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Local alternative business lenders address the 5 C’s of credit

Representatives from local alternative business lending agencies spoke to attendees Feb. 21 about the factors considered when administering loans, kicking off a three-part series tailored to entrepreneurs and those considering starting a small business.

Called “Filling the Finance Gap: Business Lending Options,” the first event, held at the Beverly Gray Business Center in Buffalo, addressed the five C’s of credit and allowed an opportunity for those in attendance to ask questions and meet the lenders.

Jonathon Ling, Business Development Officer for Pathstone Enterprise Center, presented five key variables considered in a loan application: capacity, collateral, character, conditions, and capital.

“Banks talk about the five C’s of credit,” Ling said. “But they don’t talk to you about the five C’s of credit.”

Ling described the importance of a good credit score, a cohesive business plan – especially for startups – and stressed that the character of an individual can also be a strong consideration. Each lender will weigh these five variables differently, he added.

The event was sponsored by Excelsior Growth Fund, Erie County IDA, Westminster Economic Development Initiative, Inc., and Pathstone Enterprise Center. Each alternative lending agency was represented at the meeting, and their lending options and products were presented to the audience.

Agency representatives agreed that they’re not in competition with one another, and each offers a different service targeting a different base of entrepreneurs in Buffalo and Western New York.

WEDI, for example, is a microlender offering loans of up to $20,000 as well as technical assistance in loan applications. The Erie County IDA offers larger loans and requires collateral, and does not offer the same technical assistance.

As an alternative lender, each agency is trying to fill a gap where banks can’t, said Sherri Falk of the Excelsior Growth Fund. The nonprofit can approve a loan within two days.

Falk cautioned audience members against considering small business loans available online, which frequently have predatory interest rates from which it’s difficult to escape.

But in some instances, EGF can offer refinancing, she added.

Audience members had a range of different backgrounds and interests. One man owned a taxi cab company. Another woman wanted to offer higher education and health care training courses online. A woman who owned a Buffalo East Side thrift shop was also in attendance. All listened to the different lending options available to business owners in Western New York and had time to meet with the lenders afterward.

Alternative lenders will be available again during the second meeting in the three-part series Saturday, March 24. “The Importance of Cash Flow” will be discussed from 10:30 to 11:30 a.m. at the Community Action Organization building at 1423 Fillmore Ave. in Buffalo.

The event is open to the public and free to attend. Light refreshments and snacks will be served. For more information or to register visit http://www.wedibuffalo.org/lendingoptions.


Developments along Buffalo’s Main Street enhance area for residents, business owners

Driven by grant money and private investment, development along Buffalo’s Main Street and downtown core continues to move forward, with projects in various stages of completion.

This spring, residents and visitors of the city can look forward to a more walkable downtown, with improved streetscaping and changes planned for greenspaces and park areas connecting Main Street to the waterfront.

“Main Street has come a long way, but it still has a long way to go,” Buffalo Place Inc. Executive Director Michael T. Schmand said.

Schmand said that a new movie theater, hotels, coffee shops, and restaurant sites are either in the process of being completed or successfully operating already in Buffalo’s downtown.

Buffalo Place Inc. is a not-for-profit organization that works closely with the City of Buffalo and local developers to administer grant money and facilitate projects along Main, Washington, and Pearl streets to the Buffalo waterfront. With a budget of $2.3 million, its constituent properties include One Seneca Tower, M&T Plaza, and much of the downtown core.

Schmand said that work done in the 500 block of Main Street in the last four years is particularly encouraging. Asbestos removal at the former AM&A’s location on Main is nearly completed, which will be the site of a 340-room Wyndham Hotel, part of a $70 million makeover for the building.

Investment in the block will also include a new restaurant, bars, retail shopping, and coffee shops.

Schmand said that projects will eventually open Main Street to car traffic all the way to the foot of Main Street. Seneca One will see a full construction season this spring and summer. He credited Douglas Jemal’s work at Seneca One, where the investor hopes to reintroduce retail space to that end of Main Street.

The Starbucks in Buffalo’s Hyatt Regency in Fountain Plaza is exceeding projected customer volume, Schmand said, and Ciminelli Real Estate is moving its headquarters from Williamsville to 50 Fountain Plaza.

“I remember when we had to battle the suburbs,” Schmand said. “As an organization, as a city, and as a community, we realized we have to work together.”

With the growth of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus and the University at Buffalo’s Jacobs School of Medicine, demand is high for the many townhouses and apartments nearing completion or in planning downtown. And with that will come opportunities for entrepreneurs looking to start a restaurant, open a shop, or locate their business near a surge of skilled workers. Many of those apartments are pre-rented, Schmand added.

Schmand credited many of the developers and property owners for the investment they’re making in these projects. Developers on the Buffalo Place board include Steven Carmina, Carl Paladino, and Rocco Termini, all of whom Schmand credited by name.

He also listed a Market Arcade film and art center theater, and pointed to the rise in foot traffic in the Theater District on Main Street, which includes seven theaters. Foot traffic last summer was up by about 27 percent, Schmand said.

