homebuilders who jump from a bankrupt project to the next opportunity, the owners of TH Properties wanted to return to business to make good on their commitments. They wanted to complete the housing development where I live, Biltmore Estates in Skippack Village.

For more than a year, TH Properties sought the legal permission and financing needed to return to complete Biltmore Estates as well as some other developments. For Bob, this meant an ongoing series of negotiations and court hearings involving banks, creditors, local governments and other parties affected by the bankruptcy. During this time, I became involved; I volunteered to do what is best described as public relations work on behalf of Biltmore Estates to counter the negative publicity our development had received in local newspapers as a result of the bankruptcy.

For the first time, I test outWriter standing on walking trail at Biltmore Estates, a development in Skippack coming back after bankruptcy.

For the first time, I test out our long-awaited walking trail at Biltmore Estates, a development in Skippack coming back after bankruptcy.

A few weeks ago Bob called me to tell me that TH Properties obtained the right to build again at Biltmore Estates and secured the needed financing. Now when I leave for work I see hopeful signs: trucks, workmen, equipment, gigantic metal drainage pipes, and freshly-leveled plots of ground, now clear of weeds and debris. A winding paved pathway behind my deck is the first indication of a walking trail promised long ago. I am looking forward to the full flowering of my community, Biltmore Estates.

As a homeowner here I never suffered the harsh effects of the past months felt by some people in my community. My wife and I had bought a beautiful, intact home. The homes that surrounded us were intact as well. Perhaps if I had lost my deposit or had to live in an unfinished house, I would be less eager to share a beer with Bob Biddle. A dark thought passes through me. If my circumstances or timing had been different, would I look at the engaging young man beside me at the bar with anger and bitterness?

I look up from my beer. Bob is telling me about how he had to go home and ask his wife for permission to work without pay. He says he will always be grateful for the support she gave him when he stayed with TH Properties. I think to myself, “at least let the harsh economic times we live in bring us together rather than tear us apart.”

Strange as it sounds, there is an aspect of living in an unfinished development that is pleasing to me. I walk outside and see unfinished buildings with Tyvek sheets rustling in the wind. It reminds me that we live in a world of risk: A person can do all the right things such as work hard, save for a down payment, and negotiate a good price, and the result is still not guaranteed. Nothing in our life is guaranteed. Likewise, things most precious to us, such as the people we love, are not promised to us forever and therefore should not be taken for granted. I thought it good to have a symbol reminding me of this truth each time I looked out my kitchen window,

What’s more, in our corporate, mass-marketed world rarely do we get to know the people who make the products we rely upon. I know nothing about the people who built the chair I sit in or the keyboard I type upon. Thanks however to the bankruptcy and subsequent events I got to know Bob and other men and women who built the house where I live. I saw them struggle with their circumstances and decisions, just as I have struggled with my own. My house now has a back-story. It has a soul: A soul in addition to all of the conveniences of a new construction property.

Bob asks me if I want another beer. Think about it: The housing market in the United States collapses and the country and much of the rest of the world goes into a deep recession. It reverberates here in Skippack; and it leads to me sharing a beer with Bob Biddle at the Roadhouse Grille. Yes, Bob, one more beer.

Writer explores metal drainage pipe at Biltmore Estates in Skippack, Pa.

Writer explores metal drainage cylinder at Biltmore Estates in Skippack, Pa.

My wife Debby strikes pose in metal cylinder, which will be used to rebuild our community

My wife Debby strikes pose in large metal cylinder to be used to rebuild our community

Categories: Business, People