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The Greatest Pitch aims to create 'Shark Tank'-like web show, with an already-controversial assist from entrepreneur fees

Posted by Scott Kirsner  March 18, 2013 08:54 AM

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Cape Cod entrepreneur Jonah Lupton launched his new website early Saturday morning, The Greatest Pitch, touting a new online video show that would put entrepreneurs in front of an investor panel, similar to ABC's reality show "Shark Tank." The Greatest Pitch site promises "an incredible opportunity for entrepreneurs to pitch in front of professional Investor Panels consisting of top Angel Investors and Venture Capitalists with a chance to secure the funding needed to take their company to the next level." For a small $30 application fee, entrepreneurs could submit their ideas for consideration.

Almost immediately, the sniping on Twitter started.

Why was Lupton, a self-described serial entrepreneur, charging entrepreneurs $30 for the mere chance to present their ideas to a panel of as-yet-unnamed investors?

To quote Phil Beauregard, a Boston entrepreneur who co-founded the restaurant software startup Objective Logistics, "Are you really charging people to pitch 'top angels and VCs?' What's up with that?" (Lupton hasn't yet answered.)

As it happens, I had lunch with Lupton last month, and one of the things we discussed was the Greatest Pitch, the latest in a string of a startups he has created. Lupton is a former wealth manager for Cambridge Appleton Trust who left in 2011. He told me he's hoping to create a web video show with "bigger ideas" of "higher quality" than you see on "Shark Tank." Entrepreneurs all over the world will apply, and Lupton's show will be filmed in locations where he finds the highest concentration of interesting ideas. "We will go to new cities every three to four weeks," he says. He plans to put together a 10 to 12-person investor panel of "professional investors that are going to add value." Lupton says that watching the show online will either require a paid subscription, or will be underwritten by sponsors.

But Lupton is charging $30 for any entrepreneurs who'd like to be considered for his show (something that "Shark Tank" doesn't do, I'd point out). He says it is both to "weed out some of the crazy ideas" and "to help pay for some of the production costs." He says his hope is that the application fees from entrepreneurs will cover half of the cost of producing the show, and Lupton would cover the rest. (He estimates it will cost $100,000 to shoot in each different city.) As for getting people to shell out money to watch a web series, Lupton says, "I'm hoping I can crack that model."

After the site's launch over the weekend, and some of the questions about his plan started surfacing on Twitter, I called Lupton to check in. He said that he hoped to start producing the show in May, but that he couldn't share the names of any investors who will be listening to pitches — and potentially investing — yet. Interested investors "can apply on the website," he said. Lupton added that he was also talking to investors about putting together a $5 million "angel fund" that would either invest in every company that presented, or would invest whenever a panelist decided to put money into a company. He also said he was "talking to a couple TV networks this week" about The Greatest Pitch.

Lupton also explained in e-mails that he hasn't previously raised angel money or venture capital for any of the startups he has founded; all have been boot-strapped. His own investing track record, he wrote, consists of investing in several friends' startups through an entity called Parabolic Ventures, which he says is not a traditional venture capital or seed-funding firm. As for his Twitter following that is more than 500,000 strong (I'm jealous), Lupton says he spends about 45 minutes a day following about 1,000 new people on Twitter, hoping that most of them will follow him back.

But charging entrepreneurs to get in front of investors is something that raises peoples' hackles. "If it's such a good deal, I should be paying [to look at it], not the entrepreneur," says prolific angel investor John Landry.

Jason Calacanis, perhaps the highest-profile crusader against charging for access to investors, calls the practice "predatory," and says via e-mail that "no real angel or investor would knowingly participate."

Lupton says that he was "obviously expecting some skepticism," but that most of his advisors had told him that the application fee would help screen out inventors with perpetual motion machines and patent medicines, and that entrepreneurs would not only be getting face time with investors, but also exposure to the show's online audience. One of his advisors, Elise Moussa, the founder of an online education startup called BE, told me that she'd paid a $100 application fee to be considered as a prospective presenter to the angel investing group Golden Seeds. She wrote via e-mail, "I do find when I pay, even if $50 or less, my application is read and I get a reply. Unlike applying to [the accelerator program] Tech Stars [which doesn't charge a fee, where] I didn't even get a reply."

I acknowledge that $30 is not a lot of money, and that Lupton is far from the only person asking entrepreneurs to pay to get in front of potential investors. But I do wonder about the strategy of asking entrepreneurs to foot part of the bill of launching a new site/show that will give some small percentage of them face-time in front of this still somewhat vague group of investors. People may pay $30 to enter a weekend road race, but they understand what the potential upside is: prize money, or perhaps a medal. With the Greatest Pitch, the upside is still pretty hazy.

What do you think?

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Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched Boston.com in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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