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Entrepreneurs learn about cash flow and loan resources from local alternative business lenders

Representatives from local small business lending agencies explained the importance of cash flow and the resources available when seeking a loan in the second of a three-part Filling the Finance Gap series.

Entrepreneurs listened to a presentation March 24 from Buffalo-based community development financial institutions, including representatives from Westminster Economic Development Initiative, Inc., Excelsior Growth Fund, Erie County IDA, and PathStone Enterprise Center.

Attendees learned about the dos and don’ts of cash flow budgeting, presented by Raisa Dibble and Joshua Brenner, economic development specialists at WEDI, located on Grant Street on Buffalo’s West Side.

There are three types of cash flow, Brenner and Dibble explained. Operational, which accounts for money received and spent from business-related activities and payroll; investment, which involves the buying and selling of assets; and financing, which is cash received or spent through debt.

Brenner and Dibble also advised those seeking to start a business to list assumptions in their cash flow plan, understand the costs of goods sold, estimate taxes, and use data and research before making any assumptions.

Audience members attending the talk at the Community Action Organization Center on Fillmore Avenue were given a sample spreadsheet to track business expenses and revenue. Entrepreneurs in the audience had business interests ranging from construction and vending to real estate, kids entertainment, and a beauty salon.

“Break everything down because people looking at your cash flow don’t know your business,” WEDI representatives advised in the presentation. They also recommended that entrepreneurs do a thorough scenario analysis to make sure there are margins to build on as variables change, and that they leave themselves "wiggle room."

“You want to be able to catch yourself,” Brenner said.

Audience members also learned that resources to manage business accounting are available through the Small Business Administration at SBA.gov, as well as through Buffalo’s SCORE chapter, and that there are community organizations that can assist them in developing a business plan or building an accurate account of expenses.

Representatives from the participating lending agencies explained their loan products, for whom they are best suited, and how they differ from each other and from a loan one might receive at a bank.

“We’re really looking at cash flow to see what the bottom line is,” PathStone business development officer Jonathon Ling said. “We don’t lend to people who don’t have sufficient cash flow in their business plan.”

The third and final presentation in the series will take place April 23 from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. at the West Side Bazaar, 25 Grant St. Its subject will be “Scaling Up Your Business,” with an opportunity to meet and network with community business lenders. Interested participants can register for the free event at wedibuffalo.org/lendingoptions or by calling 716-436-2977.

Civic Innovation Challenge expected to be a catalyst for Buffalo entrepreneurship

Six weeks since the launch of Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown’s Civic Innovation Challenge, participation numbers and social media buzz have city officials feeling encouraged by the enthusiasm being generated for the competition.

The Civic Innovation Challenge, which runs through April 22, seeks the creation of an app, algorithm, or tech-based solution that addresses a need in Buffalo, based on data available through the new Open Data Buffalo portal, which went live Feb. 22. Teams will have the chance to win prizes totaling $8,000.

With about 70 entrants currently registered for the competition and an expansion of the data sets available in the city’s open source portal, Brown said he is optimistic about the ways in which the information will be used. The data, which ranges from police crime reports and locations to recycling rates broken down by neighborhood, can be viewed at https://data.buffalony.gov/

The competition is also part of Brown’s larger vision for Buffalo, he said, one where innovation and job growth benefits neighborhoods and families across the city. With recent investments in job training programs and business pitch competitions through grants, state, and local funds, the Civic Innovation Challenge is just another example of prioritizing entrepreneurship and innovation as the catalyst for the city’s latest growth.

“We want people to feel like they are very much a part of what’s going on in the City of Buffalo,” Brown told Upstart NY in early April, about three weeks before the Civic Innovation Challenge’s deadline. “They can help drive change for themselves and their neighbors.”

Brown has been clear about where his administration’s priorities lie when it comes to leading Buffalo at a time when the city, thanks to state and private investment, has made huge leaps but still has a long distance to go.

