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Give your startup a fighting chance

So you’re ready to start a business, or maybe you already did. Buffalo has a supportive environment for startups, and entrepreneurs can connect with numerous organizations to get practical advice and make valuable contacts.

Business advice

Knowledge is power, at least when it comes to success in business. The following organizations help entrepreneurs with advice and guidance:

  • SCORE is the nation’s largest network of volunteer, expert business mentors. The Buffalo-Niagara area has its own chapter, which offers free mentoring, low-cost workshops, resources, templates, and tools to assist entrepreneurs in developing their business.
  • The Niagara Small Business Development Center, administered by the State University of New York, provides management and technical assistance to help entrepreneurs start and grow their businesses. Director Lynn Oswald notes that the most used services include one-on-one counseling to help guide business owners and clarify their plans; tracking industry trends, stats, and competition through the SBDC’s research database; and coordinating with federal and state agencies through its statewide network.

Completing your team

Local SCORE adviser Greg Straus notes that lawyers and accountants are vital members of a startup team. If your business is web-based, a coder may also be necessary. The best way to find the right professionals for your specific team is through referrals from your network. Ask founders, investors, and advisors whom they’ve worked with in the past to get a good idea about reputation and rates. They may even be able to provide an introduction or two.

Next, seek out the advice of the local startup community by going to events and meetups. Start-Up Grind, Beakers and Beer, First Thursday, and WNY Venture Association host these kinds of events. Law firms also frequently host startup-centric events, which are advertised on platforms like Eventbrite and Meetup, and you can meet coders at coding meetups or hackathons.

  • Lawyers: Lawyers can assist entrepreneurs who want to protect their intellectual property, need assistance with investor negotiations, or want advice regarding the regulations that apply to their industry. They also can assist with company formation, corporate structure, and succession planning; employment and contractor agreements; and service contracts.
    • Cost: Expect to pay $150 to $350 per hour, but annual cost varies greatly based on business needs.
    • Alternatives to hiring a lawyer: Consider placing a lawyer on your board, seeking out alternative legal service providers, or using an online service like LegalZoom.
 
  • Accountants: An accountant can help you file taxes, complete government paperwork, conduct required audits, and apply for business loans.
    • Cost: Routine work can be sourced for $20 to $50 per hour, and some services can cost as much as $150 to $300 per hour, but most startups will need to hire an accountant for only about 10 to 20 hours per year.
    • Alternatives to hiring an accountant: Cloud-based bookkeeping and invoicing software like Quickbooks and Freshbooks, or a shared service like 1800Accountant, can help you handle simple accounting tasks yourself.
 
  • Coders: Finding a coder with the right expertise and communication skills, who works in a compatible time zone, can help move your project forward quickly. Having a technical co-founder on staff will facilitate recruiting, hiring, and managing these valuable team members, but startups without one can turn to platforms like Upwork, Toptal, Codementor, and Gigster to outsource their technical projects to coders from all over the world. Keep in mind that using these platforms may present challenges in terms of time zones, language barriers, and team management.
    • Cost: Coders typically charge $40 to $70 per hour. According to a Codementor.io research study of 5,300 coders, North America and Australia are most expensive, while the most affordable are in Pakistan, India, and Ukraine.
    • Alternatives to hiring a coder: You can purchase a domain and business email, and build a landing page or Wordpress site for a few hundred dollars to get started. However, most coding tasks require the skills of an expert in this area.

The Wrap Up

In life and business, success is not only what you know, but who you know. If you want to hire the best, network with small business owners, entrepreneurs, and venture capitalists to learn who’s who in your industry and get their referrals for lawyers, accountants, and coders. Take advantage of the services offered by SCORE, SBDC, and similar organizations. Surround yourself with people who can guide you to success.


City of Buffalo officials tout success of pre-apprentice training program

A substantial state and city investment in a Buffalo East Side neighborhood is beginning to bear fruit this fall, as a pre-apprentice training program saw its first graduating class in October.

Five students have completed the first eight-week Pre-Apprentice Training Program, which focuses on the manufacturing and energy sectors, and another five are set to graduate before the end of the year. The program is part of the Northland Project Labor Agreement between the Buffalo Urban Development Corp. and the Buffalo Building and Construction Trades Council, which was created to revitalize the high-poverty Northland Corridor neighborhood. The agreement, which was signed in June, also includes a community workforce plan.

"Our goal is to build a very strong, integrated, diverse community," Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown says. "In construction trades, there is some lack of diversity. We've been able to partner with Buffalo's building trades to create this apprenticeship program."

In conjunction with the New York Power Authority, the city recruits low-income, minority adults into the training program, which Brown said will benefit city government, trades programs, and local businesses. But most importantly, residents in Northland Corridor zip codes who are at high-risk for recidivism or incarceration and are seeing unemployment or underemployment can now earn wages for their family and neighborhood.

"This really required incredible buy-in by all parties for us to get to this point," Brown says.

Crystal Rodriguez has played a key role in recruiting the trainees for the 20 paid, pre-apprenticeship training slots that are available for each eight-week session.

"We're going into the community," Rodriguez says. "We go to them. Talking to the people who are prospective candidates. Really getting a sense of where they are. It allows them to feel comfortable with us."

Brandon Corchado from Buffalo's East Side is an early success story, Rodriguez says. A graduate of the Northland Project's first class, the formerly incarcerated citizen is working in a carpenters' union.

"He's expressed to me a sense of confidence that he would be able to finish out, work, and not being able to worry about recidivism," Rodriguez says.

