Welcome: How a Pandemic Pivot Inspired the ‘Ritz-Carlton for Virtual Events’
Welcome’s CEO, Roberto Ortiz, seems like a pretty unassuming guy.
You might not guess that this laid-back fellow in rolled-up chinos and sandals is a former Lockheed Martin child prodigy, a 3x founder with an impressive exit under his belt, ex-Yahoo, ex-Google, and now the captain of a world-class online events platform that aspires to be the “Ritz-Carlton for virtual events.”
You also might not know that Welcome, his latest venture, was the product of a risky pandemic pivot that has since paid off with staggering growth upside.
Today, as Welcome uplevels the trillion-dollar business event and conference market, Roberto shared with us his origins, entrepreneurship, intelligent fundraising tactics, and the quick-thinking required when certain unforeseeable events demolish your product roadmap.
From North Philly to Top Secret Security Clearance
Roberto Ortiz’s family immigrated from Puerto Rico in the 1970s, seeking new opportunities for a better life. They settled in the rough-and-tough district of North Philly, and though Roberto had happy moments in his childhood, it wasn’t without its challenges.
“There was no such thing as ‘lack,’” said Roberto. “We didn’t know lack because we didn’t know abundance. It was just normal. We were figuring things out as a family.”
Soon after Roberto turned 9 years old, tragedy struck when he lost his father in a car accident. This was so traumatic for young Roberto that, for years, he refused to even believe it had happened. “I didn’t really believe he was really gone, so I told myself a lie—a protective mechanism. I convinced myself that he had only just left. But then, why did he leave?”
When Roberto was 12, he started to come to terms with his grief, realizing that it was now up to him to take care of himself. He felt it was time to go to work and contribute to the family financially.
“Every day after school, I would knock on every door of every business in town looking for a job,” Roberto said. “I barely cleared the counter at the laundromat, hiding my bookbag, asking for a job. I went to the tire shop, saying I could rotate tires. I went to the grocery store and told them I could sweep the floors. No one would give me a job,” Roberto recalled, laughing.
Roberto wouldn't take no for an answer. He felt he had to figure out a way to take the burden off his mother by taking care of himself and contributing financially to the family.
One day, he went into the computer lab at school and opened up Microsoft Paint, and was immediately struck by the limitless possibilities of creative design. He saved up some money to buy a computer, landed a bootleg copy of Photoshop, and got to work. Teaching himself to design and code, Roberto’s growth mindset caught the attention of a teacher of his at school, Mrs. Bell.
“She was what I call a ‘door opener’,” Roberto told us. “At Welcome, one of our core values is ‘Open Doors,’ which speaks to a culture of access and opening doors of opportunity for others. Mrs. Bell was that for me.”
Mrs. Bell told Roberto about a new program Lockheed Martin was sponsoring in search for talented young high schoolers, and encouraged him to apply. Roberto not only joined the program, but was hired at the age of 16, and was soon given Top Secret national security clearance. He ended up staying with the company for nearly 10 years.
“I grew up as a 16 year old at Lockheed Martin. I’m literally working with rocket scientists during the day, while hanging with my boys at high school afterwards,” Roberto recalls with a smile. “I was forced to grow up, and I set my bar high. I needed to continually work harder to hit that bar; get in early, stay late.”
Roberto added: “Lockheed Martin set me up in many ways for Welcome.”
Google Opens a Door
Lockheed was the catalyst that connected Roberto to his future co-founder of Welcome, Jerry Shen. He and Jerry became fast friends, and began tinkering with the idea for a fantasy sports platform. Working together remotely, they built out the platform to a solid foundation, and got it to where it worked well coasting along in maintenance mode.
It was then that Roberto started dreaming bigger.
“One night, my mother-in-law asked me how things were going. She asked ‘for the work you do, what are the best companies in the world to go work at?’ The thought never dawned on me to leave Philly—in our culture, family-proximity is a big thing—but I had to respond with ‘Google’,” Roberto recalled.
“Later that night, I searched: ‘How to apply to Google.’”
Roberto applied, and two weeks later, got a phone call from a Google recruiter. “I didn’t think I had what it took to play at that level. I didn’t go to an Ivy League school. I had a perception that there was a disconnect between what I could contribute, and the elites of the elites were not within reach.”
“I learned this truth: do not extinguish your potential before you give it a shot.”
Roberto got the job, relocated to San Francisco, and started his journey in Silicon Valley.
