Why I’m Happy That I Did Not Go to the JPMorgan Conference (Or, You Can Go Back to College)
By Michael Barbouche
Now in the sixth year of my entrepreneurial journey with Forward Health Group, one thing is abundantly clear—I don’t watch TV. No, really. I know nothing. “Breaking Bad?” That’s my email inbox. Many things in my world come down to the wire, but not “The Wire” . About the only thing I do try and sneak into the mix is college football.  Fall Saturdays are my day. Social media? The only social texting in my life involves my beloved Badgers and occasional jabs at impostors. 
Now that the college season has ended, I will miss many things:
- The University of Wisconsin Marching Band, the best college band, ever, in Intergalactic  History.
- SEC-on-SEC cannibalization.
- The games that immediately follow Notre Dame’s annual 7-0 start.
- Dish Network’s kangaroo-imbued commercial (you know, the one with Heath Shuler, the pretty boy from USC, and The Boz!)
I was reminded of Dish’s fluffy kangaroo as I read Marty Felsenthal’s very entertaining (and accurate) post last week. Having attended JPM last year, let me be the first to share the secret with my struggling peers. Yes, you can go back to college! JPM is nothing more than a return to your freshman year—cluelessness, social awkwardness, and the occasional spilled beverage.
The first thing you need to know is that the JPMorgan folks must be pretty powerful because even the Google can’t point you to the conference registration page. Try a search right now. Here’s what no one tells you—JPMorgan is like that blowout fraternity party you didn’t attend during your first week on campus. If you don’t have an invite, well, sorry, you’re not going to the actual party.
And, as a matter of record, freshmen just don’t get invited. Those are the Rules. I spent three days hoofing up and down the hills of San Francisco and never once saw your typical conference nametag. No lanyards were spotted. I would ask people, “Hey, where is the conference — you know, the actual JPMorgan event?” None of the folks I met could give me the answer.
Cunningly, JPM is setup just like your college class schedule. But for the first couple of days, you are the only person that doesn’t know how it works. Soon, however, you begin to understand the cryptic system. Meetings are scheduled on the hour, every hour. The meetings really can’t last more than 40 minutes because you need to sprint to your next meeting. Invariably, you are late to every meeting, and as you the entrepreneur stare at the clock, the fear of outright missing the next appointment overcomes your consciousness. Like the phantom fear of missing a final exam, you begin to sweat for no good reason.
Imagine a square drawn around Union Square—four blocks by four blocks. Think of this as a human dog park. There are people running all over the place with no particular destination in mind (how else to describe the same people running the opposite direction four minutes later?)  The entire reason you are in San Francisco is to engage in brief, repeated sniffing sessions. After your fifth pitch session (of the day), you begin to figure out a few of the signals.  By Day Two, you have the routine down:
Savvy Investor (in his 43rd pitch meeting of the week): “What were your revenues last year?”
Struggling Entrepreneur: “We had a pretty good year. We did [$x]! We are really excited about this year—we think we can do [$4x], which is really great.”
Savvy Investor: “That is great. Wow. I must say, however, that our minimum investment for this fund is [$15x]. We have invested in companies as low as [$10x], but that’s atypical.”
[two minutes of awkward stumbling and rambling comments by Struggling Entrepreneur …]
Savvy Investor: “We definitely want to stay in contact with you to monitor your progress. Is it OK if we follow up with you later in the spring to see how you’re doing?”
Struggling Entrepreneur: “Sure. And thanks for the bottle of water.”
Occasional Spilled Beverage
On that Tuesday morning of JPM week, you are filled with excitement. The reason you are in San Francisco in the first place is because all of the analysts  at VC firms use the exact same Salesforce install with the exact same auto-email template. Beginning in late November, the auto-email template updates to include this sentence:
“Also, wanted to set a time to meet with you at JPM.” 
As you scan your full roster for the day, you see that the first discussion lists “2317 HYATT” as the meeting location. You are six blocks away from Union Square and you realize that there is a plurality of hotels named “HYATT” in San Francisco-proper.  When you get to the correct Hyatt, your native instinct is to look for the conference rooms. Oddly, when you get off the escalator, the conference rooms are named after landmarks — no numbers. A few minutes of elevated heart rate leads to a discovery—23rd floor! You get off on the 23rd floor, and, again, look for conference rooms. No such luck. You walk down the corridor of hotel rooms. Whoa, room 2317. Could it be? Seriously? You knock. The door opens. There are numerous men dressed  in those flat-front, skinny lapel suits that only the “I’m training for an Iron Man right now but I’m doing a half in April” triathlete crowd wears. This is your meeting location.
Think of the scene in the hotel room like the pre-party before the house party hosted by the older brother of your new college roommate’s friend’s cousin. You “know” only one person in the room—the analyst guy who emailed you to setup the meeting. There are not enough chairs. The bed has been moved into the corner to serve as a sectional sofa. The coffee table is in the corner serving as a buffet table /business card holder  / collection point for half-emptied water bottles. There are more butts than there are flat surfaces. Someone will be standing the entire meeting.
The hotel room door opens often as new people in skinny suits enter the room and current participants exit gracefully. That is, until one of the bed-sitters has to be excused for another meeting. This is what triggers the coffee or juice or soda spill. Thankfully, the beverage vessel is usually half-empty  and your analyst friend quickly jumps in with a bathroom towel to avoid a dry cleaning situation.
Though I did not attend JPM this year, I have few regrets . If you are an entrepreneur and you are contemplating JPM in 2016, make your hotel reservations  soon. Your email invitation from that analyst is already in the queue.
Michael Barbouche  is founder and CEO of Madison-based Forward Health Group. At the 2014 JPM, Michael had dinner with Marty Felsenthal in the Wednesday evening 7:00 PM-8:00 PM slot.
 Note for Millenials–this is a reference to an HBO program that has not aired in years. You should be able to stream from your parent’s HBOGO account.
 True confession—I TiVo “College Gameday” to watch Lee Corso put on the headgear.
 Yeah, I’m talking to you, Goldy Goopher fans.
 Unclear if Epic has exclusive use of this term in the health IT space, so thought it was prudent to footnote. Further research needed on specific citation required.
 See below for explanation.
 The people who email incessantly to set up a call to pump information out of you.
 If you want to spend $145, you can verify with your lawyer—this simple inquiry is not the legal equivalent to a court-issued summons.
 During JPM, it is not uncommon to hear numerous exclamations that contain the phrase, “F*#@%ing Google Maps!”
 Ties are strictly prohibited. Obviously.
 At one of my meetings in 2014, there were business cards (face up) from two of my direct competitors.
 For the record, I view the vessels as half-full.
 I’m overdue in connecting with Ben Rooks and Michelle. Guys, we should chat soon!
 When I was in college, adding footnotes to your paper was complete pain in the ass. Now, it is so simple.