A Born Dealmaker: Interview with Debbie Landa, Founder and CEO of DealMaker Media

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By Heidi Isern (Contributing Writer, Women 2.0) Some women start companies. Other women run corporations. And then there are women like Debbie Landa, founder of Dealmaker Media who bring them together.

Eager to learn more about the high tech yenta, I met Debbie in her headquarters in the industrial SOMA neighborhood of San Francisco. The Dealmaker Media space resembled a swanky boutique hotel lobby much more than a corporate office.

“It’s great, isn’t it?” she asked, welcoming me inside.

We sat down to chat at a long table placed somewhere between a cozy fireplace and a large whiteboard filled with lists of compelling companies. Creating the list was just the beginning. Building their business is what Dealmaker Media thrives on. In addition to small strategy events, the company holds two large business development events a year called Under The Radar (UTR) where rock star start-ups are connected with large corporations.

“We aren’t like TechCrunch Disrupt or DEMO or Launch,” said Debbie. “Those are fundraising events for emerging startups that need seed funding. UTR is focused on prefunded, proven startups that are more grown up and need customers and distribution partners. Instead of just pitching to investors they are pitching to partners!”

A Born Dealmaker

Before starting Dealmaker, Debbie spent 10 years in the apparel industry finding clothing manufacturers for large companies like Macy’s and Nordstrom’s to create their private label fashions.

At the height of the dot.com bubble in 1999, Debbie decided to switch industries and make deals in technology. She landed a role in business development in Silicon Valley. “Although it wasn’t really business development,” said Debbie. “It was just a lot of parties without much substance.”

Seven months into the job, Debbie realized that she working for a firm that was flirting with bankruptcy.

“I saw the financials and was shocked. I asked the CEO why they were expanding while blowing money so quickly.” She looked at me and smiled.

“Guess what he told me? He said, ‘If you want to run a company so badly then why don’t you start your own?‘”

Debbie laughed. “Now that was a great idea! So that’s exactly what I did! I knew if I got the right people in the right room, other people would show up to events and I could make things happen.”

Debbie created Dealmaker Media in 2000. Her first event featured a speaker from PayPal and sold out with over 100 people. I asked her how she marketed it.

“Oh, I listed it on Craigslist! That was all we had back then!” Dealmaker had Craigslist plus Debbie’s expanding Rolodex.

At her first event Debbie told me that people asked her how long Dealmaker had been around.

“I told them, ‘Uh, yeah it’s been around a while, but I don’t really know. I just started working here.’ You see, I wanted them to think it was really big!”

Think Big to Get Big

To create valuable deals the team at Dealmaker Media must be the first to know about emerging trends, companies, and technologies. Debbie grew her company by building events around topics that she wanted to learn herself.

“We need to tell the story that was on everyone’s mind,” she said. Through research and relationships, Debbie’s team strives to have an intimate pulse on the industry.

Debbie continued, “After we figure out the story, we then create our point of view on where the market is headed. Lastly we hunt down companies that are disrupting and redefining as well as the partners they need….or who need them.”

Debbie told me that only 10% of her UTR companies come to her. Her teams scans the globe to find the other 90% . “You see,” she said, “They are under the radar!”

To explain her process, Debbie gave me an example of one of her UTR companies, Stitch Labs. Stitch is an integrative online tool that allows small consumer goods companies to manage their inventory, invoices, and orders. Stitch’s user base is highly fragmented, making marketing and sales efforts challenging.

“However,” Debbie said, “if they can partner with Etsy or American Express with a database of small business owners, then they’ll be able to expand, much more quickly.” I looked up at the whiteboard and noticed that American Express was listed as a judge for UTR, right under Stitch Labs.

A Piece of Cake?

Just as I thought Debbie’s professional life couldn’t get much better, someone from business development at Alcatel-Lucent rang the doorbell and delivered two chocolate cakes. “It’s an inside joke,” Debbie explained. After taking a bite, everyone at the table was sweetened to start discussing company match making.

“Does anyone know of a company who is doing cool stuff in customer relationship management?” Debbie asked. “Ahh…yes I know this one in Israel…” A mad Google search ensued to research the proposed company.

Dealmaker Media seemed to be the Mecca in startup SOMA. Chocolate and companies were literally delivered at the doorstep. Could Debbie have her cake and eat it too? I asked her what her biggest challenge was.

“It’s hiring. People don’t go to school for this,” she said. After all, deal making isn’t a skill. It’s a personality. For Debbie, it’s also a way of life.

Dealmaker Media’s next Under The Radar conference is being held on Nov 9-10 in Mountain View, CA.

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Photo credit: Brian Solis About the guest blogger: Heidi Isern is a writer, strategist and entrepreneur who is based in San Francisco, California. She is the founder of Chameleon Endeavors, a boutique consulting firm that helps both start-ups and Fortune 500 companies grow their brands. In addition to working with Women 2.0, she also sits on the advisory board of the Fearless Women’s Entrepreneur Network and is a regular contributor to blogs and online publications that serve women’s audiences. Follow her on Twitter at @hisern.