Small Business

Pitch your start-up, and have a few drinks to boot

Uptin Saiidi

Jason Saltzman wants to celebrate start-ups.

The founder and CEO of AlleyNYC, a co-working space, had more than 200 budding entrepreneurs and enthusiasts gather in New York City this week for a new monthly competition event, "Startup Battles."

"Most pitch events are kind of dull," said Saltzman. "We wanted to create an environment where people want to be excited."

The event differed from other pitch events partially because of its open bar and DJ, but mostly because of its unconventional judging panel, which included "Weeds" and "40-Year-Old Virgin" star Romany Malco.

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Gillian Morris, the most recent winner of “Startup Battles” at Alley NYC in New York.
Source: Alley NYC

Providing a party atmosphere is the latest trend at pitch events. Saltzman said the number of events hosted at AlleyNYC has increased by more than 70 percent this year over the year before.

With youth unemployment still higher than the national average, and 54 percent of millennials starting a business or wanting to start a business, according to the Kaufman Foundation, some see a life pursuing start-ups as a good alternative to a traditional career path.

"We're at a time in our life that there's an entrepreneurial renaissance," Saltzman said. "I think it's here to stay for a long time, because a lot of these companies are actually making money."

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Gillian Morris is the founder of the most recent first-place winner of "Startup Battles," called HitList, a mobile app that lets users list places they'd like to travel and alerts them when prices there drop.

"Start-ups have become very, very sexy. There's something about doing something more fulfilling, and it's becoming a more legitimate career path," she told CNBC.

The trend in pitch events comes at a time when New York City's tech scene continues to grow, and the local government offers subsidized office space and grants for tech start-ups.

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For Saltzman, his move to New York City aligned with launching AlleyNYC as he saw tech become embedded in many industries. "You have so many validated industries," he said. "You have fashion, finance, education—whereas the Bay Area is very technology-focused. So many companies and industries need disruption."

The tech sector is on the verge of ending the year on fire, with few signs of slowing down in 2014. According to data published by CB Insights, there are 590 U.S. tech companies in the IPO pipeline next year, compared with 472 this time last year, that are either backed by venture capital or private equity and valued at $100 million or more.

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Meanwhile tech stocks continue to soar as the Technology SPDR (ETF) is up 20 percent year-to-date.

Some see the high growth as a sign of a bubble among top tech firms, while others think there's still room to grow. "I think there might be a bubble at the absolute top in terms of sky-high valuations, but there's a lot of substance being created in the middle," Morris said.

While Morris still sees many opportunities at the venture level, Saltzman draws a distinction between companies that are valued based on their high levels of users, versus those that are actually making money.

"When it comes to business-to-business related products where you actually have revenue, and the valuation is based on the money you're making—that's not a bubble. They're making money," Saltzman said.

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Morris won a prize valued at $25,000, a combination of cash and services such as legal assistance and co-working space which she wants to use to help boost the growth of her start-up.

Morris started her app less than six months ago. She said the event's diverse panel and participants were what allowed her to take the prize.

"A lot of these events, you see a lot of the same people, fixtures in the NYC scene. He (Malco) said, 'I look at these companies in a very different way than a V.C. does,'" Morris said. "If we had a traditional panel of V.C.'s, I'm not sure we'd make it this far."

In addition to an actor serving on the panel, Joy Marcus of Gotham Ventures and Dave Mathews, a consumer-focused inventor, served as judges.

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"Startup Battles" organizers chose 15 ideas for the event. Each had one minute to sell to the judges. After multiple rounds with the help of audience voting, the 15 were narrowed down to eight and then again to four, until there was one winner and one runner-up.

The event cost $25 for attendees.

As for Morris, she said that while she enjoyed the party-like aspects of the event, she would have easily been entertained at any basic pitch competition and looks forward to an increased number of events so that other ideas can be heard.

"In tech, there's still so much low-hanging fruit, so many real problems that need to be solved," Morris said. "It's really exciting and will make a lot of people's lives better, quickly."

—By CNBC's Uptin Saiidi. Follow him on Twitter @Uptin