When I lived in Silicon Valley, if you wanted to pitch your startup at a big event, you would have to pay several thousand dollars to pitch on stage or several hundred dollars to have a booth in a crowded lobby.
It’s a tough decision for many startups. Do you spend a ton of money on something that might not result in any meaningful results. Or, do you miss out on the chance to show your product to someone who might become a big investor or strategic partner.
Over the past few weeks, I spent time with Graham Lawlor, the founder of Ultra Light Startups, which helps early stage startups get in front of VCs for only $50. I interviewed Graham to learn more about how Ultra Light is helping companies in the New York City region.
1) Graham, can you tell us about your background?
I spent 10 years in IT on Wall Street at UBS and Deutsche Bank. I quit in 2007 to join the startup world. I founded Ultra Light Startups in 2008 and it’s been my main claim to fame ever since. I launched a startup of my own last year, called BrightMap. These two projects take up 95% of my time. I’m also a mentor at the Founder Institute, Entrepreneur’s Roundtable Accelerator, and the NYU Venture Competition.
Q1: How did Ultra Light Start-ups begin and how long has it been running?
Ultra Light Startups was founded in 2008, so it’s been going about 3.5 years. While I was at Deutsche Bank I kept thinking of startups to found. I used to keep an ‘ideas file’ to keep track of them all. Eventually that file numbered 60 or 70 ideas and I knew I had to leave and work on one full-time, but I couldn’t decide which one. I figured I’d get a group of 10 or 20 like-minded entrepreneurs together as a sort of support group. I thought we’d meet once per month and kick around ideas and help each other. I figured this peer group would help me figure out which of my 70 ideas was the best and how to develop it. It turns out there was interest from lots more than 10 or 20 people. I started charging because I could no longer afford to buy pizza for everyone every month. Sun Microsystems was our first sponsor, and more came after that. Eventually it became a business of its own.
Q2: How many people attend each month, anb how much funding has resulted from these meetings?
The New York events have 150-200 people each month and about 100 attend in Boston. Over 700 startups have pitched at Ultra Light since 2008, which we recently surveyed. Over 20% raised angel funding and 6% raised venture capital – including several right at Ultra Light events themselves. A stat I’m even more proud of is over 60% have revenues, including several with 5 and 6 figure revenues per month. Several have exited – including Tripology.com (sold to Rand McNally), Gliider (sold to Travel Ad Network) Socialight (sold to GroupCommerce) and IndexTools (sold to Yahoo!).
Q3: What is the future of Ultra Light?
The startups that have pitched at Ultra Light have had some pretty amazing results over the years. Now we get many applications to pitch so we had to become a bit more selective. The future is to continue to raise the bar for quality of startups and the quality of the community, both in-person and online. Our weekly email newsletter is widely read and I expect that to grow. We may be offering more community features online, to accompany the in-person events and the newsletter. Stay tuned.
Q4: How are you different then tech stars or Y Combinator?
You could think of Ultra Light as just the Y Combinator demo day, without the 12 week mentorship program. Also, we hold this demo day (which we call the “Investor Feedback Forum”) every month and we don’t take any equity. At each event 8 startups present to a panel of investors and the audience votes via Twitter. Top startups get prizes, press, and an automatic bid to pitch at New York Angels, the biggest angel investment group on the East coast. Our panelists, early stage startup investors, are required to give “actionable advice” to each presenter, to guide them on where to pivot. People who have pitched always tell me this is the most valuable aspect of pitching at Ultra Light and something they can’t get anywhere else. And the huge audience is a great product launch platform and PR opportunity for any startup and networking opportunity for everyone.
Q5: If I want to pitch at Ultra Light, how do I go about this?
The application process is detailed on our website. Basically, you fill in an application using Gust.com (formerly called Angelsoft) and pay $50. We take 15-20 applications each month and pick 8 to present. If you have a functional website or mobile application and a viable business model you have a great chance of getting a spot. And if you apply and don’t get picked, you get your $50 back.
You can learn more about Graham or contact him via his LinkedIn profile.