The Northland Redevelopment Project, for example, which partners the Buffalo Urban Development Corp., Empire State Development, New York Power Authority, and the City of Buffalo with funding from the Buffalo Billion Initiative to redevelop an East Side corridor, includes a major investment in a job-training center for high-growth manufacturing and energy sector positions.

From job training for Buffalo’s underemployed to investment in incubator space for high-growth tech entrepreneurs, Brown says for Buffalo’s growth to be sustainable, it needs to benefit everyone.

“Something I’ve focused on during my tenure is to create more training opportunities and create more employment opportunities. This open data portal presents the opportunity to spur economic development, spur entrepreneurship opportunities … we want entrepreneurs to have access to this data so that they can use that information to build their businesses,” Brown said.

Less than two months into the launch of the Open Data Buffalo portal, officials say it’s too early to tell how effective the available dashboard of applications will be to luring new startups to actually use them. Kirk McLean, special assistant to the deputy mayor and Open Data Buffalo program manager, says page views and word of mouth show it’s generating excitement. Consultants from Bloomberg Philanthropies’ What Works Cities initiative and Johns Hopkins have helped structure the program effectively, and the program has been in the process of development since 2013, initiated when Buffalo was involved in the IBM Smarter Cities Challenge.

“We have heard from the civic tech community, city free data is everything they’ve always wanted. It’s a really great start. We’re really hoping to build on that,” McLean said.

Open data and government transparency can invite criticism, of course, but Brown said that after 13 years as Buffalo city mayor, he’s not afraid of what might be hidden in the available information.

“I think it’s important to be transparent, to be able to hear from residents, and we always are interested in receiving constructive criticism,” Brown said. “As a public figure, feedback is important to me.”

The Innovation Challenge, Brown said, is intended to be a springboard to greater applications of the available data. It’s just the tip, hopefully, of a recently formed iceberg.

“We want to really be very aggressive with this and we want to be very creative with it. We want to be sure it is used to the maximum benefit for residents of the community. We want to solve issues that people are having with the delivery of city services and to make it easier for residents to participate in civic life of the community,” Brown said. “With this challenge, they can participate in that process and help to drive change in ways we as city employees would not contemplate.”

Visit http://www.buffaloinnovates.com/ for more information about the Civic Innovation Challenge.


UB entrepreneurs tackle issues affecting the elderly

With a growing elderly population in the United States, the market for technological products that can assist them is rapidly expanding.

Recently, a group of University at Buffalo entrepreneurs, just hours away from their spring break, gathered to present innovative solutions to address the needs of the elderly at UB’s Innovation Sprint for the New York State Dept. of Health Aging Innovation Challenge. The winners of the pitch competition have the chance to present their prototypes in a statewide contest later this year.

Hosted by the UB Blackstone Launchpad chapter and the Center for Successful Aging, six teams with diverse backgrounds and skill sets--from computer science and engineering to business, management and medicine--presented their prototypes March 15, with first-, second- and third-place winners announced.

The winning team presented Go Dress Yourself, a mechanical device that assists the elderly and those with disabilities in getting dressed, without relying on batteries, manual strength, or smart technology.

The winning four-person team earned $2,000. Harsha Kosta, a computer science engineering graduate student, said each member of the team was motivated to find solutions for the aging after having had someone to care for in their personal lives.

“Each of us was working for this idea because we felt this idea could bring a major change in the future,” Kosta said in a text message to Upstart NY. “It was [designed] with an intention to be cheap and easy to buy.

“When we pitched the idea, the judges showed real interest in our product, even though our presentation was simple and we didn’t have high-tech designs,” she added.

The next step for Go Dress Yourself, Kosta said, is to develop a cleaner product design and tie up any legal ends to a patent. She said the team gladly will commit to developing the idea further, with the goal of addressing the needs of individuals who want to maintain their integrity and independence, freedoms often lost to age.

The team presenting mRehab, which couples smartphone technology with 3D printing techniques to provide in-home therapies for stroke patients, took home $1,500 for its second-place finish.

