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Business

Online social networking spills over into real word

A few weeks ago, McKeever Conwell joined the Baltimore Tech Facebook group, which has more than 600 online members. There, the 25-year-old computer engineer proposed an idea: How about getting a small group together to practice business pitches?

He offered to hold the event in his living room. What happened next stunned Conwell.

People he didn't know embraced his idea and moved it forward. One man offered free office space and a catered lunch at his accounting services company; others pulled in experienced advisers to give the entrepreneurs feedback. The "Practice Your Pitch" event filled up with about 20 people, including earnest entrepreneurs and seasoned advisers willing to give advice.

"I was completely shocked," said Conwell, who personally knew only one person in the group. "It just took on a life of its own. It's pretty amazing to me."

Call it Event Organizing 2.0. The region's technology community has wholeheartedly embraced online social media to stay connected with each other, to promote their projects and — with increasing speed — to organize real-world events.

Just a few years ago, tech-related events were largely fueled by keystone organizations such as the Greater Baltimore Tech Council, a member association of hundreds of technology companies, or the Emerging Technology Center, a business incubator in Canton.

Now, those organizations are just as likely to have representatives in the audience of independently organized events. At the Practice Your Pitch event on Monday, representatives from the ETC and TEDCO, the quasi-state agency for developing technology businesses, were giving feedback to the presenters.

Online social networking has changed the equation — people are forging ahead and organizing their own events. People are mining their networks on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn to find others with similar professional interests.

"It is incredibly organic now," said Monica Beeman, an entrepreneur who used to organize business pitch events and who gave feedback to other entrepreneurs at the Practice Your Pitch event. "Everything starts with an idea, and it's getting very easy in part because everyone has become connected."

Meetup.com is used by local mobile developers to gather monthly to discuss trends in the smartphone application industry. It has more than 240 members, and it's not directly affiliated with any traditional association or trade group.

"Membership organizations have been struggling to stay relevant," concedes Jason Hardebeck, recently appointed head of the GBTC. He said his association sees its role as an enabler of events and networking opportunities, and not necessarily the prime mover in many cases.

The assocation still organizes events, but it's also willing to lend its expertise and resources to other organizations and motivated people who want to bring something to life, Hardebeck said.

Case in point: The GBTC is organizing a gathering called, tongue-in-cheek, "Evil Plans." It's a way for individuals in the tech community to compare notes on the events that they're all organizing.

"The way I see the GBTC is as connective tissue," Hardebeck said.

Nowadays in Baltimore, it seems equally likely that a motivated group of independent individuals can organize a breakfast panel or conference as any traditional membership organization.

Ron Schmelzer, an entrepreneur and transplant from Boston, was trying to make more connections in Baltimore and decided to organize a monthly breakfast meeting that featured some guest speakers and people making their startup business pitches.

The first breakfast meetup happened in June and had six people, at a conference room at the ETC. The ninth meeting was held this month and was attended by 87 people at a bigger venue: a meeting area at Advertising.com in Locust Point. The group grew out of the space at the ETC; Advertising.com's room can hold about 200 people, he said.

Schmelzer, who still mentors entrepreneurs in Boston, has gotten to know a lot of names and faces in Baltimore through these "Tech Breakfasts," as they're called.

"There's clearly a hunger for this kind of thing," he said. "I'm just curious to see how much the community can sustain this thing. We're still reaching people who don't know about it."

Schmelzer's "Tech Breakfast" follows in the footsteps of "Startup Breakfast," a monthly event that was organized for a while by Mike Brenner, a Web designer and tech community advocate.

Schmelzer attended Conwell's "Practice Your Pitch" event, which was held at Naden/Lean, an accounting firm in Cockeysville, on Monday. He was offering his advice as a veteran entrepreneur, but he was also pitching his business, Bizelo, which sells hundreds of Web-based business software applications for a monthly fee.

"From a technical perspective, we're building services that can be combined in a thousand different ways," Schmelzer told the group.

When he was done, Schmelzer was peppered with questions and comments. How would you handle software updates with so many different applications? What's your best-selling application so far? Are you pricing and bundling the software into packages?

Schmelzer gamely fielded them all.

Earlier in the day, Conwell had pitched his business idea: NoBadGift.com. The website allows people to share their preferred gift ideas with friends and family, so that people get the gift they want. It also allows multiple people to contribute small amounts to a big-ticket item, to help buy the gift as a group for the recipient.

After Conwell was done with his pitch, the group pointed out some areas where he could improve his presentation.

"Get to the pitch — don't make me wait," said Neil R. Davis, vice president of operations at the ETC. "Try to get the audience on the hook as soon as possible."

Between presentations, Davis said in an interview that the role of the ETC has changed for the better, as more people organize the events they want to participate in.

"We don't have to sit around and try to think what would be of interest — they're telling us," Davis said. "Frankly, I never thought a pitch event would've gotten this much attention."

gus.sentementes@baltsun.com

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