Alicia DiRago paced backstage at the House of Blues on Wednesday morning as if she were about to perform on the balance beam.
The 32-year-old former gymnast and chemical engineer crossed one arm over her chest and pressed it back with the other for a shoulder stretch. She pulled her leg up and reached for her toes, stretching her hamstring. She even did a handstand. Anything to shake her nerves as she waited and then waited some more.
When the time came, she stepped onto the venue's blue back-lit stage, stood still on her mark — a tiny, orange 'x' taped to the floor — and flawlessly pitched her online startup, Whimseybox.com, to an audience of potential investors at the incubator Excelerate Labs' third annual Demo Day.
"It's actually kind of a lot like (competing in gymnastics)," DiRago said after walking off the stage and hugging her chief technical officer, Patrick Navarro; her mentor and former Threadless executive Cam Balzer; and Excelerate Labs co-founder Sam Yagan. "I was thinking when (venture capitalist) Brad (Feld) was talking too long, sometimes this thing would happen in gymnastics when judges would have to debate the scores between themselves. And it would just be taking forever. You're all psyched up. And then you're like, 'Can I go? Can I go?'"
All 10 entrepreneurs looked polished in their presentations. In DiRago's case, that masked the fact she had performed a minimum of 50 run-throughs and two dress rehearsals, sans note cards, prior to her final stage performance.
A 2002 Northwestern University graduate, the Houston resident has been living with relatives in Lake View during Excelerate's three-month boot camp. DiRago tiptoed out of their first floor condo before dawn Wednesday.
When she arrived at the House of Blues about 6:15 a.m., the doors were still locked. Sitting on a bench outside, she turned down half a banana, saying her stomach would go "grrrr." And she didn't eat more than a few nibbles of fruit all morning.
"Even Joe, my husband, was 'Don't have too much caffeine.' I was like, 'Look, it's tiny.'" She pulled out a mini-Diet Coke can from her purse while sitting on a stool in the freezing cold theater and cracked it open. She wore yellow pants to match the predominant color in her 10-minute slide presentation and a ball-chain necklace she had made — the instructions for which are on Whimseybox.
DiRago moved to Houston for her husband's job as a lawyer. She fully expected to work as a chemical engineer in Texas but instead started a blog on do-it-yourself fashion. The blog, DismountCreative.com, developed a following and late one night in October 2011 she had the idea to start an Internet company centered around DIY crafts.
She said she pitched it to her husband while he was taking a shower the next morning. The idea has since evolved into an online variation of a Michael's craft store — version 3.0. The company, which has two full-time employees, ships a selection of craft products to customers every month for $25. It hopes to soon add e-commerce, an Amazon for all things craft. (Believe it or not, you can't buy things at Michaels.com.)
She's seeking to raise $900,000 for the venture.
"There's a reason she's going first," said Tony Wilkins, Excelerate's executive in residence. "There's a method to the madness. She's fearless."
Once the first five presenters concluded, the event broke for a boxed lunch. DiRago wasn't swarmed but two angel investors approached her with questions, and a venture capitalist from Omaha, Neb., ran into her husband before the event and had already emailed DiRago before they met and exchanged business cards.
"I've needed business cards on this day probably more than any other day in my life," she said.