Challenges in the future will continue to be the need for parking and access, as well as how to smartly maintain green space, linking Buffalo’s parks to the waterfront.

Working with the Buffalo Urban Development Corporation, planning sessions are in the works for improving the gateway to the waterfront, which includes improvements to Five Flags, Cathedral, and Fireman’s parks.

Buffalo Place also manages the Downtown Country Market farmers’ market, Rotary Rink, and Queen City Social.

“We always look at Buffalo Place as a keeper of the vision for Main Street and downtown,” Schmand said. “We work for the people invested in Main Street.”


Experimac, 716 Limousine team up to bring unique computer repair service direct to the customer

When West Seneca entrepreneurs Jeff and Gina Siepierski opened Experimac - Orchard Park in November 2016, their mission was quite clear: to provide the underserved Southtowns community with reliable Apple product support. With their mission accomplished and the business showing sales improvement month to month, the husband and wife team recently moved to phase two of their business plan: to bring expert repairs and service direct to the customer, anywhere in Western New York, via their one-of-a-kind “RepairPod.”

To accomplish their new goal, the business owners have teamed up with 716 Limousine LLC to offer a service that is unique to the Western New York marketplace. Businesses large and small can now schedule on-site services and repairs with Experimac — such as iPhone battery replacements, iPhone screen repairs, and a variety of other repair services — that take place in a specially equipped passenger limousine featuring a work station, WiFi, and power.

“We wanted to grow our business beyond the Southtowns,” said Jeff Siepierski. “It’s easy for companies to find support for PCs, but Apple has always been more of a challenge. Now we can bring the support right to the doorstep of a business, and grow our business in the process.”

The biggest challenge associated with this innovative new venture was finding a vehicle capable of handling computer repair-related tasks. Gina Siepierski then contacted 716 Limousine, a company with which she had a previous business relationship, to discuss this unique business opportunity. The local transportation company agreed, liking the idea of exposing their limousines to more business owners and the general public.

“Finding a transportation partner was our biggest concern, but 716 jumped on the idea right away,” Jeff added. “From there, it’s just been getting the word out about the service and following up on leads. We’re getting a lot of inquiries from businesses trying to better understand the program and how it can benefit them and their employees.”

The first company to contact Experimac - Orchard Park for the on-site “RepairPod” service was a local fitness center that brought in the tech team as a convenience for their clients. While their fitness members enjoyed spinning class, Experimac employees were busy replacing batteries and fixing cracked screens. When class was over, the fitness enthusiasts were reunited with their freshly repaired iPhones.

“Underserved marketplaces are now a thing of the past,” said Jeff.
 


Buffalo outpaces national average in growth of young adult population

Beyond the towering medical campus buildings, the state investment dollars, and the fresh infrastructure in downtown Buffalo, the most positive indicator of the city’s resurgence may lie in the demographic data.

The U.S. Census Bureau’s 2016 American Community Survey, released early this year, shows the City of Buffalo’s growth in 25- to 34-year-olds outpaces the national average, placing it 22nd at 13.4 percent growth. That outpaces 58 of the 79 cities identified in the study.

The data, first reported by Buffalo Business First, is also encouraging in the 25- to 34-year-old, college-educated demographic. The city’s population growth in that category is up 20.8 percent.

In total, Buffalo’s young adult population, according to the census, has grown to 43,407, up from approximately 38,000 five years ago. The average growth of young adults in the nation’s 80 cities is 10 percent; the data shows Buffalo outpaced the average.

These findings are similar to data commissioned by Invest Buffalo Niagara, a nonprofit, privately funded economic development organization. Its 2017 Labor Market Assessment report, compiled by the University at Buffalo Regional Institute and released last February, shows young adults in the Buffalo-Niagara region are more likely to hold a bachelor’s degree than the national average. And the proportion of age 25- to 34-year-old workers in Buffalo-Niagara nearly matches the national average.

Looking at the Buffalo-Niagara Metropolitan Statistical Area, the region’s percentage of young adults making up its workforce ranks similarly to cities like Charlotte, N.C., and Pittsburgh, Pa., at 21.3 percent.

Invest Buffalo Niagara’s findings show an overall labor supply increase of 2 percent since 2009. The unemployed population declined by over 25,000.

The Invest Buffalo Niagara report is based on the Buffalo-Niagara region’s eight counties, including Niagara, Orleans, Genesee, Wyoming, Cattaraugus, and Allegany to the east, spanning to Chautauqua County along the Pennsylvania border.

“I like to say that success breeds success,” Invest Buffalo Niagara research manager Matthew Hubacher said. “One positive development in the region attracts people to job opportunities. That just brings more success and more investment. It feeds off itself.”

Hubacher added that recent project wins, bringing businesses and investment to the region, drives growth in the millennial cohort. “You can feel a change in the region, both in the number and size of companies able to expand their business here in Western New York,” he said.

Hubacher pointed to Sentient Science as an example. Located on Delaware Avenue in Buffalo, company president and CEO Ward Thomas recently told UpstartNY.org the University at Buffalo is an “incredible hiring resource.” He added that talent from outside of Western New York is lured here by the affordable housing and higher quality of life. Data increasingly has shown that young adults place quality of life and happiness in the workplace ahead of high wages, for example.

