With VCs Ready to Hold Office Hours For Entrepreneurs, Venture Café Gets a Test Drive

For most entrepreneurs, a beta stage or beta product is a crucial way to flesh out new ideas, and find out what works and what doesn’t for their business. And it’s no different for a new endeavor meant to create community and dialog between entrepreneurs and investors in the Boston area.

That endeavor would be The Venture Café, a planned Kendall Square restaurant centered on fostering innovation and connecting members of the startup community with each other and potential investors. The restaurant is in its planning stages, and is supported by Cambridge Innovation Center founder and CEO Tim Rowe, a host of leading area investors and entrepreneurs, and (in the interest of full disclosure) members of the Xconomy team.

The café’s beta phase will start this Thursday and run for 12 weeks. The New England Venture Capital Association is sponsoring office-hour sessions at the Cambridge Innovation Center for entrepreneurs seeking advice and perspective from investors. Flybridge Capital Partners, Charles River Ventures, Bain Capital Ventures, and Polaris Venture Partners are some of the firms that will be sending representatives. Highland Capital Partners ran a preview version of these hours last week, the day the Cambridge Innovation Center officially broke ground on its expanded space.

“It’s a good way to engage with the community, not through the traditional method of networking and one-on-one introductions,” says Nancy Saucier, executive director of the New England Venture Capital Association. “We need to support the innovation ecosystem in a much more open fashion.”

The environment surrounding the office hours will help preview what Venture Café creators hope will be part of the atmosphere of the actual restaurant, which they are currently looking for the real estate to house. “We can’t do a lot until we have a space,” says MIT graduate student Carrie Stalder, who serves as the Venture Café’s manager. “Now we have a space, even if it’s only a temporary one.”

Entrepreneurs rarely have the opportunity to meet with investors before they actually pitch their businesses to them, a pitfall both the CIC office hours and the Venture Café seek to fix, Saucier says. Those interested in the venture capital office hours can sign up online, for half-hour slots that run between 2 pm and 5 pm on Thursdays through May 20. The Venture Café creators are encouraging members of the startup community to arrive early and stay after their office hour sessions to socialize and mingle in the surrounding café area at the CIC, to get a sense of what the actual Venture Café could look like once it’s operational.

The Venture Café beta will also be experimenting with technology to enhance the dialogue between the people who show up, Stalder says. One idea is setting up a website where café goers can exchange their contact information online instead of using actual business cards. She’s also hoping to create an automatic detection feature, where the website can tell when members have showed up at the café, via their mobile devices. Technology that works well will be used in the final version of The Venture Café.

“We’re trying things and seeing what sticks. It’s a reason to come back week after week,” Stalder says of the beta phase.

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