Currently, trainees are taking courses primarily at City Hall, and one of the graduates' earliest projects is building a new locker room and break room for City Hall security in the basement. However, the $60 million Northland Belt Line Corridor project, part of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's Buffalo Billion Upstate New York investment plan, includes building a workforce training center on Northland Avenue at the former Clearing Niagara headquarters. The governor announced $44 million in funding for the training center, which is expected to be finished in July 2018. In total, the project will see $70 million in investment.

Buffalo businesses are optimistic about local business climate

A survey recently released by the Buffalo Niagara Partnership is showing that the majority of its member businesses have a favorable impression of the Buffalo Niagara business climate, while still holding concerns about the state’s perceived lack of friendliness toward businesses.

Other positives from the 2018 Annual Advocacy and Member survey include 75 percent of respondees saying their current facility meets the needs of the company. But the report, which the Partnership uses to communicate with government and economic development agencies, also highlighted several pain points for businesses both small and large.

The survey, for the first time, focused on sentimental questions addressing how company leaders feel about the current business climate, Buffalo Niagara Partnership CEO Dottie Gallagher-Cohen says. The Partnership uses the results to inform the organization’s Advocacy Agenda, which outlines policy priorities.

“The results came back and we said, ‘Wow, this is helpful,’” Gallagher-Cohen says.

“I think for folks living here, there’s no disputing, you look around the visible business landscape and things are changing here … There are cranes in the sky, the medical school downtown. But you can’t divorce it from continued challenges to do business here,” she adds.

Those challenges include concerns with state, county, and federal regulations, worries about market conditions, and difficulty in finding talent.

Gallagher-Cohen says that minimum wage legislation, paid family leave, and employer-funded health care costs are challenges that need to be addressed in Albany.

But the Partnership can take that information to policymakers and point to it as the voice of small and large businesses in Western New York.

“Our role is to keep pushing and pushing on these things, which may be well-intentioned, but really might have negative consequences.”

According to the survey, 64 percent of respondees hired additional employees in 2017, and 70 percent saw sales or revenue increase. In addition, 66 percent said they plan to add new employees in 2018 and 64 percent plan to expand products and services.

Also of note, the survey showed 44 percent of respondees struggle to achieve a diverse workforce.

That’s why, Gallagher-Cohen says, programs like the Northland Avenue Corridor Project and Employ Buffalo Niagara, a regional, employer-led workforce development initiative powered by the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, are so important for Buffalo.

“We’re extremely excited about what’s happening at Northland,” Gallagher-Cohen says, calling community workforce initiatives like Employ the ‘backbone’ of industries ranging from tourism to healthcare.

The Partnership CEO adds that Employ Buffalo Niagara, is a collaborative effort among business, government, philanthropic, and nonprofit organizations. It is working to put working poor populations that might otherwise be on the sidelines for Buffalo’s growth into sectors like entertainment and tourism jobs.

By coordinating and streamlining the efforts of employers, government agencies, educational institutions and community organizations, Employ Buffalo Niagara is improving the system to provide employers with the qualified workers they need and
connect job seekers to career opportunities in the region.

“Employ will be focused on several industries including healthcare and tourism. Our initial focus is manufacturing, and Northland is a key partner in these efforts,” Grant Loomis, Buffalo Niagara Partnership vice president of government affairs adds.


Using data to grow a customer base

With the advent of Search Engine Optimization, Google Analytics, and programs like Facebook Business Manager, entrepreneurs now have the ability to spot trends, improve products, and “read minds” like never before. With this information, entrepreneurs are given tangible evidence that can be used as a blueprint to improve their product and grow their customer base.

Although there are many products or services offered online for a fee, most of the pertinent information and products are free and can be found rather easily.

There seems to be an endless amount of free SEO information published online, which even a raw entrepreneur can use to his or her advantage. The SEO information is designed to give companies the best chance of being seen through a Google search, and using the proper techniques, have the information seeker stay on your page for an extended period of time.

Many sites will give step-by-step instruction on how to improve SEO practices, giving users the ability to master the tactics and use the data to their advantage. It can be anything from link building, to using thorough content, to adding keywords and subheadings to the articles on the website.

Tools such as Google Analytics can allow entrepreneurs to track how improvements are working and allow them to change or modify their tactics as they move forward. The analytics can show how many people visit a site on a given day, the ratio of new to returning visitors to a site, bounce rate/average session duration, and even how people are coming across the site (organically, through social media, etc.).

If you are an entrepreneur looking to beef up your social media footprint, Facebook Business Manager is another great tool that offers features such as “like” campaigns and customizable marketing tools. Although there is a fee for advertising with this product, it is a great way to have your company seen by a large number of consumers.


Finding inspiration for innovation

For many fledgling entrepreneurs, coming up with an innovative business idea can be a daunting task. Even in today’s technological age, with so many possibilities, it may seem that every idea you come up with has already been turned into a business by a competitor.

Although it may not be an ideal business plan, many entrepreneurs choose to follow their counterparts’ lead and look to make innovations to an idea that may already be successful.

This is something that should not be seen as a negative or dirty business practice, but as something that can advance technology and give the very best product to consumers.

Chris McGoff, author of the recently published book, ‘'Match in the Root Cellar: How You Can Spark a Peak Performance Culture” notes, “I tell (businesses) that trying to create a culture of innovation doesn't work. It's a fool's errand. Innovation is the wrong thing to chase. And if you do chase it, you certainly will not achieve it.”

McGoff lays out a plan advocating that businesses look to achieve certain advancements in their field within a set time frame rather than chasing innovation.

As an example, a local web design company may want to increase its efficiency in dealing with customer complaints, whether online or via phone. Instead of looking for a creative new idea to communicate with clients, an entrepreneur may tell his employees to come up with a useful solution to the problem and give them an end-of-the-week deadline. With this method, the workers can look for the best solutions available that they are not currently using, whether it's an automated phone system or a 24/7 customer service chatroom. Neither are new concepts, but both would provide innovative remedies to the problem.


