How are Buffalo's startups finding rockstar talent?

Seeing your startup grow to the point where you need to bring on additional talent is a problem most entrepreneurs would presumably love to have. But when a smaller business is preparing to make its first new hires, there are some major considerations to be given.

Can we afford the expense of having an employee? How will this person fit in with our company culture? Does adding this person help us achieve our goals? Are we looking in the right places for the person we need?

These are all questions racing through the minds of startup owners on the verge of expansion. For those that have concluded that now is the time to hire, multiple resources in the region can help them make the best choices.

CoachMePlus: Recruiting at a small high-growth company

Teo Balbach is the CEO of CoachMePlus, a Buffalo-based software company that analyzes sports data. It has over 50 professional and collegiate teams as clients, including the Buffalo Bills, University of Kentucky and University of Notre Dame. Coaches and athletes can use this product to create workouts, record individual athlete’s performance and track and review data in consolidated reports.

The company has just under twenty employees, four of whom joined in the past year. Balbach says his company is looking for the more “unusual” candidate when looking for new hires, and this often means finding talent in recent college graduates.

“We are looking for someone who can get really frustrated with a problem they can’t solve and wants to stay until it gets fixed. This could be an analytical problem or business development,” Balbach says.

CoachMePlus has an established internship program modeled on one of Balbach’s former employers, Microsoft. Most of the company's hires originate in the internship program, which Balbach describes as “unstructured.”

“We throw you a problem, or sometimes we don’t give you anything, and we see what happens,” he says.

Balbach’s company tends to look for candidates with backgrounds in computer software, a competency he says sometimes can be hard to find. CoachMePlus also looks to marketing people, especially those with an interest in digital marketing.

Because of the freedom staff experience at a growing small business, recruiting has not been a problem, according to Balbach.

“We are not actively recruiting. We are seeing people come to the door who want to work here,” he says.

Small businesses and hiring trends

Greg Lindberg, economic development specialist with the U.S. Small Business Administration Buffalo District Office, says the SBA assists thousands of startups with finding talent through its networking programs and business seminars.

“People need to take advantage of those programs,” he says. “They’re free and help guide you as you’re getting started.”

Lindberg says that potential new hires are using networking events to build relationships with future employers. This helps them be familiar with the founder and get an idea as to what the company culture might be like. He adds that he thinks area college campuses are another place where startups are able to recruit quality talent.

“We have a lot of high-profile universities that are pumping out smart people in all kinds of disciplines,” he says. “I definitely think we have the talent base here.”

Lindberg encourages startup owners considering adding employees to make sure the revenue is there is to support what a new hire is going to cost, accounting for benefits on top of a salary. He also touts word-of-mouth as the best way to assess a candidate.

“Referrals, referrals, referrals,” he says. “Find people that have previous working relationships with someone you know and trust. The worst thing to do is hire an employee that doesn’t work out for you because that just costs you more time and money.”

19 IDEAS and the ideal candidate for a grassroots startup

Katie Krawczyk, president and partner of Buffalo-based marketing company 19 IDEAS, agrees with Lindberg that finding the right person for the job is the most important thing.

“Every hire at any size company is important to the well being of that company, but the smaller you are, the more important that is,” Krawczyk says. “I think when you’re a startup, things move very quickly and it’s beneficial to slow down a bit and vet the candidates as thoroughly as possible.”

19 IDEAS has grown to 12 full-time and one part-time employee since its founding in 2011. Krawczyk says her team comes from a diverse field of backgrounds, each bringing a specialized skill set to the business. She says she has used headhunters, networking groups and digital tools in the past like social media and Craigslist to seek employees. But being out in the community has been one of the most effective way of recruiting new people.

“We’re a community-focused company and we try to be out at different events and want to be a part of Buffalo’s evolution,” she says. “A lot of people that come to us in hopes of an open position tell us it’s because they’ve seen us around town and want to be part of our culture. And we’re always trying to keep our ear close to the ground and watch out for some of the up-and-coming people in the field.”

In the end, a candidate has to fit 19 IDEAS’ “Work with a Purpose” mantra to receive a job offer.

“It has to be a culture fit because we have such an emphasis on the team,” Krawczyk says. “When the team is happy, the work is better. When the work is great, the clients are happy.”

Staffing companies assisting startups

Brian Manley, president and CEO of Imagine Staffing in Buffalo, helps find the right people for startups that might not have the community presence of a business like 19 IDEAS. His company also works a lot with businesses that may not yet have the budget for their services.

Imagine Staffing helps smaller startups in their early stages set up fundraising benchmarks at no charge. When they reach those goals, the firm offers its full talent recruitment services. Building relationships with fledgling companies at the beginning also helps Imagine Staffing get to know the founders and the company culture well before the hiring starts to happen.

“We also recommend to all of our clients that they look for three qualities in a new employee,” Manley says. “Are they hungry? Are they humble? And are they smart?”

A startup company itself, Imagine Staffing began with three employees in Manley’s attic, then migrated to the Innovation Center on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.

“For us, it was about having a professional address,” Manley says. “[Candidates] noticed and we were able to attract and recruit people by being in that space.”

Today, Imagine Staffing employs almost 30 people in its facility on Main Street, which it moved to in 2014.

“We’re only a block and a half away from where we used to be and we can actually see the building from here so we wave to it and to our friends who are still there,” Manley jokes.

Another startup recruiting agency in Buffalo – Viaduct – is also working to help businesses get to a point where they are able to expand their workforce. Talent Manager Tom Hausler has been with Viaduct since it launched in January. He says his company helps startups identify issues and set goals to allow for future growth.

“The thing that makes Viaduct different from the traditional staffing recruiting model is we found a lot of startups aren’t at the point of being able to hire,” Hausler says. “We help them get to that level through business consulting and identifying select strategic issues they’re facing in getting to the point where they can hire.We found most startups need help either selling their product or marketing it and getting it out there. So we help get them from point A to point B where they can begin hitting benchmarks and help them grow.”

Hausler’s advice for entrepreneurs about to bring aboard their first employees: hire people with different strengths that can counter your own.

“The best startup owners hire people different from them,” he adds. “If you’re a dynamic personality that commands attention in a room, you need someone with other strong suits that complements that and doesn’t compete with it.”

Hausler said he’s excited about the future of the startup community in Western New York, noting that the conversation has gotten more positive with the influx of major programs like 43 North and the Buffalo Billion.

He added that the low cost of living is drawing quality people from across the country to enrich the talent pool locally.

“I think this is a really good time to be entrepreneurial in Buffalo,” Hausler says. “And I see it being a good time whether you’re a startup looking to hire or a job candidate or if you have an idea you want to pitch.

“Pitch it. Go and talk to people. There’s a lot of avenues you can take with an idea at this point.”

Read more articles by Steven Jagord.

After studying journalism at Buffalo State College, Amherst resident Steven Jagord spent four years as editor of a community newspaper covering the Buffalo suburb of Clarence, New York. He currently is the program manager for the Pride Center of Western New York, a nonprofit that serves the local LGBTQ community.  He and his husband, Patrick, have a Yellow Lab named Dexter.  
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