And with new breweries, shopping, restaurants, and museums expanding rapidly within the city, young adults are drawn here. The data from Invest Buffalo Niagara and the U.S. Census Bureau is beginning to show that.

Hubacher added that with 27,000 graduates from the 21 colleges and universities in the eight counties, it’s important to continue to match those graduates with companies locally looking to fill positions.


New club at the University at Buffalo is intended to facilitate collaboration among entrepreneurs

For many young entrepreneurs, the challenge of turning an idea into a reality is connecting multiple skillsets across industries.

A college graduate with a background in business, for example, may not have the same skills as an engineer or computer scientist.

Connecting students with expertise in different fields in an effort to grow innovation is the goal of a new extracurricular club at the University at Buffalo, called Inve[n|s]tUB, led by a UB computer science professor with a business background in Western New York.

In its early stages, the club has yet to establish formal meeting times. They’re still trying to measure interest and develop a cohesive program before launching, UB Department of Computer Science and Engineering Professor of Practice Alan Hunt said.

“The focus is to take people who want to build something, and put them together with people who might know what to do next, or guide them through the things you have to worry about, from legal, regulatory, copywriting to programming and management,” Hunt said.

Inve[n|s]tUB is currently open to UB students, faculty, and staff, but Hunt says down the road it may be available to students from other universities. And they’re always looking for mentors and partners across sectors in the Buffalo business community.

The challenge is not to dilute the mission of the club, nor to pull students away from other business-related clubs on campus. Hunt said Inve[n|s]tUB is trying to do something on campus that’s independent of other similar programs, with support from programs like UB’s Blackstone Launchpad chapter.
 

The club is open to students in any UB program “looking to learn, brainstorm, and build” an innovative business project or idea. Hunt suggests, for example, a nonprofit that seeks to use demographic data to better address an idea. Connecting a computer scientist who can build a functional app with an engineer who can manipulate data and a business student who can establish an operating plan can be the difference in getting an idea off the ground.

And, hopefully, the collaborative projects built through Inve[n|s]tUB will give undergraduates projects for their portfolios that prepare them for more than just entry-level positions in industry.

Hunt, a graduate of the computer science and engineering department at the University at Buffalo, has been working in industry for 20 years. He said students have begun to reach out to express interest in the club, but he hopes not to spread the club’s goals too far, at least initially.

Interested University at Buffalo students, faculty, and staff can find out more information at http://invenst.cse.buffalo.edu/index.html or email Hunt at ahunt@buffalo.edu. Inve[n|s]t UB's kickoff meeting will be held Wednesday, Feb. 28, from 5-6:30 p.m. in 113A Davis Hall.


5 cost-conscious sales strategies for startups

Sales are the lifeline of a startup. Have you ever heard the saying: “Sales solves all problems?” It’s not entirely true, but there's a lot of truth to it. Sales can buy you time--time to improve your product or service, the process, and the customer and employee experience.

In today’s world of connected consumers, a common misconception is that social media, sales funnels, and AI can solve the challenge of generating new business. Although technology can help sales scale, it’s just one piece of a successful sales model.

Human interaction is still incredibly important. There is a timeless truth that people do business with people they know, like, and trust. This is critical, especially in a city like Buffalo, where many companies support local business.

The following are five strategies to help you make the connections that can lead to new business.

1. Get crystal clear on your ideal client and customer avatar. Start with just a handful of prospects and get to know them personally--their pain points, needs, and their industry. Get them to beta test and give feedback on your product/service.

Once you have buy-in and proof of concept, expand your target to similar companies in the same industry. Riches are in the niches, so start with a narrow audience and provide depth of expertise. Knowing your customer will help you optimize ad spend.

2. Use both online tools and offline tactics to connect with potential customers. Online tools like LinkedIn and DiscoverOrg can help you develop a list of prospects, which you can then convert into personal relationships through phone calls or video conference calls to better understand their needs.

Get active in industry associations so you can be where your customers gather. Attend conferences where you can meet dozens of prospects or, if you have a limited budget, walk an exhibitor floor at a local event.

And don’t forget to tap into your network of existing relationships, past employers, colleagues—they just might be your next customers.

3. Take the time to do outbound prospecting. While this level of commitment is an investment in time, it can help you uncover customer needs and facilitate discussions on how a proposed solution can solve challenges. Customer visits are the most effective, but phone calls and email marketing can also be successful. Dan Magnuszewski, CTO of ACV Auctions, said that meeting with potential customers led to a lot of his early sales. “It’s the best way to hear the raw feedback on what (customers) like and the reasons why they don’t want to use your product,” he said.

4. Use social proof to win sales and influence customers. The principle of social proof is connected to the principle of liking: Because we are social creatures, we tend to like things just because other people do, regardless of our personal knowledge of or experience with them. Therefore, anything that shows the popularity of your products can influence potential customers. Have you gotten good press? Mention it! Received loving emails from customers? Quote them!