Support from local investors and university has led to success for Vader Systems

Just returned from the world’s largest 3D printing trade show in Dusseldorf, Germany, Vader Systems CEO Scott Vader is realizing just how well his innovative machines are being received.

Located in the Crosspoint Business Park in Getzville, the father-son duo of Scott and Zach Vader have revolutionized the growing 3D printing sector, securing two major contracts, with another soon on the horizon.

That puts three 3D printing machines in Vader’s arsenal, which use wire-fed spools of liquid metal, fed at higher speeds and at much lower cost than traditional powdered metal printing technologies. And Scott Vader says there are five more planned for 2018.

The Vaders have found a sprawling, 17,000-square-foot plant in which to operate and a talented labor force out of the University at Buffalo’s engineering department. But none of this would have been possible, Vader says, without the support of early investors like OneTen Capital and the Buffalo angel community.

“They looked at a couple crazy guys working out of their basement and they said, ‘that makes sense to us,’” Vader recalls. “And we’re grateful that they did … We still have folks coming back to us who remember us from OneTen.”

Vader recently announced the sale of their machines to two major customers: Becker Cad-Cam-Cast in Germany, operated out of Detroit, which manufactures aluminum automotive components; and the AMPrint Center at the Rochester Institute of Technology. The third machine is used in-house for contracted projects.

And Vader hints at a third, unannounced contract coming in early 2018. It’s all part of the Vaders’ goal to diversify their machines in a range of sectors, from automotive to sporting goods to agriculture.

“Four years into the business, and our basic strategy is still the right now,” Vader says. “And we’re still following it.”

Vader now employs 10 people full time and four part time, including three students from UB’s engineering school. He is quick to list the numerous supporters of his company’s machines early in the process, including the local angel community and Jenae Pitts, Jonathan Amoia, and Larry Stolzenberg at OneTen Capital. 

“We, naively maybe, figured we could bootstrap the business,” Vader says. “We used some family savings to build a proof of concept, but it was local investors, the local angel community, and UB that helped when we were thinking beyond our technological and financial capabilities.

“They were the difference between an idea fizzling and moving forward, getting that business service and support,” Vader adds.

Vader called the contract with an automotive company their “dream sector.” The company had the advantage of being far ahead of the technological curve as companies moved away from powdered metals, which are less structurally sound, to Vader’s liquid metal ink jets.

This means there will be more hiring, higher wages, and further opportunity as the company maintains its foothold in Western New York.


Startups can benefit from social media

While still in its early stages, there are plenty of things Elijah Tyson has left to do to grow his fledgling startup app, Coldspace.

The University at Buffalo student, with his team of Hnu Thaper and Abid Alam, just returned from a Tech Stars business camp in New York City. They’re finding capital; modifying the product, which offers refrigerated storage lockers for students on campus via a cell phone app; and beta testing it.

“We’re still in the customer validation, product development phase,” Tyson says. “We’re on track and moving forward.”

As a startup CEO and founder, there’s one step Tyson knows his company will have to take next to be successful: Developing a social media marketing strategy that will allow his team to grow a brand at a fraction of the cost of traditional advertising.

A New York Times article from Nov. 5 notes the importance of advertising giants Facebook and Google for startup companies.

"The process is easy, cheap, and effective,” Burt Helm, a senior contributing writer for Inc. Magazine, writes in the Times article. “With a few hundred dollars and a morning’s effort, an entrepreneur can place his or her ads before social-media users that same afternoon. Companies unsure which ads are best can upload a handful of them and let Facebook’s artificial-intelligence software test their efficacy.”

Tyson says that building a product almost exclusively targeting college students on the go will require extensive social media marketing to gain a foothold in an often-saturated market.

“Social media is great. Students are on social media anyway. It’s a great way to get to know and understand the product,” he says.

Currently, Tyson is using social media to engage with students and develop feedback. The question is, can small startups benefit from social media giants like Facebook as much as the solar-sized company has benefitted from them?

According to Pivotal Research Group, Facebook and Google control 70 percent of the digital advertising market in the United States. Five million advertisers, the New York Times article states, are using social media, which offers an attentive and sometimes media-addicted audience in exchange for a couple hundred dollars or a few hours of work. Facebook’s algorithms allow small companies to expend almost zero effort in targeting their audience. And at its core, social media platforms like Facebook offer instant engagement with customers. Much of that is free.

“Social media is definitely huge,” Tyson says. There’s always a medium to get that end-user engagement, and it’s a huge part of branding. I think it’s definitely mandatory for any startup,” Tyson adds.

At the TechStars camp in October, to which Coldspace earned a trip after winning an entrepreneur pitch competition at the student center, Tyson says startup founders were encouraged to actively engage on social media platforms.

For many companies, that one-on-one engagement between CEOs and customers becomes part of the branding. See Elon Musk or Mark Cuban.

And because the Facebook and Google advertising algorithm has become so advanced and can pinpoint a target audience with such accuracy, businesses would be negligent to not at least pursue a marketing campaign with them.

“In the meantime, more and more companies — startups, mom-and-pop stores, major corporations — are handing their dollars and their data to the social-networking giant. Facebook’s Ads Manager is user-friendly. Sales are plentiful. And if you don’t take advantage of it, your competitors will. How could you not go there?” Helm writes.


Small businesses can make big sales during the holidays

Holidays mean big business for retailers. According to the National Retail Federation, consumers spent $658.3 billion during the 2016 holiday season. To compete with the convenience of online marketplaces and the one-stop shopping promise of big-box stores, small-business entrepreneurs make use of the advantages that come from being flexible, responsive, and intimately connected with their communities.

