About 100 investors, founders and startup folk–including the guy siting next to Betabeat whose nametag read “SocialNetwork.com”–gathered last night in Microsoft’s sixth floor office, just a few doors down from Radio City Music Hall, for the ceremonious-sounding Ultra Light Startups Feedback Forum and Pitch Showdown. The room was like most that host these things: projector, rows of plastic chairs, podiums. Microsoft does not try to be edgy with the decor.
But there was pizza, there was pop, and there was networking. “I hear a lot of networking going on in the back. Now is the time to stop networking,” master of ceremonies David Carlos admonished the murmuring crowd when it was time to resume after a break. “There are like, 50 people back there networking.”
Startups which are Ultra Light have a few things in common. They can, and must, explain themselves in two minutes. They should be maniacs for bootstrapping. And they must be ready to take flak from an esteemed panel of judges, which in this case included First Round Capital’s Phineas Barnes, who was voted best panelist for his thoughtful answers, instant grasp of concepts, and motivational feedback about creating magic and secret sauce.
The panel also included Dennis Mortensen, the serial entrepreneur who served as the lineup’s Simon Cowell, complete with high-brow, though mysterious (Scandanavian?), brogue. “I’m just not good with these lottery companies,” he told one founder, couching every neg in some version of the charitable, but I’m sure you’ll be a raging success.
Paladin Capital’s Bill Reinisch and the ever-classy Murat Aktihanoglu of Entrepreneurs Roundtable rounded out the panel.
There were ten entrepreneurs pitching. On the line was $500 in Amazon Web Services credit, media training, training from “super bootstrapper Dennis Mortensen,” a chance to pitch New York angels, an interview with the Entrepreneurs Roundtable Accelerator and a bamboo iPad case, among other things.
Take The Interview. Danielle Weinblatt dropped out of Harvard grad school to be the CEO of this video interviewing startup that is raising $1.5 million. As they’ve already been through the DreamIt Accelerator and powered a recent talent search for Union Square Ventures, we’re sure they’ll get it. The company has earned $15,000 in revenue with $50,000 booked for 2012, Ms. Weinblatt said. She hopes to be acquired by LinkedIn.
DealSurf. The first of many daily deals startups. Damien Rottenberg presented the company, an aggregator and curator for daily deals that has partnerships with Groupon and other major deal providers. They’re raising money and pulled in $250,000 in revenue last year. They tripled conversions for their partners.
Favorly. A “pay it forward” game and marketplace where users help each other out for points. They’re starting with confined communities, like universities and coworking spaces. The founder, Jonathan Daily, ran a group texting startup called WeText and abandoned it after 15-16 months. “I should have stayed with it longer,” he said. “And then maybe I could have been GroupMe instead of WeText.”
Sqoot. Mo Yehia, the most genuinely funny presenter of the night, read his notes from his phone as he showed off the second daily deal site of the evening. “I had a joke in here about how my cofounder is the guy who wears Google shirts to the bar,” he said. “But my pitch coach said to take it out, so I did.” The site is a geo-targeted deal aggregator, like Dealmap, just acquired by Google. Maybe Sqoot, just six months old, can pick up where Dealmap left off (or get acquired too). An audience member harangued Mr. Yehia for being very personable, but talking to the audience instead of to the panelists. Mr. Yehia said amicably that he would try to do better. Betabeat’s favorite part was when he ended the presentation with, “I took a Xanax before this, so…” More advice from the pitch coach, no doubt.
Funday Genie. Joseph Foxton, who read his pitch from an iPad, is raising $1 million for the Funday Genie, which recommends activities. The panelists were not thrilled and Mr. Mortensen, especially, felt Mr. Foxton could have taken a lesson about focusing on a market before scaling from the previous presentation. “The iPad made him say it!” someone shouted. This is when Mr. Barnes talked about creating magic first, then scaling later.
LeadPlace. Betabeat has actually met Ray Schmitz before, and we think he should have mentioned the fact that he was the famous hustler real estate broker who stood outside Bear Stearns with a box of business cards when it announced it had sold to J.P. Morgan. LeadPlace facilitates broker-to-broker referrals, which Mr. Schmitz acknowledged most brokers won’t want to do. But they must, he said, as the sector constricts. “We expect to be a $100 million a year business within four years,” he said. Unfortunately, Mr. Aktihanoglu and Mr. Reinisch didn’t get it. Venture capital may not be the best source of money for you, Mr. Reinisch advised, because the VCs didn’t understand the space.
Broodr. Somewhere between Fab.com and ThinkGeek, Brooder is a curated marketplace of unique, geeky goods, like the Darth Vader Lego who is also a USB stick. This was the source of the bamboo iPad case that became one of the night’s prizes. Jason Blanck passed out the bamboo iPad case along with a few other sample items from the site to show the panelists what he sells. It has 3,000 active users and 300 sellers. Inc. called it “Etsy for geeks.” Mr. Barnes bought an iPhone case from them (good sign!), it was revealed, and there were delivery issues (bad!).
Buddha. By the time David Montoya prsented this app, Betabeat was flagging. The app uses four sources of social data to discover interesting new people around you. Betabeat noticed from the demo photos that she and the presenter have a mutual friend, a photographer, and perked up. (A good pitch tip: Establish superficial bonds.) The panelists were tepid on Buddha, which was immediately compared to SXSW buzz app Highlight. Mr. Aktihanoglu just did a Turkish social startup; it’s a very difficult space right now. “Good luck,” he said fatalistically.
USEED. Brian Sowards got the audience excited! Have you ever had a phone call from a school asking you for money? Did you find that extremely compelling? No? Has he got the app for you! USEED was arguably the best balance of viable/disruptive on Betabeat’s ever-shifting version of the Startup Approval Matrix. It’s a tool for universities to let their students raise money for special causes. The students make a video or pitch a la Kickstarter and ask for funds. Donations go into a general account that then gets dispersed. In a pilot run at the University of Delaware, the app did well; in a comparable experiment at another school, the method compelled donors to add money to the general fund as well. Mr. Reinisch, who teaches, was enthused. “Great idea.”
The winners were tallied by Twitter vote. In third place, Broodr. Second place, USEED. And first, the only female to speak to the crowd during the entire evening, Ms. Weinblatt and Take The Interview.
Betabeat made a quick loop to say a few goodbyes. Bonnie Halpert of Startup One Stop offered us a peanut butter cookie made with no eggs, sugar, or butter. We had the fortune of overhearing Mr. Mortensen talking to a young founder. “I only interview people with jobs. I always tell them to come in at 10 or 2. I tell them it’s going to take half an hour, then I take two and a half hours.” If a candidate “can’t come up with a lie,” to explain their absence to their current employer, Mr. Mortensen isn’t interested. Hm, but we thought he could predict the future.
We bid farewell to Graham Lawlor, the founder of Ultra Light, and apologized that we couldn’t make it to the post-forum drinks at Heartland Brewery less than a block away. Everybody there, we feared, would be pitching, but with no one to enforce the time limit.