Two major ways to increase opportunities for social proof are through personal branding and content marketing.
  • Personal branding: You could argue that personal branding is the foundation of social selling. Without a strong online brand, it’s simply more difficult to engage sales prospects. Even if you excel at growing relationships, every sales relationship starts with a successful engagement.

    Share your story, and not just the doctored-up version. Share your vulnerability while highlighting your why for founding the company and the problem you seek to solve. Use your brand to become a thought leader in your niche.

    Look for free press. It could be something as simple as submitting yourself to "People on the Move" in Buffalo Business First.
     
  • Content marketing: Content can be a good way to provide value to potential customers, but it doesn’t always have to be about boasting the benefits of your product/service. Effective branding tells the story of your customers’ pain points. It elicits emotion. Then it offers a pain killer (solution) for the pain. For example, if your product has a scientific secret sauce, display content from professionals with credentials, like a doctor or an industry influencer. This will position you as an authority, and people are hardwired to respond to authority, or the perception of it.

    Matt Pelkey, partner at Colligan Law, says, “Don’t overlook public relations through earned media and content marketing. Develop relationships with members of the media, deliberately create content relevant to your product, and leverage that content into exposure for your product or service. With very little cost and some sweat equity, companies can build on their own expertise.”

5. Solicit word of mouth referrals. When it comes to client acquisition, referrals can play a huge part in your success--or lack thereof. People make decisions based how you make them feel throughout the process, and the opinion of others, as it relates to your work, will impact these decisions. Be sure to ask your clients, and the companies you do business with (your accountant, lawyer, doctor, CRM provider, HVAC, etc.) to make a referral for you. When people who don’t know your product know someone whom they trust who uses it, they are more likely to buy from you. It is the easiest way to crack great deals.

Making sales is vital to startup success, and relationships are the key to making sales. Use these five strategies to help you win customers and nurture these new connections.

Despite government shutdown, SCORE’s Straight Talk event goes on

The timing couldn’t have been worse. Hours before Buffalo Niagara SCORE was to hold its annual convention for local entrepreneurs, a day filled with speakers and seminars in conjunction with Buffalo’s U.S. Small Business Administration bureau, the federal government announced a shutdown, threatening the entire event.

SCORE, which partners closely with the SBA in mentoring and advising entrepreneurs, was ready. And with a few frantic, final adjustments, the event took place without a hitch.

“I was on the phone all day Friday and watching the TV, too,” SCORE Buffalo Niagara Chair John Vitale said about the federal government’s last-minute attempts to pass legislation which would fund government operations and agencies. “I realized around 10 p.m. it wasn’t going to happen.”

The shutdown lasted from midnight on Saturday, Jan. 20, until a short-term compromise was reached Monday, Jan. 22. Just long enough to pull the SBA’s involvement entirely from the convention.

The annual “Straight Talk” event was to be held at the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center, and more than 350 people were registered to attend. U.S. SBA administrator Linda McMahon was in town to give the keynote address, but could not attend the event, and the Buffalo SBA bureau, which leads many of the seminars during the day, could not participate due to the three-day shutdown.

That left SCORE to fill in the gaps. And Vitale said the organization was prepared, with minimal disruption to the planned schedule. Mayor Byron Brown was in attendance, as were other city and county representatives. Vitale added that despite some concern, enthusiasm remained the same for the high-energy event, and feedback has been positive.

“We had some contingency plans,” Vitale said. “SCORE stepped up and took the lead in the areas the SBA was slated to do.”

It was President Donald Trump-appointee McMahon’s second attempt at a speaking appearance in Buffalo after a previous engagement was postponed this fall. Vitale said he was not sure if she would make a third try.

The SBA’s Straight Talk event, co-sponsored by SCORE and now in its 22nd year, is the launch of an eight-part series that began Tuesday, Jan. 30, at Medaille College.

Focused toward entrepreneurs, seminar topics include how to build business and financial plans, risk management and insurance and tax instruction. Classes typically begin at 5:45 and cost $5 for participants.

Vitale said they expect about 100 people at each event, and in total approximately 1,000 will attend at least one class. Interested entrepreneurs can visit https://buffaloniagara.score.org/buffaloworkshops for more information.

SCORE’s Buffalo Niagara chapter works with about 1,200 clients a year, from entrepreneurs looking to start a restaurant to consultants needing business plan assistance. The organization provides mentorship, one-on-one advising, and networking to prospective business owners.

“Our mission really is to help build an environment for successful businesses in two ways: mentorship and education,” Vitale said.


Filling the finance gap

Do you need financing to start or grow your business? Are you looking to network with other small business owners? Join Excelsior Growth Fund, PathStone Enterprise Center, Westminster Economic Development Initiative, and the Erie County IDA for a lively discussion on financing options for your business! We will talk about the loan application and review process, and what lenders look for in a good application. Don’t miss your chance to meet with local small business lenders, learn what small business loans are available to you, and ask questions specific to your business needs.

Event Dates:
February 21
March 24
April 23

For more information, click here.


