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Your own brain trust Featured

9:44am EDT July 22, 2002

The core idea for ElderVision.Net gelled in Jeff Pepper’s imagination during the six years that his father was a resident at an adult care facility.

During those last years of his father’s life, Pepper realized that many of the residents were disengaged and isolated from the rest of the world, living passive lives in a nonstimulating environment.

“I said, ‘Gee, these are complete, functioning human beings with a whole lifetime of experience just sitting around and staring at TVs,’” Pepper says.

Those conditions weren’t limited to that particular facility. Even seniors who aren’t living in nursing homes can find themselves lonely and cut off from the outside world, friends and family.

Through that experience, he developed the vision for a business built around enriching the lives of senior citizens and reducing the isolation that they often experience. A solution, he surmised, might be an Internet community for seniors, but Pepper knew that there would be formidable barriers to making such a venture a success.

The current generation of senior citizens isn’t, by and large, computer savvy, so his product would have to allow them to overcome their resistance to new technology. He also acknowledged that while he had plenty of business experience as one of the founders of ServiceWare Inc., a successful software company based in Oakmont, he simply didn’t know enough about the target market to come up with the ultimate form of the product on his own.

“For me, ElderVision was somewhat of a stretch, because my experience was in the computer business, but in other market segments, basically enterprise software,” says Pepper.

Now, after a year and more than a dozen major and minor changes to the design of the product and nearly as many iterations of its business plan, ElderVision is close to offering its product to its target market. Pepper isn’t ready to release details, but says it will provide easy access to and navigation of the Internet, tearing down the barriers that seniors typically encounter.

So how did Pepper, with his limited geriatric market experience, get to the commercialization stage? Largely on the strength of advice and counsel from an advisory board put together by Pepper to help him refine his original concept into a viable commercial venture.

An advisory board, unlike a board of directors, doesn’t offer advice about running a business. It won’t suggest who a company should hire, how much to pay employees or advise on its financial model. Instead, members guide the company by offering advice in their areas of expertise that will help it to refine its product or service.

Compensation, composition and competencies

To compensate the advisory board, ElderVision is offering members (and those on its board of directors, as well as an elders advisory committee) stock options. Because early-stage start-ups are often tight on cash, offering stock options can be more practical, because they require no up-front payments to advisory board members.

Moreover, Pepper says, incentives motivate advisory board members to provide thoughtful and thorough advice.

Ilana Diamond, president of Sima Products Corp. and a member of the board of PowerLink, an organization that puts together advisory boards for women-owned businesses, says advisory board members should have points of view different from the entrepreneur.

“It’s always good to get people who think differently from you,” says Diamond.

In Pepper’s case, he approached Jules Rosen, a professor of psychiatry and an expert in the psychiatric aspects of aging, and found that Rosen was considerably less than enthusiastic about the idea.

“He told me right off that he thought it was a stupid idea,” Pepper says.

But after several discussions over about a month, Pepper’s vision for the company began to change, and Rosen gained a clearer understanding of what Pepper was attempting. Eventually, Rosen agreed to join the board.

Diamond says it’s important to have someone with experience in broad corporate responsibility on an advisory board, and suggests that a CEO should be included. She says PowerLink values a CEO’s input so much that it requires at least one chief executive to serve on each of its boards.

Both Pepper and Diamond suggest that entrepreneurs should reach outside their existing circle of contacts to identify potential advisers. They advise that entrepreneurs should look for individuals who can offer advice in areas in which they have little or no expertise.

Pepper sought to fill the gaps in his knowledge of the market by asking for referrals from friends and business associates and identifying individuals as he proceeded in the development of ElderVision. An attempt by Pepper to secure the trademark for the company’s name, for example, led to a telephone conversation with David Bianco, co-founder of Elderhostel, a large provider of continuing education to senior citizens.

As a result of that chance meeting, Bianco became a member of the advisory board.

Pepper rounded out ElderVision’s board with individuals who are experts in diverse areas. Peter Lucas is CEO of Maya Design Group, a product design and development consulting firm. Judy Comer is CEO of Sherwood Oaks, an adult care facility, and Joseph Garlington is a leading designer of interactive entertainment. Randy Pausch is an associate professor of computer science at CMU.

Finally, advisory boards are not places for shrinking violets who are afraid to express opinions, says Diamond, a veteran of several such boards. PowerLink board members challenge entrepreneurs, sometimes bringing the relationship to a near-adversarial one.

Yet, she adds, business owners typically find that the tough questions help them come up with better answers for their businesses.

Says Diamond: “You want people to stand up to you and say what they believe.”

How to reach: Contact ElderVision.Net, www.eldervision.net or (412) 826-8460; Sima Products, www.simaproducts.com

Ray Marano (rmarano@sbnnet.com) is associate editor at SBN.