March 14th, 2013 Ultralight Startups @ Microsoft

On March 14, 2013, OLC attended Ultra Light Startups' monthly event held at Microsoft to see nine startups pitch their product and listen to four panelists give them advice. The panelists were David Aronogg, General Partner at FlyBridge Capital Partners; Gil Bryda, Founding and Managing Partner at Genacast Ventures; Ed Sim, Managing Partner at BOLDstart Ventures; and Mark Wachen, Managing Partner at DreamIt Ventures. There were nine pitches in tow, with Caleb Gandara of DegreeCast pitching first, followed by Joe Regal of Zola Books, Melchior Schöller of Poutsch, Rohit Vashist of Sverve, Domi Enders of Open Assembly, Noah Smith of Dwelleo, Bernhard Mehl of KISIBOX, Dan O'Sullivan of Rock the Deadline and David Carlos of myHomePayge.           

Caleb Gandara pitched his product, DegreeCast as a free vertical server engine for degree programs in the United States. "It's kind of like Kayak as the results are click-thru," Gandara said. DegreeCast aggregates certificate programs and makes them keyword searchable. It helps users find degrees and institutions can pay to promote their listing. Ed Sim asked Gandara how he planned to distribute DegreeCast. "I spent the last 11 years working out of the vertical search engine space," Gandara said. "We're implementing a lot of vertical search engine features," he said. Gandara was asked where he gets the dataset to perform the aggregation. "I left Indeed to build this dataset. It's degree-level content, and it changes very often. Institutions are not very up-to-date, but DegreeCast helps institutions do that through aggregation," he said. "

If done well, you'd make a lot of money. The key is definitely optimizing SEO," Mark Wachen said. "Look at the UI of Kayak and other verticals and keep people on your site. I'd so some previews or other UI strategies to keep the user there," Ed Sim said. "Something you may want to consider is doing lead gen. If you capture information on users, it can be up to $100 to $200 per lead gen," Gil Bryda said. "A vertical strategy to keep in mind is to differentiate yourself from competitors," David Aronoff said.

Joe Regal of Zola Books pitched his platform as the "global social network based on e-book retailers and readers." Regal said that the social network of Zola Books is not limited to just friends. It is extended to editors and writers. "Our goal is to enable what readers already do in one area. Our biggest driver is content. Zola Books started 18 months ago and we have much more bestsellers than Amazon. The only way to succeed in business is to be the best and we're looking for $2 million for Zola Books," he said.

"You're competing with goliaths in this space," Wachen said. "How do you drive people to your website?" he asked. "Amazon is a retailer. We're Amazon 3.0. We're integrating social and for Amazon to do that, they need to rebuild their website. We partnered with independent bookstores and major magazines and publishers," Regal said. "Will you be able to acquire customers to make a big profitable company?" Sim asked. "Our strategy to acquire customers is to build a rich ecosystem," Regal said. "The only way to compete with social mechanism is to do social distribution," Sim said. "Working with independent bookstores will help you do all that," he said. "Even with inferior products, Amazon has the marketshare and the mindshare and the brand name. I think this is a game of who has the biggest guns," Beyda said. "I'd encourage you to focus on one message," Aronoff said.

Poutsch is an opinion tool to collect and make sense of an opinion. Users ask a question and share it on social platforms. Users can extract the question and put it on websites and they can build a global conversation through the platform. On the user profile, questions can be manages and analytics can be viewed. Poutsch's business model is to charge for questions and have premium accounts.

Sim suggested that Poutsch change their name so that the American audience can remember it easily. Beyda asked Felix Winckler what problem Poutsch was solving. "People are reluctant in answering surveys," Winckler said. "People are more likely to answer one question—it doesn't feel like a survey," he said. "So what would you use it for?" Aronoff asked. "It could be for a petition or an employer asking employees if it's a good idea to work on the weekend, a teacher polling a question, there's a lot of potential ways it can be used," Winckler said. "What's the purpose of Poutsch?" Wachen asked. "The purpose of Poutsch is to be the destination for surveys and questions," Winckler said.