Girl Develop It opens doors to tech jobs for women

With a degree in computational physics, Olga Nelioubov was used to studying in a field traditionally dominated by men.

The 2016 University at Buffalo graduate might’ve grown accustomed to a male-centric classroom and professional setting, but she felt like, for better or for worse, she was sometimes treated differently. And when it came to asserting herself, it was difficult to build confidence or earn recognition.

After college, Nelioubov received a job offer as an administrator for a local company and needed to focus on her computer programming skills. Girl Develop It, a national nonprofit that provides programs and networking opportunities for women interested in web and software development, not only helped Nelioubov land a software engineer position, but the Florida native is now a Buffalo chapter leader, helping other women interested in growing their programming skills.

Girl Develop It was founded in 2010 in New York City and has 57 chapters across North America, including three in New York state. Led by Lena Levine, Buffalo’s GDI chapter was the 12th in the country, and currently has almost 800 members.

The organization’s mission is to provide affordable programs for women of all races, income levels, and education levels in a judgement-free setting. Today, it has more than 55,000 members nationally.

Levine has her own web development studio, where she builds websites and applications for companies locally, from Valu Home Center to UB. She launched the Buffalo chapter of GDI in 2013 to give women an environment where they can learn programming languages, network, and ask questions in an effort to break down the barrier of entry that still exists in the computer programming field.

“We started at the brink of the whole Buffalo resurgence,” said Levine, a native of Russia who moved here in 2009. “I’m excited that we were able to contribute to that movement forward as well.”

Girl Develop It works with a spectrum of women, from college-aged seeking a skill set that isn’t offered in a traditional classroom setting, to accomplished professionals being asked to update their company’s WordPress page. Buffalo’s GDI chapter offers “office hour” meetups for coffee and networking, courses in Python programming language, and Saturday morning brunch, with times and locations rotated to accommodate as many people as possible.

Nelioubov leads some of GDI’s local programs and said the mentorship and networking opportunities are as important as reinforcing skillsets.

“Some of the meetups I went to helped more than the classes themselves,” Nelioubov said. “There were chapter leaders there offering clear advice and providing motivation.

“I was timid. I didn’t think I had what it takes to become a software engineer. But [GDI] leaders spoke with me, they coached me, they helped me along, and because of that, I have the job that I have now,” she added.

Nelioubov found confidence through the GDI networking opportunities, where she was encouraged to take chances on her career. “The worst thing they can do is say no,” she said. But for Nelioubov, companies said yes, and relatively quickly.

In addition to courses and meetups, GDI offers bootcamp courses and hackathons, both of which present challenging, supportive environments not always accessible to women in traditional settings. Levine does monthly talks on different technologies and trends and newsletters keep members engaged.

Levine said with more opportunities available outside the traditional classroom setting, programming is becoming more accessible to both men and women. But GDI provides something more: a valuable professional network for women in Buffalo to lean on.

“It’s about getting women excited, and creating a network of women to get more women into the field,” Levine said. “It’s great to see our members get in those great tech jobs and advance their careers. And we are here for them.”

Both Levine and Nelioubov said they see GDI members across Buffalo’s professional landscape in every sector. Liazon has hired other GDI members, Nelioubov said, and Levine has hired GDI members for her studio.

In the university setting, programming languages that are taught often become quickly outdated, or the cost for a semester-long course is prohibitive. GDI members are encouraged to bring their professional projects where program leaders can offer advice and answer questions to push them forward.

“It’s comfortable, it’s welcoming, and it’s really nice to be around other women in the tech field,” Nelioubov said.


New dog boutique in Lewiston offers healthy options for treating pets

Have you ever looked at the ingredients that make up the foods and snacks you feed your beloved animal?

Longtime dog owner Paul Jeffs said he grew up trusting dog food manufacturers, just as his dogs trusted they would be fed every day. That is, until one day he and his wife, Michelle, looked at the label on the back of the products they were purchasing for their dog, Libby (short for Liberty Bell), a black lab and Australian cattle herder mix.

“Some of the ingredients, you cannot pronounce what they are,” Jeffs said. “You Google them and find out they are things that are not allowed for human consumption. We love our pets, we treat them like members of our family, but then we willingly buy them stuff that cannot be consumed by humans. We got to a point where some of the dog food manufacturers lost sight of the fact that dogs and animals are human companions and are considered family members.”

Appalled by their findings, Jeffs, a British Canadian who became an entrepreneur and spent about 15 years working as a food and beverage manager at four- and five-star hotels in Asia, and his wife, Michelle, who worked in the baking industry, decided to combine their backgrounds and start their own premium dog boutique in Michelle’s hometown of Lewiston, N.Y.

“There is a really big emphasis and a big shift on the importance of human-grade dog food and treats. We decided to make something that is 100 percent natural, made of plant-based ingredients,” Jeffs said during a phone interview. “There is also an emphasis on ‘Made in America.’ There is a larger accountability factor with American and Canadian suppliers, so we are trying to keep to our epicenter as much as possible.”