A Bold Pivot at Y Combinator
After two years at Google, Roberto and Jerry’s fantasy sports side-project was acquired by Yahoo, and they officially joined the company. Roberto spent time directing mobile experiences at Yahoo, but eventually decided it wasn’t exactly where he wanted to be. He and his wife left for Denver to settle down and start a family.
Soon however, the entrepreneurial itch came back and Roberto and Jerry reconnected, tossing around ideas for new projects, this time with Jerry’s brother, Tiger Shen. “We started talking to friends, ideating, working on things, and had an idea for a platform to connect restaurants and food wholesalers,” Roberto said.
This idea got them into startup incubator Y Combinator in the Bay Area, so in late 2019, Roberto, his wife, and their now 3-month-old daughter headed straight back to San Francisco to give this new idea a shot.
Then came the pandemic lockdowns of spring 2020.
“We were heads-down building this business, generally ignoring the TV news, including the headlines about COVID-19 as it started to make its way over to the states,” Roberto recalled.
As the weeks progressed, things got serious, and San Francisco locked down mid-March.
The team was a few weeks from Demo Day at Y Combinator, the event where the latest crop of startups show off their projects. “All of the restaurants that were signed up to our platform had closed their doors,” Roberto said. “We had to ask YC if we could defer our Demo Day to the next batch. They said yes—it was the first time in YC history that had started in-person and then went remote.”
Two weeks later, they wrote the first line of code for Welcome.
Welcome Hits the Stage
“As a startup, you have to make calls. It feels like every bet you’re making is a risk to the business.”
Sensing that the COVID-19 pandemic was going to change the course of interpersonal interaction possibly forever, Roberto and his co-founders pivoted immediately toward a new vision of virtual event conferencing, a necessity when no one, from executives to A/V technicians, could leave their homes.
“Welcome brings intention back to these virtual experiences,” Roberto explained. “There’s an actual stage. We have a green room that allows you to prep your speakers. What’s the experience you want your audience to feel? We design for that.”
Scaling with Brex Venture Debt
The idea is working. Welcome has grown from three people to 60 employees in just a matter of months. But there are challenges to scaling an organization so quickly, both cultural and financial.
“One challenge has been about educating folks on interacting in a remote-first environment, and doing that well. How do we encourage people to leverage remote and virtual software? We think of those challenges as opportunities,” Roberto said.
“From a finance side, we raised a phenomenal Series A round with Kleiner Perkins, but capital is a tool as a startup. You want to have capital to place bets. With traditional fundraising, it takes time—there’s dilution, opportunity costs… we’re thrilled to work with Brex to bring capital via venture debt.”
In traditional funding arrangements, capital is accrued via equity distribution, allowing VCs and other investors to provide cash in exchange for ownership. Brex Venture Debt is a way for startups to receive capital in the form of loans to avoid the need of selling part of their company to grow.
“As a CEO, fundraising can be a full-time job,” Roberto explained. “It can take a ton of time, an entire quarter of your year. Time is all you have, and if I’m planning my calendar and saying yes to one thing, I’m saying no to another.”
Brex Venture Debt offers startups and SMBs a line of credit that grows with their company’s needs and size. This grants capital earlier than traditional funding rounds with a much faster process. It’s an ideal solution for those seeking to raise less-dilutive capital, and control the timing of cash injection.
“Having additional capital as venture debt is giving us the flexibility to choose when and how we raise money, and how we spend our time. In addition, having this capital allows us to take bets—it’s an unfair advantage, and a game-changer.”
Roberto added: “The cool thing about Brex is you guys just continue to build more and more products that help my life as a founder. Expense tracking, expense alerts, bill pay, virtual cards—it’s too good!”
Maintaining a Growth Mindset
It’s clear that Roberto Ortiz’s life story is one of constant learning, advancement, and growth. We asked him if he thought there was more to success than just hard work and luck.
“Loving what you do becomes an unfair advantage,” he said. “I’ve always loved the idea of creating the idea of ‘more,’ from a self-challenge perspective: what is my highest potential?”
“Folks that apply that growth mindset to their career, not settling for what you’ve done or where you came from—you’re going to stay hungry, and if you stay hungry, you’re going to grow.”
With the virtual events industry expected to continue to rapidly expand, it’s clear that Roberto and his team are just getting started.
Welcome is an all-in-one virtual and hybrid events platform built to power incredible experiences. From All Hands meetings to Q&As and conferences, Welcome helps companies everywhere deliver seamless interactive virtual events that boost your company's profile.