Evan Sheftel needed money. His startup, eAssay.com, a New York-based firm that buys necklaces, rings and other jewelry and sells the scrap metal for a modest profit, was handling between $100,000 and $150,000 in volume a week earlier this year. With a little extra cash, he figured, the business could be doing a lot more. But when it came time to raise capital, Sheftel didn't tap into the friends-and-family network or visit his local banker, who has had to crack down on due diligence after Wall Street caused a credit crunch on Main Street. Instead, Sheftel, 38, went online to find his match. "We went the traditional routes of banks and friends and families, and when we maxed out what we could get -- even with great credit and great relationships -- we had to start thinking more creatively," says Sheftel. Like Sheftel, more entrepreneurs are seeking alternative ways to fund their ventures as local banks tighten their lending practices and individuals tighten their purse strings. To meet that rising demand, Web sites like FundingUniverse, Go BIG Network and RaiseCapital.com are stepping in to play matchmaker for investors and the entrepreneurs who vie for their funding. Sheftel found what he was looking for at RaiseCapital.com, where he hooked up with Jay Turo, CEO of Los Angeles-based investment firm Growthink. Neither Sheftel nor Turo would disclose the amount eAssay.com received in July from Growthink, but Sheftel says the infusion was critical for the fledgling company. "We were maxing out at $150,000, and I was able to double that amount," he says. Sites like RaiseCapital.com offer entrepreneurs a way to make a virtual elevator pitch to a wide swath of potential investors. RaiseCapital.com CEO Rick Singer says the site has more than 4,300 registered investors who evaluate opportunities ranging from a biodiesel company in Snowflake, Ariz. (looking for up to $10,000 in capital) to a startup online poker site in Rhode Island (seeking as much as $1 million). Singer says sites like his help level the playing field for the smaller investors who can't get past the gatekeepers at big venture capital firms.
"The Sequoia Capitals of the world aren't looking at John Doe, who wants to build a small golf resort on the outskirts of Kentucky," he says. The challenge for entrepreneurs, however, is to not get lost in the shuffle. RaiseCapital.com recently listed nearly 3,700 investment opportunities, while FundingUniverse boasts more than 6,000 business plans for potential investors to review. The key, says Singer, is to take the process seriously. Typo-riddled company descriptions, for example, will quickly get passed over by investors in search of the next big hit. But even with a solid plan and a slick presentation, there's no guarantee that investors will bite. "You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink," says Singer, who adds that "there are more great ideas out there than dollars." Still, deals do get made. Turo regularly trolls the offerings on RaiseCapital.com (his firm is a sponsor of the site), FundingUniverse and Go BIG Network, and has made a "handful" of recent investments in companies he dug up on those sites. He says Growthink has funded ventures including a watch-repair company, a health-care IT company and a medical-device maker, offering funding of less than $500,000 in each deal. In these Web sites, Turo sees big upside for both parties in the fund-raising relationship. "If you look at the power of making connections over the Internet, this is a natural kind of endgame," he says. "It takes the very byzantine, inefficient process of fund-raising and brings some efficiencies to it. Buyers and sellers come together in a frictionless environment."
In the end, Sheftel of eAssay.com got the funding he needed. That his deal with Growthink was a new twist on the traditional fund-raising process didn't matter. In fact, Sheftel says the migration of fund-raising to the Web felt like a natural process. "I guess I'm a success story, so to speak," he says.