With “Made in America” in mind, the pair searched for merchants from which to obtain their ingredients, as well as to assist with packaging and labeling. Their all-natural dog biscuits are made of hemp seeds and seaweed (from the Bay of Fundy in Canada) and are available in six flavors: original, cranberry, mango, carrot, apple, and pumpkin. They also sell tick and flea spray made with pure essential oils, and a 100 percent plant-based healing hemp balm for dogs’ paws. Hemp has amazing health benefits for animals, Jeffs said, adding that the oil is a natural preservative.

The product line was ready to go, but the couple needed to find a name for their business. The Cheeky Wolf Company seemed to fit the bill, because it combined a British term, cheeky, with the wild counterpart of the canines they serve.

The Cheeky Wolf Company officially began selling its products on Dec. 1, 2017, through its website and select “top-shelf” retailers and per-service outlets. The couple is looking to expand their business and are open to suggestions for new products and improvements to existing ones--except when it comes to their recipes. “There, we are perfect!”

 

 

 


The Book Fairy brings the magic of reading alive for children

According to Management Top 250, a list of the best-run companies in America as ranked by The Wall Street Journal and the Drucker Institute, non-tech businesses are beginning to take their place among the most innovative companies for the ways they are incorporating technological advances into their business models.

Here in Buffalo, that trend is also apparent. One such company is Fairy Bunch LLC, which brings the magic of reading alive for children.

For Melanie Bunch, owner and creator of Fairy Bunch LLC, the approaching release of her first book, titled “The Book Fairy,” is something that holds personal significance on multiple levels.

The 32-page book, and its tooth fairy-esque lead, draws inspiration from Bunch’s late cousin, who lost her life in the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy, and Bunch’s background working in higher education at the University at Buffalo.

“The idea for the Book Fairy was really two colliding worlds. In 2013, I took some time off from the university and was working with a national fundraising managing company,” Bunch says. “I had the opportunity to work with nearly 500 schools, primarily in the South. As I was traveling between the University of Alabama and Mississippi State, there was a program on talk radio that talked about the high illiteracy rate in the United States, and the number they quoted was 93 million people.

“That kind of stopped me in my tracks, because I do have a graduate degree in education, and I thought that was about a third of our country’s population, that can’t be right. It went on to say that about half of those 93 million are illiterate, and the other half are functionally illiterate, meaning they can only read at a fourth grade level.

“At the same time that I was listening to that program, I thought back to my cousin (Dawn Hochsprung) who was the principal at Sandy Hook Elementary School and used to dress up as the Sandy Hook Book Fairy. I thought everyone could use a book fairy, and that’s how the idea was born.”

That night, at a hotel in Columbus, Miss., Bunch began doing research to make sure the facts and figures were correct, and quickly realized a book would be the perfect way to honor a family member and do her part to stop the growing problem of illiteracy.

“The whole point is to make the magic of reading come alive,” Bunch says. “There’s so much competition for children’s attention with phones, tablets, and video games, that the importance of reading may take a back seat. There are multiple studies that talk about how learning to read at a younger age, or just being read to when they’re two or three years old, can prepare them for success later on.”

Bunch began to look for something that would compete for children’s attention while encouraging them to pick up a book. That’s when the idea for “Lily,” a doll that would bring the character in “The Book Fairy” to life, was born. With the push of a remote control button, the doll’s dress will light up (just as Dawn’s did) signaling that there is a book waiting to be read and instilling curiosity in young readers.

Bunch worked with an illustrator to create the Lily she envisioned, using 3D animation technology. “Once you have that 3D model, you can send it to the factory as a prototype and be on your way to a finished product,” she says.

“My Book Fairy is not some amazing piece of technology that is going to change the world, it’s just a way that we can actually make reading a little bit exciting and magical for children,” Bunch adds.

The first book and doll are slated to be released during the summer of 2018, and Bunch eventually hopes to create an entire series to help end illiteracy.

“I have this vision to have the Book Fairy and her team of reading crusaders,” Bunch notes. “I have another book written with another character called ‘Storyteller Sam.’ I had the first book written and a lot of people mentioned that they wanted a boy doll to encourage their sons to read. I also have four other books outlined that I will hopefully be rolling out over the next few years.”

Although Bunch has already found success with preorders and has deals with several local book stores, she admits there have been challenges along the way.

“At the beginning, I had no idea what I was getting into,” Bunch says, noting that starting a business is not an easy endeavor. “I didn’t really know how to go about everything, so I was very grateful to have the help of companies like Launch NY and the Blackstone Launchpad at the University at Buffalo.”

But even with the help of these organizations, Bunch found bringing the product to market was a challenge and more expensive than she anticipated, but she is grateful to have gone through her journey here in Western New York.

“I was encouraged by a stranger I met on an airplane, who is an entrepreneur in the Buffalo area, to actually go through with this,” Bunch notes. “I told him about my idea, and he said get off the plane, talk to a lawyer, and see if the trademark is available.