At Buffalo’s West Side Bazaar, Nadeen Yousef, of Macramé by Nadeen, has honed her holiday strategy over two and a half years in business. Sales are very good during holidays, she says, “especially small things, when the kids want to buy something for the family.” During the holiday season, Nadeen, who can be seen knotting macramé creations behind her booth, focuses on producing a large quantity of smaller items, such as dream catchers, rather than costlier wall hangings.

These holiday sales are important to her. “There are some times, like January and February, when it’s so slow, so the holiday time [makes] the balance,” she says. In addition to ensuring a supply of affordable items, she tries to offer convenience for shoppers by selling her wares at outside events. “The last three months of the year, October, November, December, we go to hotels, to many places, offices, we sell there. Sometimes people, they don’t have time to look online to see where’s a place to get a specific gift. So we go to them.” But, Nadeen adds, she looks forward to these events for more than business reasons. “It’s not only for sales—we enjoy [showing] the people who we are, where are you from, what we have, so maybe next time they will come to this place.”

For other entrepreneurs looking to increase their holiday sales, Nadeen says, “My advice is, listen to the customer, what they like. Many times I get ideas from the customer.”

Not far from Nadeen, at the entrance to the Bazaar, Raine Manuel greets visitors. She is the co-owner of Zigma Naturals, which sells a variety of body care products and vitamins as well as jewelry and clothing from different countries. Raine, who recently expanded her stock of Burmese clothing, believes that the international provenance of her goods is a draw for shoppers. So is the fact that Zigma Naturals is located next to other international stores and a food court where patrons can take lunch breaks, making a holiday shopping trip a fun excursion rather than a slog through the aisles. “Every shop you will see a lot of special items,” Raine says, gesturing around her. “‘I’m going to Thailand, I’m going to Burma already, I went to Rwanda, oh, South Sudan’—everything is here! …When you go to Target you don’t see all this. They have special items, but not like us.”

For holidays, Zigma Naturals sells themed items. Raine points out a pair of dangly silver earrings shaped like costume vampire teeth--a Halloween special. She keeps seasonal stock moving with promotions like two-for-one offers and discounts, and pays attention to what people will want for upcoming occasions.

Her role in the community also helps. When not at her booth, she works as a translator and invests her income from that job into expanding her stock, though she often defers or waives fees for clients who cannot afford to pay. From her location at the entrance to the Bazaar, she likes to wave and greet people, whether or not they are coming to visit her shop. She jokes that she is like a receptionist. “I welcome people here. I love to. It’s a lot of my country people here. If they come and they know me: ‘Just saying hi! And how is business today?’ ‘Good!’”

Phylicia Dove of Black Monarchy, which opened in Little Five Points earlier this year, says there’s something special about the role small businesses play in communities, increasing diversity and personal relationships. These relationships—customers at Black Monarchy are often known by name—mean that she can stock the shop based on customers’ tastes and interests.

Her focus on creative and one-of-a-kind products, such as custom clothing sourced from around the world and jewelry handwoven from raw materials, also offers a competitive edge for attracting shoppers interested in meaningful or unique items. “This is a distinct difference between Black Monarchy and big-box retailers,” Dove says. “We can actually tell you the story for every piece we carry, and our customers leave feeling like they not only have a piece of art, but also knowledge from another part of the world.”

It’s easy to panic at the thought of competing with big businesses, Dove says, but “it is vital to remember why your customers specifically [patronize] your business and expand that during the holidays. Use this season to say thank you … by adding more of their favorite items, providing specials and new giftings.” This isn’t the time for reinvention, she says, but for cementing the relationships already built. One holiday-appropriate way Black Monarchy does that: “We gift each customer with each purchase as a way to say we appreciate your business and look forward to your return.”

Her final word of advice for small business owners during the holidays? “Focus on your customers and not the dollar amount. Your community already loves you. Use this time to show them you love them back!”


Moving forward on the East Side

The business makeover reality television shows love to highlight the sad, dramatic stories of down-on-their-luck entrepreneurs, and Leslie Thomas has faced her share of hardship.

But really, the owner of Leslie’s Boutique on Buffalo’s East Side was just looking for a little extra help. And thanks to a grassroots organization and a group of enterprising college students and volunteers, she received it this fall with a full store makeover, including a glowing new façade and interior that came after a series of devastating setbacks.

Thomas, who turned 60 this week, prefers to focus on the blessings she sees happening across Buffalo’s East Side. She doesn’t like to dwell on the burst pipes that forced her to close in 2013, which led to further electrical and structural problems at her Fillmore Avenue thrift shop and kept her store closed for most of the previous three years.

The Open Storefront Makeover Program, through the nonprofit organization Fillmore Forward, brought together SUNY Buffalo State College design students, trade guilds, flooring professionals, and community members, all volunteering their time, allowing Thomas to finally reopen her store in early September.

“It breathed new life into the store,” Thomas said. “A lot of people have been amazed. They come inside and it looks like a department store … once you’re inside, you say, ‘Wow!’”

Fillmore Forward volunteers cleared out the store and put a floor plan together, then redid walls, floors, and light fixtures inside. They repainted the façade in front and trimmed the windows. Thomas was able to participate in the design of the floor plan.

“It was big. Very big,” Thomas says about the project. “Bigger than it was supposed to be. So many people were involved.”

The Open Storefront program seeks to boost underutilized space in the Fillmore-Broadway and Martin Luther King communities to encourage entrepreneurial growth by pairing business owners with artists, architects, trade groups, and volunteers.

