Life's a Pitch: Rosslyn's UberOffices Growing in Reputation, Membership
Office-sharing venture caters to tech startups, looks to expand by year's end.
A little after 10 a.m. Wednesday at UberOffices in Rosslyn — it's Pitch Day at the office-sharing startup, which even at less than 4 months old is already developing the reputation for being one of the coolest new spaces in the Washington metro region.
Every startup hub does it a little differently. Uber co-founder Raymond Rahbar says startups traditionally get four to seven minutes to make their pitch. But at UberOffices, they get 30 minutes. Typically, two to five businesses — some are members, some aren't — get face time with a small room full of investors. They get instant feedback and, if they're lucky, they eventually get the capital they need to move their company into its next phase. Sometimes, they may get a lead on another source of financing to help their dream come true.
"As an investor, you've adopted the dream," said Jason Shrensky, an angel investor who co-founded Uber with Rahbar.
"There's still a lot of work to be done. There's a business to be built. Raising money is just a necessary evil."
Making the Pitch
First up is Omar Paul, a Falls Church entrepreneur who is looking to take his idea, Iconic, from prototype to launch.
Patch was invited to sit in on Pitch Day. In the room with Paul are Shrensky and Rahbar; Monika Jansen, a former Tech Cocktail editor who now runs her own communications company; David Brink with Virginia's Center for Innovative Technology in Herndon; and Lawrence Black, an angel investor who lives nearby in Arlington.
Paul's idea is to create a digital magazine that aggregates celebrity news from a variety of sources — including from individual star's Twitter, Facebook and YouTube accounts. It's a photo-heavy, tablet-optimized product that allows each user to customize the portal to their own content. It would generate revenue through ad sales and, eventually, social games — one might allow users to trade celebrity profiles like baseball cards, for instance.
News is aggregated through ratings and relevance. You'd be hard pressed to find Honey Boo Boo in the Washington Post, Paul said, yet it's the No. 1 trending reality TV show — so it's the kind of news Iconic would aggregate if it fits the user's profile.
Paul is seeking $250,000 to take his product beyond the seed stage.
Then come the questions. How long will $250,000 last? How much will go toward salary? Paul has possible connections that could be exploited in India; Why not start there, and bring the product back the U.S. once he's proved the concept?
"America is just so much noise," Shrensky said. "This just seems highly risky — and a very tough one to swallow, especially for the D.C. investor crowd."
'Hearts and Souls'
Each Pitch Day is a little different.
Generally, each one is themed so that the startups making pitches are all in the same general stage of their development.
"It's a lot of fun," Brink said. "There's a lot of great ideas. And it's great to see so many entrepreneurs with their hearts and souls in their businesses."
Word about UberOffices has started to spread among the investor crowd as a good place to make pitches. The Center for Innovative Technology, which is funded with state and private dollars, will refer companies to them, as will other investors.
For some startups, it's like a notch in the belt to say they made a presentation at Uber. Likewise, Uber's investors get the bragging rights when a startup like Speek — a telecommunications company that just won a Distilled Intelligence award — or a company trending on AngelList presents to them. AngelList is a free service that indicates which startups are trending based on how many investors are looking at them.
"We've seen some neat stuff," Shrensky said.
Sometimes, the Uber team will work with entrepreneurs in advance, giving them advice on how to structure and deliver their presentation. "It's not always the best time to pitch," he said.
'An Entrepreneurship Club'
Next up: Kathleen Wolff, a broadcast journalist-turned-entrepreneur who is developing stylish audio watches for the blind or vision impaired.
"We're all in this together," Wolff told the investors. "If you live long enough, science tells us you will lose your vision. It's a certainty."
So Wolff has developed a line of fashionable watches that will launch on Kickstarter next month. That will give her brand exposure and allow her to iron-out everything on the operational side of her business.
She has $200,000 invested or committed through family and friends, and is seeking another $300,000 to develop the audio watch — one that lasts, that is easily adjustable and is fashionable all at the same time.
"Let's get this one funded," Shrensky said as Pitch Day wrapped up. "This is an interesting product."
For her part, Wolff is excited to be a part of the UberOffice experience.
"When they say it's networking and support, they're understating it," she said.
On Wolff's first day there, in late September, U.S. Senate candidate Tim Kaine and Delaware Sen. Chris Coons paid a visit. She was able to ask about the U.S. Small Business Association, which provided financial insight that has proved to be helpful. She's also gotten exposure to the Virginia Center for Innovative Technology that she otherwise wouldn't have had, and got to pitch a room full of investors. And that's just in her first 30 days.
"I'm thrilled," she said. "It's almost like a membership in an entrepreneurship club."
'A Testament to Our Members'
Shrensky and Rahbar said both of Wednesday's pitches — it was only each person's second time presenting their idea — were "excellent."
They bill their space — at 1400 Key Blvd., a prime spot near the Key Bridge with views of Georgetown and the Capitol — as a comfortable place to work that offers the serendipity of being around other people who are doing the same or similar things.
Earlier this month, former Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty stopped by to visit. Now, he's advising two of the businesses housed at UberOffices.
"That's huge," Rahbar said. "You can't get that at a coffee shop. You can't even get that if you have your own office. He doesn't go in to every office. But because we have 30 businesses, he came here."
A desk at UberOffices costs $300 a month; a one-desk office, $500 a month. Prices scale up from there.
UberOffices occupies just under half of the 10th floor of the building on Key Boulevard — and they're all but completely booked. In the next couple of months, they hope to expand into the entirety of the building's third floor.
"The coolest part about that is that we've spent zero dollars on marketing," Rahbar said. "And I think that's a testament to our members."