Team member Chen Song, a computer science engineer at UB, explained that the technology is both low-cost and highly customizable. There are currently commercialized solutions on the market, but costs can be prohibitive. Emerging 3D printing techniques and built in smartphone sensors can help create customizable rehabilitation programs for stroke patients, who can also receive objective feedback on their progress through data analysis software.

A video monitoring system that uses algorithms to identify changes in daily habits or movements, thus providing an efficient alert system compared to around-the-clock monitoring, called The Guardian, earned $1,000 in third place.

Phil Schneider, team leader for the 12-person crew, said he, too, has been personally affected by a circumstance that involved caring for a sick or elderly family member.

“I thought we have something that’s very doable,” Schneider said. “I really do believe this can be an actual company if we devote more to it.”

Schneider added that when speaking with classmates and colleagues, he realized the technology already existed to develop the product. It just hadn’t been applied yet to addressing concerns associated with the elderly.

Next, teams will begin to develop their prototypes to be presented at the New York State Dept. of Health’s Aging Innovation Challenge, with $50,000 in total prize money available.

According to the Aging Innovation Challenge website, innovators are required to submit a written proposal of their prototype by April 30. Additionally, selected innovators will be asked to submit a final project by Nov. 1, 2018. By Nov. 15, 2018, five finalists will be invited to make a live demonstration of their prototypes during the week of Nov. 28, 2018.


#weareentrepreneurs answers the question: “Why entrepreneurship?”

A social media campaign organized by the University at Buffalo’s Blackstone LaunchPad chapter is hoping to draw attention to the range of diverse backgrounds the school’s entrepreneurs have, from all stages of their careers as innovators.

Through the month of March, entrepreneurs associated with the university, including current and former students, business owners in the community, and friends of the program are encouraged to tag social media posts with #weareentrepreneurs, completing the sentence, “I am an entrepreneur because …”

It’s part of a national campaign in which Blackstone LaunchPad Entrepreneurship Initiative chapters across the country are participating.

Several current or former UB entrepreneurs have already participated, telling their entrepreneurial story through photo and video posts on the chapter’s social media channels, including the founders of Chipdown and ColdSpace Storage.

“It’s really a national campaign, but we’re encouraged to take it and run with it,” said Taylor Speer, a graduate assistant with the chapter. “It’s catching momentum. We’re starting to gain a lot of traction on tweets, retweets, and students appreciate the chance to be featured. It’s been a successful campaign so far.”

Another UB entrepreneur participating in the campaign is Isabel Hall, a UB engineering student whose passion for science, technology, engineering, and math inspired a STEM-focused summer camp for elementary school-aged girls. Supported by the Buffalo Student Sandbox program and the recipient of the Western New York Prosperity Fellowship, her camp has become a hit amongst local kids and parents, Speer said.

“We are trying to get a diverse range of perspectives,” Speer added. “The way we see it, entrepreneurs can be any color, any shape, any size, any gender, and any age. We are trying to pull entrepreneurs from different backgrounds and perspectives.”

Visit @LaunchPad_UB on Twitter and Instagram to see more of these stories through the month of March, or search the hashtag #weareentrepreneurs. Check them out on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/LaunchPadUB/ Speer said videos and photos will be posted throughout the month.

“This is a great opportunity to highlight some of the ideas for ventures that might not be advanced in their development, they might not have social media channels yet,” Speer said. “It helps to get their names out there.”


Civic Innovation Challenge launched to benefit Buffalo

A new portal for open source data and resources in the City of Buffalo has prompted a competition from Mayor Byron Brown for developers, engineers, data scientists, entrepreneurs, and students to build an innovative technological product that benefits the city and its citizens.

With $8,000 on the line, the mayor’s Civic Innovation Challenge, which runs through April 22, seeks the creation of an app, algorithm, visualization model, or any solution a developer can dream up, that addresses a need in the city, based on the data available on the new Open Data Buffalo portal, which went live Feb. 22.

“My administration, and our partners, aim to unite developers in the WNY region to build mobile apps or other solutions that address community needs while demonstrating how mobile technologies can lead to next generation job growth and development in the City of Buffalo,” Brown said.

