Anyone who has ever tried to raise $50,000 to $300,000 of equity knows how frustrating the process can be. The money involved is generally more than your Aunt Millie can put up, but less than most venture capitalists are willing to consider investing. As a result, most companies have to raise it by playing catch-as-catch-can. That process has lately become a little less random, however, thanks largely to the experience of Venture Capital Network Inc., in Durham, N.H.

When we first wrote about VCN (August 1984, page 119), it was little more than a gleam in the eye of William E. Wetzel Jr., a professor of finance at the University of New Hampshire. Wetzel's plan was to set up a kind of electronic "dating" service for entrepreneurs and investors -- matching people who needed modest amounts of capital with those who had it.

Over the past 18 months, he and his associates have been doing just that. During 1985, some 133 entrepreneurs and 300 investors were listed in the VCN computer. Given the nature of the business, Wetzel has no way of measuring precisely how many matches resulted: discussions between investors and business owners are, by design, kept private. But, he says, he knows of at least five ventures that were funded in 1985, and another nine that were "in the heat of negotiations" late last year. That record is good enough for VCN to have started collecting listing fees from both entrepreneurs ($100 every six months) and investors ($200 per year). In addition, VCN's marketing expenses are being subsidized by several sponsors, including Shawmut Bank of Boston and the accounting firms of Peat, Marwick, Mitchell; Deloitte Haskins & Sells; and Price Waterhouse.

Meanwhile, others have begun to adopt VCN's approach. Deloitte, for one, recently launched something called The Capital Connection, a proprietary database linking the firm's 18 domestic and two overseas offices. Like VCN, Deloitte will use its database to match potential investors with companies in need of capital.

What's more, other local networks have been springing up around the country -- in Tulsa, St. Louis, Atlanta, Indianapolis, Cleveland, and upstate New York. "Our next step," says Wetzel, "is to create an umbrella network so we can tie all these regional things together."