By David Markiewicz
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Tarby Bryant smiles as he describes his job.
“I am,” he says, “a matchmaker.”
A couple of times a month, Bryant puts a few dozen “angels” — accredited investors interested in early stage companies — together in a room at the Ravinia Club in Dunwoody with four or five entrepreneurs from all over the country who are looking for money to grow their firms.
Each entrepreneur makes a 20-minute pitch, fields a few questions, then, it’s hoped, gets to sit down with at least one of those investors over dinner or drinks, a process that may lead to a deal. That is, they get a check to fund the next stage of the company’s operations.
The event is called the Gathering of Angels, founded by Bryant and conducted by his Sweetwater Capital Corp.
On a recent evening, presenters included a gelato maker, a tea company, a video game business, and an oil and gas concern.
Each paid Bryant a $2,500 fee — the investors, most of whom are from Atlanta, don’t pay anything — for the chance to pitch.
Last year, eight companies obtained financing through the event, with investments ranging from $22,000 to $2.2 million, Bryant said. Eight more have secured funding this year.
The Atlanta Gathering has taken Bryant, 68, back to his roots. A North Carolina native, he moved to Atlanta at age 5 and lived here until 1991, when he left for New Mexico, where he still lives. He flies back to Atlanta to host Gathering events.
In Atlanta, Bryant served under then-Mayor Andrew Young at the Atlanta Economic Development Corp., ran the family company (the National Automobile Association) and worked in real estate development.
He founded the Gathering of Angels in Santa Fe and held meetings there, then expanded to other cities until the economy turned down. Now, Atlanta is his sole focus. Over the years, his group has helped find funding for 375 companies, he said.
He recently talked about the group:
Q: What is the Gathering’s role in helping entrepreneurs?
A: We’re not the only angel group. But this is an organized process. And an entrepreneur always needs money. I’m early in the process, after friends and family, before venture capital and before an investment banker.
Q: What kind of companies are you looking for to present?
A: I try to get companies I think are investable, that would be of interest to the [investors] I put in the room. They want something that is unique and different. They want something that has a high margin. They want someone, an entrepreneur, who’s done it before.
Q: Are the investors sincere about taking a chance on these companies?
A: This is serious business. They fill out forms for me when they check in, certifying they are an accredited investor, and do a personal profile on themselves and their investment history. At some point, I take them off the invitation list if they don’t write checks. I try to purify the crowd.
Q: You’ve had some success, but most presentations don’t lead to funding?
A: Financing occurs about one out of every eight presenters. So, it’s not everybody. Sometimes the dogs don’t like the dog food.
Q: This is a money-making venture, but there’s a service component, too?
A: I’m trying in my little way to not only get funding but to create the jobs that some people in Washington don’t know how to do. We are funding those startup businesses with capital that they can use to hire people and get the economy back rolling again.
Q: Why did you stop operating in New Mexico to focus on Atlanta?
A: For 14 years, Santa Fe was my place where the money came from. When the recession hit in 2007, 2008 and 2009, my guys there stopped writing checks. Their portfolios were down, their confidence level was shaken. So about a year and half ago, I stopped doing them in Santa Fe. I said, “Well, two meetings a month works for me in Atlanta.” I’m comfortable coming back here. I know my crowd’s going to be good.
Q: You coach the presenters so they’re ready when they hit the stage. What are they facing?
A: They get 20 minutes, then it’s time for the Q & A. They’ve got to convince the audience that they’re trustworthy, that they have a good service or product, a good financial model, and a good management team, and that there’s going to be a good exit strategy for the investor in one to three or four years with a substantial [return on his investment]. It’s tough to compress all that stuff into that time. But that’s why I spend time with them.
The practice sessions are critical to this process. They’re mandatory. It’s getting them prepared to meet someone who can write a check to them.