Starting in 2016, Mayor Brown, in collaboration with city departments and agencies, began to implement building the open data portal when it was selected by Bloomberg Philanthropies’ What Works Cities initiative – a national effort to assist cities in their use of data for more effective civic service and performance management.

The “virtual library” allows city agencies to address concerns, allocate resources, and identify solutions more efficiently.

“Creation of the portal will also give our city departments the ability to tell their everyday stories through interactive tables, charts, graphs, and maps,” Brown said.

In conjunction with AT&T, which contributed the $8,000 award to be split among three finalists, the competition will be judged by Mayor Brown; Marissa Shorenstein, President of AT&T Northeast Region; Ulla Bak, co-founder and President of Bak USA, LLC; Christopher Fagiani, co-creator of open source mobile platform FLOW; and Andrew Nicklin of the Bloomberg Philanthropies’ What Works Cities initiative.

Competitors will be judged on weighted criteria, including benefit to the community, creativity, execution, video component and wow factor. CivicPlus and Socrata provided additional support for the competition.

““The Buffalo Civic Innovation Challenge is propelling Buffalo into a new era,” Bak said. “One where technology plays a significant role in shaping civic policy. One where technology is at the forefront of Buffalo’s resurgence. And one where we use technology to equalize access to information and use that access to benefit every citizen.”

Open Data Buffalo provides a host of datasets ranging from police and fire activity in the city to interactive maps from the Bureau of Forestry and Buffalo Recycles. The website, which lays out the information in dashboard panels, has quick links for developers and coders as well. The information can be found at https://data.buffalony.gov/

Complete information about the Civic Innovation Challenge, along with registration information, can be found at http://www.buffaloinnovates.com/.


Trade show do's for startups

Love them or hate them, trade shows are where you discover new clients. Each show takes time, effort, and money, but if done right, attending one can lead to new business. And while the main focus of these shows is sales, there are also opportunities to build brand awareness, hold customer meetings, gather intelligence, learn, develop strategic partnerships, and meet the press.
 

Consider this: At a trade show, booth staff can have more than 20 conversations per day with decision makers who are looking for solutions that your company can offer. How long would it take each member of your inbound/outside sales team to schedule that many meetings?

There’s no question that your buyer persona is walking around that show; your challenge is to talk to as many of them as possible and to ask great questions so you and your staff can decide which are potential prospects.

Don’t make the mistake of waiting for the perfect prospect to walk into your booth, and don’t give the same canned, overly long pitch to them when they do. Companies spend tens of thousands of dollars annually to participate in trade shows without ever giving thought to training their staff to improve the quality and number of leads generated from those shows. Remember, high-quality leads do not come because you have a tricked-out booth, or because you give attendees lots of swag or raffle off expensive stuff. Instead, roll some of this money into prepping your staff on engaging attendees, because inside and outside sales are a different animal from the trade show floor. And be sure that they follow up on the leads they’ve developed.


Avoiding the common trade show mistakes that drive up costs and don’t improve your outcomes allows you to make the most of your trade show and ensures a positive ROI.

 


New E-Network program seeks to connect entrepreneurs from diverse environments

Entrepreneurs in Niagara County have their own individual needs and challenges, and a new program through the Women’s Business Center at Canisius College seeks to provide support for female business owners in that area.

Twice per month, beginning March 14, the WBC program “E-Network - Niagara” will provide training, networking opportunities, and support, led by entrepreneur and Niagara County native Lisa Churakos.

“Small businesses can grow faster and farther if they learn to find synergistic relationships,” WBC executive director Sara Vescio said. Because of Niagara County’s diverse entrepreneurial environment–from downtown Niagara Falls to small-town Lewiston and rural Sanborn–sometimes business owners aren’t connecting with one another as frequently as they should, she added.

Supported by Yahoo!, Vescio first reached out to local business development institutions in Niagara County, like the Greater Lockport Development Corp., the Niagara Chamber of Commerce, and the Small Business Development Center at Niagara County Community College, to identify the need for the E-Network program there.