“I’ve enjoyed the ride; it’s been an amazing experience,” she continues. “I have friends now that will be my friends for the rest of my life. I think that’s one of the best things about Western New York--not one person I’ve reached out to has said ‘No, I’m not willing to help you.’ We have this amazing ecosystem of people who truly want people to succeed. With their help, I hope to be a small part in ending the illiteracy problem in the United States and reinvigorating children’s relationship with books.”


Buffalo’s entrepreneurial community fostered success for CoachMePlus

Relationships are key in any business, and Kevin Dawidowicz had built a good one.

The co-founder and president of CoachMePlus, a digital fitness- and health-tracking platform, was working with Doug McKenney, the longtime strength coach for the Buffalo Sabres, in 2002, building a CD-ROM program to track the players’ workouts.

When Terry and Kim Pegula purchased the team in 2010, Dawidowicz pitched moving the program to an online platform, where fitness and diet goals can be monitored remotely in real time by coaches and trainers. Today, the program, and ones similar to it, are used across high school, college, and professional teams. And the Buffalo-based company was a pioneer, with CoachMePlus launched in 2014.

It almost didn’t happen, at least not here.

In 2007, Dawidowicz was vulnerable, so to speak, searching for funding, seeking financial backing from out of state and reaching out to investors. He wanted the product to succeed here, but the network of support was thin. He was considering moving to California or New York City, greener pastures for tech and high-growth startups in the mid-2000s.

He’s glad he didn’t.

With the help of Z80 Labs, CoachMePlus became one of its earliest investments. Buffalo Angels, through the Western New York Venture Association, came in and soon Dawidowicz, with his brother Mike, had found financial backing and solid footing for the company.

“I am extremely excited that we have the startup community that we have now,” Dawidowicz said recently. “When we first started, there were very few startups. My brother and I, serial entrepreneurs, we keep trying new things. A lot of times it felt like you were out there on your own doing it.”

Dawidowicz played some high school hockey and football, and when he found time he would work out in a gym. He noticed a problem that athletes across the spectrum were having: bringing a notebook and pencil to the gym to track their fitness. Trainers, too, were using hand-written charts when they worked with clients.

CoachMePlus addresses that problem through a platform that can be used by strength and fitness coaches and specialists to track their athlete’s progress. Dawidowicz and his team market the product to both large and small gyms and teams at every level, and packages can be expanded or scaled back to meet the users’ needs.

We’re at a place where we’re finally hitting all markets in the place we want to hit. In pro sports, everybody knows who we are. We don’t have to educate the market. They understand the value of product,” Dawidowicz said.

With support from Z80 Labs, 43North, and Buffalo Angels, among others, Dawidowicz compared Buffalo’s startup community to hitting a trampoline, where everything is bouncing up.

And CoachMePlus pulls its talent almost exclusively from local colleges when hiring programmers, marketers, and tech professionals. The company currently has 17 employees, 15 of them full time. The team includes co-founders Liz Young and Stephen Ostrow, and CEO Teo Balbach.

Business is cyclical for a company like CoachMePlus. At the start of 2018, there might be a surge of business from personal trainers and fitness coaches as gyms become busier and athletes look for new fitness plans. Then baseball and softball will gear up. Through the summer, it’s football, hockey, and basketball in preparation for the fall. CoachMePlus covers them all.

The biggest development for CoachMePlus may be just on the horizon. A new contract with the U.S. Navy, Dawidowicz said, has moved through its first phase. “It’s opened a whole new door for us,” he added.


Workforce coalition makes headway in identifying needs of employers

When it comes to addressing workforce development for Buffalo’s business community, collaboration is the best approach.

That’s the strategy being implemented by a regional coalition of business, government, philanthropic, and nonprofit organizations to identify job opportunities, benefitting both Buffalo’s workforce and employers.

Employ Buffalo Niagara, led by the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, is an employer-led collaboration of entities seeking to streamline policies, skills training, and workforce funding to better connect all people in the community to careers with local employers from small entrepreneurs to large regional companies.

“Systems change in workforce development does not occur overnight, and it will take a while to make high-level changes,” Laura Smith, vice president of economic development for the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, said. “But I think we’ve made great progress so far. This is a new approach to workforce development, and we have a strong coalition across private and public sectors.”

The program works to more efficiently tap the potential talent pool in a range of sectors, from tourism to healthcare to manufacturing. When employers do a better job of honing in on what skills and competencies are truly required for open positions and communicate them in aggregate more clearly, agencies and training entities that help individuals into positions will be able to better respond. Smith stressed the importance of workforce development for the incumbent worker, too. This is a “push-pull” strategy that, to be truly effective, will help employers “upskill” individuals to move from entry-level into a higher-skill position, opening up opportunities at the lower-rung for the underemployed in the community seeking higher-paying, career-tracked jobs. That leads to healthier communities across Western New York.

Smith said the program’s development has been evolving for about four years, which involved research analysis, background work, and observation of trends both locally and nationally. Employ Buffalo Niagara is based on models used successfully in other communities, including Houston, Texas. The U.S. Dept. of Commerce has recognized Employ as a model program at the federal level.

“The process is totally scalable,” Smith said. “It’s pretty exciting. There’s an appetite for it in the community and in New York state as well. It’s something our region is piloting.”
 