Rohit Vashisht pitched Sverve, a self-service influencer platform for small business owners. "We wnat to be Google ads of SaaS," Vashisht said. "We provide one place to work with bloggers, make payments and track analytics. We monetize through campaigns and brands are helped through affiliate pages," he said.

"What's the methodology to determine influencers?" Sim asked. "We started with influencers. They want to make money with brands and want more followers. We have 3,000 bloggers that are all actually interacting with each other. We put in Alexa ranking, and number of Facebook and Twitter followers right on the dashboard," Vashisht said. "How much is the cost?" Beyda asked. "The campaign is $50 a month, but brands might pay bloggers differently. We're seeing an increase in demand," Vashisht said. "Can you clarify how you negotiate with the brand?" Aronoff asked. "The brand actually states that compensation and bloggers apply to the campaign," Vashisht said.

Domi Enders presented Open Assembly, a platform where one can easily find educational resources. "Open Assembly is about solving the cost of textbooks and that open education resources are not up to par. We are here to integrate content easily. We're curating and adding value to Open Assembly. We're monetizing through subscription and we're in the process of raising $775,000," Enders said.

"How are students actually consuming this?" Wachen asked. "Through HTML5, so it's broswer-based," Enders replied. "What are are you doing very well?" Sim asked. "We're trying to be a destination for teachers. We're bringing resources to teachers and students," Enders said. "What is your strategy?" Beyda asked. "Our strategy is to start with community colleges and with librarians. Our verticals also can be in the home school market as well," Enders said.

Noah Smith presented Dwelleo as a way to communicate with neighbors online. "It makes it easy to discover and connect and communicate with neighbors," Smith said. "We are open and people can establish private or open groups." Smith touted Dwelleo as the "hassle-free way to connect with neighbors." Dwello's idea is to bring a sense of community within a building, but also make it a marketplace and a discussion board.

"How do you get enough mass to make it useful?" Wachen asked. "We're starting with clusters then moving out to other buildings and locations," Smith said. "It's basically Facebook for your buildings—a discussion for your building," he said.

Bernhard Mehl presented KISIBOX, a hardware to software solution to unlocking objects. "The big problem in the US is that there are 80 percent locked objects and they are all shared," Mehl said. "Keys are shared, so we integrated keys to a smartphone. You can manage your keys on a website and view who used the lock."

"If I wanted to integrate, what kind of friction is there?" Sim asked. "All the hardware is installed in the apartment. We change all locks to a digital lock," Mehl said. "How are you competing with alarm companies?" Aronoff asked. "Our virtual keysharing network can be integrated and it's easy to understand and it's very lightweight. We can cover 95 percent of all locks with one product," Mehl said.

Dan O'Sullivan pitched Rock the Deadline, as "content marketing made simple." He asked how one can create quality content as scale. "You reach out to customers through SEO, affiliate programs, trade and direct sales," O'Sullivan said. "Our SaaS is sold through subscriptions and we offer ideas at the team level."

"How are you customers actually using it?" Sim asked. "If you look at the space, there's very little information to tell people what to do with no content. Our subscribers go through our vertical and go through human curators and get a ton of content to work with. It's collaborative content creation," O'Sullivan said.

David Carlos presented myHomePayge. "We're looking to raise $1 million," Carlos started. "By 2015, we will have raised $10 million and our focus is on the residential estate industry. myHomePayge provides a website for every listing. Our revenue stream is lead gen and hyper-local ads. We've signed up five property managers so far with 30,000 listings. By the end of 2014, we estimate to have 100,000 users and by 2015, 500,000 users," he said.

"What does your product do?" Wachen asked. "We build a custom platform for property managers. We provide it for free in return for access to customers," Carlos said. "In terms of the New York market, how much of it is covered?" Aronoff asked. "There's only 10 percent of coverage right now and we feel that we have the lead over competitors to reach the other 90 percent," Carlos said. "Well, one thing to focus is to see how you fit in and integrate," Aronoff said. "Think about usage and consistent usage at that. I think it's going to be very hard," he said.