Every week, the guys who funded the daily-deals powerhouse Groupon toss out a lottery ticket of sorts and let six completely unvetted entrepreneurs come in and pitch them. They’re calling it “Office Hours,” and while they’re hoping it will help them find the next big thing, they also believe it will simply play a role in juicing up the entrepreneurial community in their home base of Chicago, which, they say, will produce long-term benefits of its own.
Lightbank  is the $100 million fund created last year by Groupon investors (and now paper billionaires) Eric Lefkovsky and Brad Keywell. It started holding Office Hours back in May--the brainchild of their third partner, Paul Lee, who recently joined the firm after having spearheaded digital ventures at Playboy Enterprises and the NBC Universal/GE Capital Peacock Equity Fund.
“When I did startups, I remember thinking that unless you knew the right people, it’s really hard to get an audience,” Lee tells Fast Company.
Lee says the sessions, while "an experiment," are worth it. They don't cost much--just two hours a week. And they help make the company accessible to the next potential Andrew Mason. Given how easy it is to start a breakthrough tech company these days, the next big thing might not come from a traditional power networker but from a 24-year-old living in his parents' garage apartment.
The new tech environment "opens up the world for anyone to be innovative,” Lee says. “So why not meet with whoever has an interesting idea?”
About 40 companies have participated in Office Hours so far, and the coveted signups are on a first-come, first-served basis. At a random moment during the week, Lightbank sends out a tweet announcing signups for the next meeting. The six slots usually get snapped up within minutes, Lee says.
Not all companies that walk through Lightbank’s doors are ready for prime time. Some of the pitchers only have a germ of an idea and are just seeking feedback on how viable it is and advice on what they should do next. Others are hunting for cash. Of those, only one has made it past the pitching session. In the end, however, following deeper review, Lightbank still decided to pass on it.
Lightbank has funded 26 companies--including Qwiki , gTrot , and OnSwipe --in the year since it hung out its shingle. All but two walked in the door through more conventional avenues--warm introductions and the slush pile. The other two first made contact through Twitter--an avenue that, in a world where social savvy can make or break a startup, greatly increases the likelihood that Lightbank will take a look, Lee says.
Lightbank’s Office Hours strategy might seem a bit needle-in-the-haystack, but its unorthodox approach fits a fund that goes out of its way--on its website, in conversation--to emphasize that it's not your father's Sand Hill Road-type fund.
In the long run, even if Office Hours don’t turn up an immediate pearl, Lee says he believes that sharing the fund’s knowledge and mentoring new entrepreneurs will help beef up the entrepreneurial community in Chicago, which in turn will make it more likely to produce the kinds of companies Lightbank is looking for.
“The entrepreneurial ecosystem hasn’t really crystallized here yet,” Lee says. “To the extent we can help facilitate that, that’s a good thing.”
[Image: Flickr user cinnamon_girl ]