The program is a collaboration with the Junior League of Buffalo, Northeast Regional Council of Carpenters - Carpenters Local 276 and 251, The Western New York Floor Company, community volunteers, and students from SUNY Buffalo State College’s interior design class.

Thomas, who has lived on the East Side for 29 years, says she hopes to see more people come together in partnership across Buffalo in the same way that they did for her two months ago.

“It’s our time again,” Thomas says about the Fillmore neighborhood. “I advise anybody that is trying to get in, to start a business, it’s not as bad as you hear … You have to look at the whole picture of Buffalo and the East Side is part of that movement.

“Jump on the bandwagon and bring the East Side back alive,” Thomas adds.

The storefront program doesn’t just benefit Thomas. She says her thrift shop was an important resource for elderly residents to find warm clothing and young parents who need baby clothes. She says she has suits and women’s clothing available and right now donations are pouring in, even if business has slowed during the late fall season before the holidays.

But with the store now open, East Side’s needy residents have a place to turn to find affordable clothing. And she says that the store has plenty of curb appeal for people walking by, who have wondered for years when Leslie’s store would reopen.

Thomas admits her shop could use a little advertising, and maybe a social media presence would make it easier to find. She also works at a second job, and she explains that finding help to run the place can be difficult.

Fillmore Forward is made up of four volunteering committees that plan and implement projects focusing on economic restructuring, design, promotion, and organization in two East Side neighborhoods. It’s community-driven, and the organization is always seeking volunteers. The hope is to encourage a positive business environment which will provide jobs and act as a catalyst for development.

Thomas says the organization approached her about the storefront makeover program.

“I do have a sad story, but I didn’t want to piggy back. I just wanted some help. They came and I couldn’t believe it,” she says.

 


Yelp report places two Buffalo business districts in nation’s top 50

An economic outlook report recently published by Yelp has placed two Buffalo neighborhoods in the nation’s top 50 for most improved economic opportunity.

Based on data accumulated by the crowd-sourcing business review app in 10 primary categories, Yelp ranked North Buffalo at No. 10 and Elmwood Village at 45. The rankings are based on data from the third quarter of 2017: July through September. The improvement is based on a comparison between the third quarter of 2017 data and the third quarter of 2016.

Yelp’s inaugural Local Economic Outlook report, authored by Yelp data editor Carl Bialik, tracks which areas have the most potential for success for small businesses. “This program is an ongoing effort to surface insights from Yelp’s deep data stores to help businesses succeed and to arm policymakers with the information they need to make effective change that will boost local economies,” the report states.

Buffalo ranked 34th overall for economic opportunity, just behind Minneapolis, Minn., and ahead of Pittsburgh, Pa. Charlotte, N.C., Jacksonville, Fla., and Omaha, Neb., rounded out the top three.

The report analyzed growth in businesses in individual neighborhoods, not limited to the cities in its top 50 ranking. It also ranked the economic health of neighborhoods based on a range of other factors, including growth of health services, beauty services, active lifestyle services, and automotive and home services, along with restaurants, shopping, and nightlife.

For North Buffalo, nightlife was cited as the category driving business growth.

Nick Kotsis, owner of The Burning Buffalo Bar & Grill on Hertel Avenue, has been a part of that economic growth in the last year. With three co-owners, he opened the restaurant in December 2016 as a casual neighborhood gastropub with a rotating selection of craft beers and a menu that rises above typical bar food.

Kotsis, who worked in the Buffalo restaurant industry for over a decade before spending four years at a local bank, saw the former Shadow Lounge location posted for sale on Craigslist. He and his business partners bought the building and transformed it into a bar and open dining room, with dart boards in the back and two-person tables tucked against the back wall. Its menu is highlighted by rotating wild game burgers and brisket chili nachos, along with Buffalo staples like Friday fish fries and wings.

“We’ve been watching Hertel blossom before our eyes,” Kotsis said recently while bartending on a midweek evening. “Everything is happening so quickly. There are diverse businesses opening just as quickly, and we were lucky to end up with property in the heart of it.”

Kotsis owns the location with his brother George, Gretchen Gonzalez, and Seth Stromberg, all North Buffalo residents. Living in the neighborhood means they’re invested in being good neighbors and being a part of the community.

North Buffalo also was ranked ninth for net business growth in the top 10 neighborhoods. Nationally, event planning and services, active life, and home services are the categories seeing the most growth in the last year, while restaurants is 10th.

For Kotsis, the restaurant industry is still cutthroat. Expectations have changed in Buffalo, he says, which is why he seeks to provide a friendly, North Buffalo bar atmosphere with a refined menu and rotating draft.

“Consumers are more educated about the food they’re eating,” Kotsis says. “They’re expecting a higher quality, and not just food, but a quality beer and cocktail list, too. That wasn’t necessarily the case 10 years ago.”

Yelp points to three benefits in its data by which it built its report: real-time data, a zoom-in view of neighborhoods, and even streets as compared to surrounding cities and zip codes. Context to this data is provided thanks to Yelp ratings, reviews, and photos, allowing readers to better understand why a neighborhood may be rising or falling in its small business environment.

“The restaurant industry remains challenging and competitive, but the outlook for new restaurants is improving relative to openings in other business categories,” the report states.

 


For Burner staff, Buffalo lifestyle makes long hours easier

For Leo Schultz, the life of a programmer at a tech startup often involves early mornings and long nights in his company’s downtown lab.

With that kind of required commitment, why spend the remaining hours fighting traffic or living in a shoebox?

Schultz, a Niagara University graduate and Western New York native, is the chief technology officer for Burner Fitness, located in the Innovation Center on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Center campus. With the support of company CEO Oke Okaro, Schultz moved the company two years ago from the tech-saturated environment of the Silicon Valley to Buffalo, where Burner can have its choice of programmers and designers and, just as importantly, give its staff a higher quality of life.

