Brian Bischoff and Oscar Lee have a lot going on. One of their companies, SmartPrint 3D, is relocating within the Buffalo area after winning an award this past fall; another, FlexMuch, is bringing to market a disposable bottle for mixing fitness supplements. On top of that, they’ve just launched a podcast aimed at helping to motivate and educate would-be entrepreneurs. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the partners give the impression of being tightly knit. Bischoff, who is an engineer by training, says he deals primarily with product development, while Lee handles marketing and administration.
The pair bonded in college over their shared interest in business and later became roommates. Bischoff’s first venture was driven by a prosaic student goal: finding money to pay for alcohol. After learning to cut hair, he started his own business, which eventually led to managerial experience at a local establishment.
The seeds of FlexMuch were planted when the pair noticed a common complaint at the gym: The reusable shaker bottles that bodybuilders used to mix powdered protein supplements had to be carted around and cleaned out after every use, and they often retained smells and residues. Seeing a business opportunity, they searched for disposable shaker bottles that they could purchase wholesale and resell. None of the disposable bottles on the market completely satisfied them, but they settled on one, and nearly took out a loan to purchase a shipment. The deal fell through when the seller gave them paperwork naming costlier terms than those he had offered over the phone.
Frustrated, they turned to developing their own disposable shaker bottle, but found that professional prototyping was beyond the reach of their budget. Bischoff bought a 3D printer and set about designing a bottle in AutoCAD.
“Our first three prints weren’t even watertight,” Lee recalled. But as Bischoff’s skills improved, people asked him to design things for them, and he started posting to Craigslist, snagging odd jobs. He said he wasn’t making much money, but was essentially getting paid to learn. “Eventually, we started getting so many offers…[that] Oscar pointed out that it would be strategic for us to work together on this,” Bischoff said. They formed a second company, SmartPrint 3D, to handle the orders and monetize their know-how.
After the pair graduated and found employment, FlexMuch got put on the backburner. However, they were still thinking up inventions, and they opened SmartPrint 3D as a brick-and-mortar store, offering repairs on 3D printers as well as products and services for sale. To keep overhead low—Bischoff said that competing with Amazon meant slim margins—they opened the store by appointment only, which Lee said gave them time to work on their other ideas.
The FlexWater disposable shaker bottle went through “nearly 15 iterations,” they note, before they finalized a shape that would create a dual vortex to quickly mix powders. The pair ran a Kickstarter campaign for the shaker bottle in December 2017, which failed to meet its goal. Lee said that this was due to prohibitive shipping costs. Both partners were sanguine about the campaign and are considering next steps. “The biggest thing right now is to get the samples and show people it works,” so that they can get the right investor, Bischoff said. They have faith that the product itself is both sound and salable. Bischoff pointed out that it has applications beyond the fitness industry, such as for mixing powdered baby formula.
Meanwhile, SmartPrint 3D has continued to branch out. The company recently developed a thermoplastic filament that won an award at the Defense TechConnect expo in Tampa in October. As a result, Bischoff said, they have closed the brick-and-mortar and are relocating nearby with an eye toward government contracts and a strategic partnership. Their biggest challenge has been figuring out which of their many ideas to focus on next. He said that Brad Gouldthorpe of Launch NY has been particularly helpful. “He helped us prioritize, saw the right things to do, where to invest—we are so thankful for what Launch NY is doing for us. It’s changed our company vision.”
Bischoff is originally from Staten Island, but has no interest in returning there. “I own my own house,” he said, which wouldn’t be possible in New York City. “At 24 years old, to own your own house and be running businesses, that’s insane.” He said there are upsides and downsides, but overall, Buffalo has provided what he needs at a great price. He has joined the board of the Western New York InventionConvention, an annual competition for local students, and said he would love to partner with UB to establish a summer camp where children can learn engineering skills.
In addition to growing their businesses, Bischoff works full time as a second-shift engineer. “Right now if I’m awake, I’m working,” he said. Lee said that he sometimes regrets quitting his full-time job to work on the companies because they don’t yet have steady income, “so you have to take every day and see what’s important, paying bills or getting a grant application out.” He works part time now in addition to developing the companies. Still, he said, “The freedom to make the choices and do what you want every day is absolutely worth it.”
Given their years of investment and work, the pair are skeptical of promises of easy success—so skeptical, in fact, that they recently started a podcast specifically to offer a realistic picture of what it means to start a business. “Basically, I’m tired of seeing all these people online trying to pitch that you can be an entrepreneur overnight,” Bischoff explained. Lee concurred, saying, “People think it takes overnight to get where we’re at and then another week to make a million dollars.” He added that they learned a lot from podcasts and motivational books, as well as Facebook groups for people to share ideas and ask for help.
Their podcast will host a new entrepreneur each week. Bischoff said, “I wanted to get the word out there from other entrepreneurs that are starting up businesses, that have been doing it for maybe five years—they’re not millionaires yet, but they want to be.” Technology offers an attractive narrative of instant riches, but the market also changes so fast that “what worked last month might not work this month in business. I wanted to be that middle ground saying you can do it [if] you put in the work and time.”
Conscientiously, he added, “Fair warning, we do curse a bit. I want to engage people, and we do get excited.”