There may not be a more compelling pivot during the COVID-19 pandemic than that of Roberto Ortiz and his fellow founders at Welcome. More than a year ago, they had an idea: to create a platform to connect restaurant owners to wholesalers. However, the momentum of the start-up was quickly brought to a halt when most of the world shut its doors to combat the pandemic.
“All of a sudden, I couldn’t go knocking on corner store doors to tell them that they should use our platform to order their goods,” Ortiz remembers. “They were just trying to keep their doors open, since COVID completely dismantled the restaurant space. We had to pause and completely regroup.”
The founders reworked their entire concept, pivoting to create a virtual event platform that would engage and bring people together like never before. The three-person start-up has increased to fifty full-time employees in under a year, and Welcome has partnered with Kleiner Perkins, Kapor Capital, WIN (Webb Investment Network), and Y Combinator on a $12 million Series A funding round. And Ortiz and his partners are ready to go back for more. With a focus on experience and design, not merely making sure attendees’ microphones are working, Welcome has brought swagger to virtual events everywhere.
The first-generation son of Puerto Rican immigrants, Ortiz has pushed himself for as long as he can remember. The death of his father when he was just nine years old pushed him to try and offset his mother’s financial burden at a young age. “I remember being twelve and trying to get a job at a bodega,” Ortiz says. “My pitch was essentially, ‘Hey, you know my uncle. Give me a job, let’s make this happen.’”
The story is emblematic of much of Ortiz’s success. He was selected for an elite training program at Lockheed Martin at sixteen, a program that sought to identify talent from within marginalized communities. If he had wanted, he could have followed the road map for his life that that program provided: security, stability, and an elite employer. But Ortiz, who was teaching himself everything he could learn about tech, had another type of ambition—a desire to continue pushing his abilities, a character trait he believes he inherited from his mother.
“My work ethic is just baked in,” Ortiz says. “Every Saturday morning, my mom would put on Marc Anthony and we were grabbing the broom and mop, and everybody was working. It’s how I’ve always been.” That drive would eventually lead Ortiz to Silicon Valley. He spent two years at Google as a product design lead before continuing to push himself forward.
Prior to Welcome, however, Ortiz’s ten-year partnership with his fellow founders included many, if not mostly, failures. But there were wins along the way: their Fantasy Football sports app was acquired by Yahoo.
“Entrepreneurship is placing a bet, and I think we did it at the right time.”
In addition to his passion for technology, Ortiz has long had a love for drawing and design. Early on, he thought that interest might take him into architecture—but the start-up mastermind says his true calling scratches many of those same creative itches. “Entrepreneurship is a blank canvas,” Ortiz explains. “There’s an intersection between the business sector and opportunity that fits with the way I’m wired. Creativity is about solving problems in a way that a lot of people don’t see or realize.”
Welcome is the summation of that statement. As the world got used to jumping on virtual meetings, Ortiz and his fellow founders saw a problem: the meeting platforms were functional, but they weren’t pretty. Ortiz saw an opportunity to create a platform software that melded functionality with his eye for design.
“I obsess about quality. I obsess about design. I obsess about the details of what and why we’re building,” Ortiz says. “Quality is our differentiator, and this company is a reflection of that: one that puts design, quality, and experience at its core.”
Indeed, watching a playback of a Welcome event feels more like a broadcast event than a webinar. Speakers’ names and titles appear on classy chyrons under their screen tiles. Audience questions and tweets also appear seamlessly onscreen in the style of a live TV event. Q&A participants appear onscreen to ask questions aloud. It just feels different.
To Ortiz’s mind, much of the platform’s popularity comes down to timing. “We saw a bigger opportunity here,” he notes. “If this way of connecting was going to become more of a reality, it was going to fundamentally change the ways that we work. Entrepreneurship is placing a bet, and I think we did it at the right time.”
Ortiz is also excited about the potential for connection inherent within the platform. One of Welcome’s early events hosted seven thousand engineers from companies all over the world. “I couldn’t help but think of me at fifteen,” Ortiz says of the event. “I couldn’t afford a plane ticket or a hotel room in San Francisco. I wanted to learn everything I could, and with Welcome, all you need is an internet connection and an invitation. That young me could wind up virtually ‘sitting’ next to someone who thinks differently, looks differently, and inspires differently. That could be the pivotal change in someone’s life.”
Welcome is only beginning, and there’s no doubt that Ortiz will continue doing what he loves most—finding new solutions for problems people don’t even realize they have.