“It's actually a much better position than my life was in Silicon Valley,” Schultz said. “I’m very grateful for the lifestyle I have now.”

After graduating from Niagara in just two years, Schultz’s professional network grew quickly through mentors at Santa Clara University in California. It was there that he was introduced to Okaro, who, after years at ESPN and Bloomberg, was seeking to leave the corporate world and invest in a startup based on trends he was seeing in the market, including a need to revolutionize fitness in a way that goes beyond simply counting steps and monitoring heart rate.

A narrowly focused idea grew larger, and in the fall of 2015, Okaro and Schultz launched Burner Fitness, a browser and app-based platform that allows fitness trainers and wellness experts to customize their own workouts, making programs available to a large network of athletes while still offering a customizable experience. Plenty of fitness apps might offer videos or step-by-steps, Schultz explained, but “we are humanizing the platform, allowing for trainers to have insights into what you’re doing.”

“We’re a two-sided marketplace that provides pretty much everything that fitness professionals need in order to build a scalable and sustainable online training business,” Okaro said.

“Anytime that you jump out on your own to go build something, you’re taking huge risk. I have a lot of money invested in this company, personal cash of mine,” Okaro added. “But I am really, really excited with what we are building. I think there’s a tremendous opportunity in this area. And I think we have a phenomenal team. I think we’ve build a fantastic platform. It took us a long time to get where it is we are.”

Burner has taken flight off the initial funding from Okaro and a close network of investors and friends he developed through his years of involvement in the mobile tech sector. Then Burner came in as a semi-finalist in the 43North business plan competition this fall. That earned them $500,000.

In the late ’90s and early 2000s, Okaro was one of the original creators of mobile phone applications while working for Qualcomm. Schultz said he learned more from Okaro in the first three months of working with him than he had learned in the Silicon Valley in the previous three years.

But for Schultz and his small team, the benefit of living in the valley did not outweigh the costs – competition for talent, relentless commutes, and skyrocketing costs of living made the 100-hour work weeks that much more difficult.

So Schultz, who had frequently talked up the benefits of Buffalo, pitched moving the company there. Okaro checked the city out on a trip to Toronto and agreed that there was something special here.

“If you’re a team like us who doesn't need Silicon Valley connections, living that Silicon Valley lifestyle doesn't make any sense for you,” Schultz said.

Progressively, the company’s staff relocated to Western New York. For co-founder and lead developer Tom Hessler, a Silicon Valley native, the city has lived up to the billing Schultz gave it.

“At the time it wasn’t feeling possible for me to live there. And honestly, he kept talking about it, this place can’t really exist. It's too good to be true,” Hessler said. “The food is amazing and the people are nice, and it's just unbeatable. I can’t speak highly enough about it.”

Burner’s team of nine includes four Niagara University students, including Domenic Conroy, Kevin Ryan and Megan Rogers. Ryan, also a company co-founder, graduated in 2014 and played hockey at NU.

For Schultz and Hessler, who were roommates at Santa Clara, the lower cost of living and manageable traffic means they can spend more time focusing on developing their product. And the innovation center at BNMC provides an ideal working space.

“Everywhere I have worked I have built my teams from scratch. And this is the best team that I've had for multiple reasons. Because of the versatility of the team, their commitment, their work ethic, the group dynamics, their motivation,” Okaro said. “Everyone firmly believes in what it is that we’re building and we don't have any weak links on the team.”

Schultz has also started an entrepreneur mentorship program called Silicon Buffalo at Niagara University. Many of Burner’s staff of nine started as interns, and Schultz stresses the importance of developing and training their own talent.

“If I can get three people that will be the future of Buffalo’s tech scene I’ll be happy. That's the goal,” he added.


Visionary entrepreneur Pete Cimino is helping move Buffalo forward

Before the Hertel Avenue restaurant and soft serve ice cream shop, before the food trucks that paved the way, literally, for a fleet of followers, lloyd Taco Factory co-founder Pete Cimino was an entrepreneurial pioneer moving in a completely different direction from food.

Cimino tried his hand at teaching, then ventured into real estate, hoping to take advantage of Buffalo’s property boom. His business partnerships didn’t work that time, but he plunged forward, navigating county and city regulations and permitting to install Western New York’s first food truck, a trend that had already blossomed in cities like Portland, Ore., and Los Angeles.

That was seven years ago. At the age of 36, Cimino is already a veteran restaurateur and an institution in the city. And he was recently named a Buffalo Business First 40 under 40 recipient as a vital, young business leader in Buffalo.

“I was obviously surprised. I wasn't expecting that at all. I’m honored to say the least, and also with that comes some form of greater responsibility. The expectations that come with being included in this group is that we’ll help move the city forward,” Cimino said this week from his second floor office above the lloyd Taco Factory restaurant.

Entrepreneurs start businesses for various reasons, whether it be a passion for the product or a desire to build something and watch it grow. Cimino said he wants to build a big company. With more than 150 employees already, he’s looking to increase that number to over 500.

But the passion for what he does — namely, creating delicious food in a casual environment — is still there. There are fewer sweaty hours these days laboring in his trucks or behind a hot stove. But when he is at lloyd, he still finds time to look around and watch the process, the efficiency, and the systems he helped create.

“It’s important to be a customer-facing CEO, getting out and listening to customers, saying hello, doing rounds of taste tests,” Cimino said. “When I meet with the managers weekly, it’s important to make sure they’re talking to people, the customers, the right way.”

For Cimino, lloyd started in an organic way, prepping in a church basement, keeping overhead costs as low as possible and relying on lawyer friends to help navigate the obstacle course of permits and licenses needed to operate a food truck in a city that was reluctant to adapt to the trend.