A major component of Employ is growing opportunities for the region’s working poor and minority populations, which face barriers in transportation and training in earning livable wages in career-tracked positions. If a segment of the population is working multiple jobs to make ends meet, how can they find time to participate in additional training without a significant loss in wages? These are some of the overarching issues Employ seeks to address.

Beyond that, Employ works to improve communication and marketing of these programs to high school and technical school students, to put young people on track for high-growth careers.

Its work is done in tandem with the Greater Buffalo Racial Equity Roundtable, and workforce training for minority populations has been a priority of Buffalo City Mayor Byron Brown. “To get folks out of poverty, they’re going to need jobs,” Smith added. "That’s really where coming up with creative solutions is important.”

Employ Buffalo Niagara looks to build efficiency through the interactions of a wide spectrum of agencies, Smith said. Other workforce programs, like the Northland Corridor workforce program, focus on specific sectors in a specific neighborhood. That is part of the flow and is complementary to Employ’s goals, Smith said.

With agencies collaborating, specific skills and needs can more readily be identified. “It really is about identifying what are the job openings, who else shares that, and how do we leverage that,” Smith said.

Approximately 82 individuals sit on the Employ Coalition, which meets again in February. Entrepreneurs and startups play an important role on that board, Smith said. If they need to fill staff, from coders to administrative assistants, Employ is building an infrastructure from which startup leaders can draw.


Online startup accelerator program now accepting applications

Do you have an idea for a business, but don’t know how to get started? Or do you have a business you are working on, but need assistance with building a team, or finding customers or ideas for growth? Braathe Enterprises’ startup accelerator program, BE Your Start, will help you turn your ideas into a reality. Students can apply to the program and pitch their idea for a startup. If accepted into the program, they will have the opportunity to get their startup idea off the ground.

This program, which is free of charge, runs from Feb. 1 - April 30. Application deadline is Jan. 25. Click here to apply: https://beyourstart.com/apply/.


Entrepreneur Shawn Riester, DPT, offers advice for meeting 2018 fitness goals

It took more than a background in medicine for Dr. Shawn Riester’s physical therapy practice in Williamsville to be successful. The University at Buffalo graduate needed an eye for business, leadership, and an entrepreneurial spirit to launch his own PT startup.

That was seven years ago. And now as Riester Physical Therapy Services sets to add its ninth therapist to the practice in 2018, Riester is taking his experience in medicine and combining it with business skills gained in the UB Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership course to build a growing business specializing in individualized rehabilitation and physical therapy services.

January and February, Riester says, are the company’s busiest months. Why? Think dozens of runners, weight lifters, spinners, and novice yogis who have spent one too many months on the couch in the fall, all ready to make a health push as part of their New Year’s resolution.

Day one and two of a new exercise plan feel great, Riester says. But it’s important to give the body time to recover and adapt to a new regiment to avoid getting hurt.

“It’s important to start off understanding that you need to have a plan for how you want to do things," Riester advises. "That plan has to incorporate periods of rest and recovery. It’s a common mistake. Two days of running, strength work, yoga. Well, what if running four days would be better? It's not. You’re taking up rest and recovery. All good things that happen to us, happen during rest period.”

Riester took on a monumental challenge when he started his practice in 2010. Buffalo, he says, has some of the lowest reimbursement rates for physical therapists in the country, which forces them to see a high volume of patients per hour. It means juggling multiple clients with different needs at once, and Riester wanted to find a different business model that allows for more personalized care.

At Riester PT Services, the focus is on patient care. Using efficiencies in a strong team setting and relying on data science for treatment, Riester physical therapists are less likely to face burnout while producing better results, he says.

“I was told early on this would never work. We’ve created a model that works really well. Patients get way more attention, but we haven't done a good job of marketing it,” he says.

And with a highlighted awareness of the risk of opioids in pain management, Riester adds, doctors are finding that physical therapy is often safer and more effective. This means it’s as important as ever for those who are hurt to have access to quality PT care.

Riester built his company through “bootstrap” business practices. He didn’t borrow money. Instead, he worked nights, taught classes at UB, and found ways to save by sharing studio space with a friend or working per diem with other practices.

As clients begin to flood Riester Physical Therapy Services this winter, Dr. Riester says many of the injuries will come from overuse, frequently by people in the 30s age range trying to work out the same way they did when they were in their 20s.

Within the first few weeks of a new workout plan, muscles will thicken and adapt. It’s the joints and ligaments that take longer to strengthen. An overreliance on weight machines, Riester cautions, won’t work stability muscles, which can lead to injury, as well.

He also warns against looking at a routine or diet that worked for someone else and expecting the exact same result. The best, most sustainable success stories, Riester says, are the ones where individuals reach their own goals at their own pace.

“The recommendation is, doing something to start is a great move. We would rather have people exercising. Even a little is better than sitting on couch,” Riester says. “Being strong is a good defense against being injured, no matter what age." But he emphasizes that people should be smart about how much they move at first.

"If you’re injured, all that will do is it will slow you down from reaching your goals.”

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