Churakos, a Niagara County entrepreneur and consultant who ran a restaurant at age 19, led a rebranding for local Goodwill stores, and spent time as a vice president of sales for a global software company, will teach the course, which will be offered at participants’ businesses in Lockport, Lewiston, Niagara Falls, and North Tonawanda, initially.

“The whole program is in the framework of accountability,” Churakos said. “We set goals on what (the entrepreneurs) want to achieve, then look at referrals and networking. When you understand who is in the room, you begin to realize how we can help each other.”

That networking element, Churakos said, is an important part of the program for women business owners in Niagara County, because it can lead to cross-marketing or referral opportunities down the road. Churakos, herself, is a WBC member and a vendor liaison for several food festivals in Niagara County.

The E-Network program in Erie County, Vescio said, has evolved over its approximately seven years of existence, but it has proven to be an asset for women business owners. She added she’s confident the Niagara E-Network course will also meet the participants’ needs.

Women with businesses in every stage of development and scale are welcome, Vescio said. And the values of the course are aligned with Canisius College’s lifelong learning mission.

Interested women entrepreneurs and business owners can find out more information about the course at http://thewomensbusinesscenter.com/program/e-network-niagara/2018-03-14/, or by calling 716-888-8280. The course, which runs from March to July for 10 meetings, costs $150.


Founder and CEO of Suncayr shares entrepreneurial journey

Andrew Martinko, the founder and CEO of Suncayr, spoke Wednesday evening at Daemen College about his entrepreneurial journey in front of about 100 students and faculty in the Wick Campus Center Alumni Lounge, part of the Nancy Haberman Gacioch Entrepreneurship Lecture Series through the school’s entrepreneurship program.

Martinko was a senior at the University of Waterloo when he started his company in 2014 with a friend in the basement of a university building. The product initially was a skin-safe marker that children could use to draw on themselves--the ink would change color if the sunscreen covering it had lost its effectiveness. However, mothers participating in product testing and focus groups noted that encouraging children to draw on themselves with these markers would raise the potential for a Sharpie disaster.

So SPOT, a UV-responsive sticker, was born. To appeal to young children, the stickers are decorated with fun colors and animal images, similar to a Band-Aid from a pediatrician’s office.

Martinko praised Velocity Science at the University of Waterloo, a small incubator lab that was created to provide a space for product testing and science innovation. Suncayr quickly outgrew the space, and the university expanded in nearby Kitchener, Ontario, to accommodate more entrepreneurs looking for room to create prototypes.

“Don’t let anything get in the way of what you’re trying to do,” Martinko said. “If they tell you there’s no place to do this, don’t let that get in your way.”

By 2016, Suncayr had filed its first patents and began to form a parent board of advisors. He credited the Johnson & Johnson JLab incubator space for helping move the product’s clinical trials forward. In 2017, Suncayr realized that there were opportunities to expand product growth in Australia, which has some of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world. Martinko has spent months there, product testing and building relationships in that market.

In October 2017, Martinko moved to Buffalo. Now a resident of Allentown, he said that Buffalo’s close proximity to manufacturing and key partners has made its location a valuable asset. Today, the company has a staff of 10, and the product will launch in North America this summer.


Spring 2018 Startup School Series starts soon

Attention entrepreneurs and startup business teams! The Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus is offering a series of seminars and workshops designed to provide you with the education and guidance you need to successfully design, launch, and grow your new companies. Topics covered will include: Hiring Your First Employees, Developing Your Brand, Empowerment for Women Entrepreneurs, Perfecting Your Pitch, Lifting Off with Analytics, Introduction to Blockchain, Podcasting for Business, Crowdsourcing for Business, SEO for Startups, and Protecting Your Intellectual Property. The sessions, which are free and open to the community, will be held Wednesdays from 12-1:30 p.m. at LEARN at the Innovation Center, 640 Ellicott St., Buffalo. For more information and to register, click here.


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.
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