When Cimino won “Restaurant Startup,” a reality television show that aired on CNBC in 2015, he was forced into making the most difficult choice he’s had to make in his professional career-- turning down the cash prize to maintain control of the company.

He said the best way to find funding for a small main street business like his is to go to a bank or use a digital crowd sourcing platform like Kickstarter. For large-scale or high-growth tech companies, he advises seeking venture capital or private industry investment. But nothing replaces bootstrapping efforts and growing a company from its roots through hard work.

Going through that process has inspired Cimino to provide mentorship for young entrepreneurs. He speaks frequently at area schools and participated in a Q&A during the University at Buffalo’s entrepreneurship festival in early September, where he spoke about the difficult decision to turn down the $250,000 television show money, and spoke about the importance of failing in business — and learning from those mistakes.

Now Cimino is thinking about what’s next for lloyd. On a cold, rainy afternoon, he’s considering how to sell more coffee to entice customers into Churn, his new soft serve ice cream shop next to the taco factory. But from business parks in Williamsville to Canalside on a warm Saturday evening in the summer, any Buffalonian knows to look for lloyd. In less than seven years, his green trucks have become instantly recognizable.

“If you don't take any chances, you can’t win. Sometimes they work and sometimes they don't,” said Cimino, acknowledging the positive reputation his company has built, and the pressure that comes with it. “I’m definitely still having fun. This sure beats teaching. I don’t have to think for a moment what it is that's moving me every day."


New business startups help lift Buffalo’s residents out of poverty

Business incubators including the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, Invest Buffalo Niagara, Buffalo Manufacturing Works, and other organizations have helped jump start this area’s once lagging local economy. New York state’s Buffalo Billion program has invested $1 billion into economic development projects in Western New York. Business competitions such as 43North have made the Buffalo region more attractive to potential investors and entrepreneurs. The Bureau of Economic Analysis estimated that Buffalo produced more than $58 billion in goods and services in 2016. Based on this data, Buffalo is fast becoming one of the nation’s economic powerhouses.

At the same time, the City of Buffalo continues to see a gap between high and low-income residents. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community survey of 2016, Buffalo has 43,348 households with incomes lower than $25,000 per year, and only 5,952 making more than $150,000 a year. While downtown is filled with new and rehabbed lofts and buildings, major sections of the city such as the East Side struggle with a large concentration of poverty, abandoned homes, and disinvestment.

New business startups can play a role in helping residents climb out of poverty. By training new employees and providing jobs to previously unemployed or underemployed workers, these companies can help ensure that Buffalo’s recent renaissance reaches all corners of the city. There are, in fact, new firms that are locating in Buffalo’s long-neglected neighborhoods and giving hope to residents often ignored by the area’s economic decision makers.

One such company is Bak USA. Danish immigrants JP and Ulla Bak started this social enterprise that builds mobile computers in downtown Buffalo in 2014. The couple came to Buffalo after building a business in Haiti that hired local people to manufacture tablets for customers in Africa. The Baks were looking for another underserved area where they could replicate the model they used in the Caribbean. New York state’s START-UP NY program brought them to the Queen City. Bak USA opened in the Compass East Building on Buffalo’s East Side in January 2015.

Since then, Bak USA has filled the entire fourth floor of the Compass East Building and hired 96 people, including many immigrants and refugees. Each worker assembles a mobile computers at their workstation, and Bak USA sells these computers to customers at an affordable price. The company’s business model combines advanced manufacturing with social responsibility. Employees learn productive skills, and they also make a living wage. Bak USA has proven that Buffalo’s revival can include those left out of the area’s recent economic upswing.

Another organization helping to reduce Buffalo’s income gap is The Foundry, a business incubator and creative space where people build things. The Foundry, like Bak USA, is located on Buffalo’s East Side. Megan McNally, executive director of The Foundry, became interested in carpentry after she graduated from college and decided that a white-collar career wasn’t for her. She learned woodworking techniques and worked at different sites around the country before coming to Buffalo.

McNally saw a need for a business incubator that provides space for growing manufacturers and teaches students valuable skills in the construction and building trades. The Foundry aims to stem the high dropout rate among students in the city of Buffalo by training them in woodworking, metalworking, welding, and other skills. McNally points out that educators often try to convince students that everyone needs to become a doctor or lawyer.

Students can come to The Foundry and take classes where they learn to create things. It gives them the opportunity to learn something they didn’t know and consider a different career path they hadn’t thought of. According to McNally, the Foundry “exposes them just that one time … a light bulb goes off, and maybe it changes their mindset … when they formerly weren’t interested in that kind of stuff.”

This can be an eye-opener for many young adults who are poor and racial or ethnic minorities. McNally maintains that “It doesn’t matter who you are; it’s the skill set you can provide.” The Foundry trains about 400-500 students per year in the building trades and crafts. Not all of them will stay with the program, but the incubator produces a steady supply of graduates with in-demand skills.

Small manufacturing startups can also find a place to grow their business in a supportive environment. Foundry manufacturers have built benches for Buffalo’s Outer Harbor and created an Adirondack chair out of driftwood. Other partners made hockey pucks, beauty products, and bicycle frames. The Foundry teaches young adults from disadvantaged backgrounds valuable skills that employers need.

A third economic development incubator working to reduce Buffalo’s poverty rate is the Westminster Economic Development Initiative. Located on the West Side of Buffalo, Westminster Presbyterian Church founded WEDI in 2006 to improve the quality of life for West Side residents. WEDI helps refugees, immigrants, and other low-income residents overcome economic barriers by offering education programs, microloans, and business training.

Since its founding, WEDI has provided more than 110 microloans, totaling more than $600,000 to small businesses in Buffalo. In a one-year period from 2015-2016, WEDI clients created 96 new jobs and retained 127. After seven years of lending, 88% of the new businesses WEDI financed still operate, and most turn a profit after three years.

From 2012 to 2016, more than 800 entrepreneurs took advantage of WEDI’s business counseling services. One of the organization’s most visible success stories is the West Side Bazaar. A market and business incubator that specializes in immigrant entrepreneurs, the Bazaar helps first-time business owners establish a foothold in their new home. The Bazaar has hosted 44 small businesses, and created and retained more than 50 jobs.

Business startup incubators and organizations including Bak USA, The Foundry, and the Westminster Economic Development Initiative are all making it easier for Buffalo’s low-income residents to learn new skills, get new jobs, and start new companies. They’ve shown that business startups can create an economic powerhouse within all the neighborhoods of the city.


Where to find your best mentor

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a two-part series on mentorship.

A mentor can be the key to your growth as an entrepreneur, but it’s important that you find the right person to develop a successful mentor/mentee relationship, keeping in mind that some of the best of these relationships are informal.

How to find a mentor

Start by thinking about your business goals and identifying a few leaders who have your dream job. They can be individuals who work in your organization or people in the community you admire. Then, ask them to meet you for a casual lunch or for coffee a few times to see how you connect. Remember, selecting a mentor is a lot like a job interview—you should be qualifying your mentor to be sure that it is a good match for both of you.

Once you have found one or two individuals with whom you feel comfortable, begin to build a relationship with them. Schedule informational interviews with them, shadow them for a few hours to see how they work and interact with others, and intern or cross train with those you can learn the most from.

Whether or not you establish a mentoring relationship, be sure to follow up with everyone who shares their time with you. Reflect on your experience and let them know what you learned from them. Always be grateful and appreciative--this goes a long way!

Where to find a mentor

SCORE: The Buffalo-Niagara chapter offers more than 70 experienced and skilled business mentors for face-to-face, email, and telephone counseling. All counseling is free and confidential.

Executives you know: Although high-profile individuals may have less time to engage in a formal mentor relationship, you can learn a lot without direct one-on-one interaction. Observe how they work, and ask good questions if you get the opportunity. Marcus Anderson, a TedX speaker and author on adversity, says, “The best lesson learned from my mentors was not something they told me, it was what they showed me. Seeing my mentors put in the hours while working with passion and purpose was the greatest lesson I could ever learn.”

College: Your alma mater is an ideal place to network. Contact your alumni services office to connect with fellow alumni, or use a tool like LinkedIn to identify alumni in companies you aspire to work for.

You are likely to have many mentors in your life. As your career changes, your needs change as well, and you will want to find other individuals who can teach you along the way. And, ideally, you will become a mentor for others, as well, paying what you learned forward to help develop the next generation of successful leaders, entrepreneurs, and business owners.


Circuit Clinical finds Buffalo the right place to grow

Four years ago, Circuit Clinical founder and Chief Strategy Officer Irfan Khan, M.D., was the head cardiologist at Buffalo Mercy. He knew he wanted to develop his own startup providing clinical services by connecting physicians with pharmaceutical trials to benefit his patients. He just didn’t know where he would do it.

On the verge of moving to Denver to start the business, to the point where he was looking at homes on the eastern slope of the Colorado Rockies, Khan was lured to stay as Buffalo’s business climate exploded.

Since then, the company has grown by leaps and bounds, opening its new 10,000-square-foot location on Delaware Avenue and signing a five-year partnership with the Buffalo Institute of Genomics at the University of Buffalo — a $1.1 million deal that is part of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion investment.

On Oct. 17, Circuit Clinical announced a new partnership with ePatientFinder, making it the largest research site network in the U.S. Together, the two will serve over 200 clinical sites.

“This partnership triples Circuit Clinical’s existing network of more than one million patients and extends our geographic reach from Western New York to the rest of the nation,” Khan said.

The partnership sets up the already rapidly growing company to continue its aggressive hiring. With the UB Medical Campus nearby, Khan said recruitment of top talent is not an issue, and the best and brightest in other cities now want to come here. The company estimates it may grow its staff to over 100 with the UB BIG partnership.

Three key elements, Khan said, were what sealed the decision to keep the company in Buffalo.

The first was Circuit Clinical’s involvement in the START-UP NY incentive program. Khan said the ease of working with the program provided a tremendous incentive to stay.

The second was the agreement with the Buffalo Institute of Genomics, which has been beneficial for both organizations. “This was a pivotal moment in our growth,” Khan said. The company started with nine employees at its Goodell Street location before moving to Delaware Avenue last month.

Finally, Circuit Clinical’s experience as a finalist in the 43North business plan competition and the exposure it gave the company made the decision to stay in Western New York apparent. “The right place for Circuit to grow is in Buffalo,” Khan said. “We’re just beginning to realize how many great things we have here.”

Circuit Clinical partners with community physicians to provide on-site coordination, support, and training to make it easier for physicians to participate in research while providing better care opportunities for their patients. ePatientFinder and Circuit Clinical offer complementary services that together create a seamless digital experience for patients interested in participating in clinical research in their doctors’ offices. By using the referral cluster model, research sites dramatically increase their patient pool by tapping into physicians that are geographically convenient to a research site. Participating in clinical research gives patients early access to cutting-edge treatment alternatives and potentially lifesaving therapies, according to company representatives.

With more than $5 million in private financing through local banks and a growing list of networks and business partners, Khan said the company is on solid footing and looking to grow its company through local talent, especially from the nearby universities.

“We’re very proud to be a small part of Buffalo’s growing business climate,” Khan added.

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