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New peer group in Buffalo helps entrepreneurs hit the ground running

The Avanti Entrepreneur Group, owned by business coach David Mammano, has opened its newest chapter in Buffalo.

The Buffalo chapter, which convened for the first time in June, offers peer mentorship to area businesspeople and startups across several industries.

“We say don’t go at it alone, even if they (entrepreneurs) have employees,” said Mammano. “The mission is to create a community of small business entrepreneurs who have that spirit of wanting to learn and grow together.”

Statistically, only one of 10 entrepreneurs will make it to one million in revenue, as opposed to franchisees, of whom nine out of 10 reach a million because the support network already exists, according to Mammano, a TEDx speaker and adjunct professor at the University of Rochester.

“Our benefit is that we are focusing on the small business entrepreneur and helping the zero startup get to a million,” Mammano said. “We really want Avanti to become that support system.”

Adaptability and accountability are two more benefits members gain from the peer group meetings, said Buffalo chapter chair Mike DiCioccio.

When DiCioccio first started his digital marketing and media consulting agency, Social Chameleon, he spent a great amount of time networking among groups such as BNI (Circle of Excellence) and Rotary Club of West Seneca, while conducting his own diligent research.

What was lacking from his entrepreneurial journey, however, is what he calls the “personal touch.”

“I was getting great content from books, audiobooks, podcasts, and videos, but I wasn’t sitting in front of someone who was saying, ‘Okay, well now that I’ve given you all of this information, what kind of questions do you have?’”

The group feedback and collaborative experience sharing that Avanti provides is what DiCioccio believes he was searching for in the beginning stages of his business development.

“We’re thinking similarly, our work ethics are similar, we’re iron sharpening iron,” DiCioccio said of the atmosphere at peer group meetings.

Avanti Buffalo chapter meetings will be held every other month at the Alliance Advisory building, 600 Delaware Ave., and monthly peer group meetings will be held at the Orchard Park Chamber of Commerce, 6524 E. Quaker St.

“My goal right now is to continue to add members to our group,” DiCioccio said.

Minority and women entrepreneurs get a boost from the Allstate Foundation and UB

If you're a woman or a member of the minority communities with a dream to take your business to the next level, you’ve got friends right around the corner. For nearly 15 years, entrepreneurs have built and grown their businesses with the help of mentors at the Allstate Minority and Women Emerging Entrepreneurs Program, a joint venture by the University at Buffalo’s School of Management’s Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership and the UB Center for Urban Studies.

The program started in 2004 to support women and minority entrepreneurs in the Western New York ecosystem as they move their businesses to the next stage of development. Since 2005, the Allstate Foundation has provided a grant to underwrite the cost of the program, making it more affordable for the entrepreneur, noted Alex Cleat Pelc, senior program coordinator.

To date, 297 entrepreneurs have graduated from the program.

Participants, called protégés, learn about different aspects of running a small business, devise realistic goals and timetables, and connect with existing resources and successful business owners to develop their companies. The program is geared primarily toward helping established businesses grow, rather than incubating new startups, according to Tom Ulbrich, assistant dean and executive director.

“The vast majority of the people going through our program are scaling up smaller businesses,” he explained. “We’re getting an occasional startup; however, many startups will just refer to the SBDC (Small Business Development Center) and other programs in the community. The idea is to grow them … and introduce them to mentors that will help get them to the next level.”

Protégés meet twice a month in class from September until May and also work outside the classroom through networking events and mentoring. They complete a revised or newly developed business plan, and three protégés are selected, based on their presentations, to win monetary prizes during the graduation ceremony at the end of the program.

The program limits classes to 30, with a mix of experienced business owners and a few fledgling entrepreneurs. Classmates build a mutual support system as they share common problems and find solutions.

One successful graduate of the program was only 14 and attending Tapestry Charter School when she participated, noted Cleat Pelc.

“Sandra Cunningham…went through the program a few years ago…She’s been on Good Morning America. She makes her own bath and body products, and you can find a lot of her stuff in local stores like Wegmans and Whole Foods. It’s called Zandra Beauty.”

This year’s Protégé of the Year was Allison DeHonney. DeHonney spent 20 years in the insurance field before starting her own company, Urban Fruits and Veggies, which serves local residents in the City of Buffalo who have no access to fresh produce.

The company helps customers eat healthier foods, feel better, and improve their overall health and wellness. Urban Fruits and Veggies operates a mobile produce market, offers a fruit and vegetable prescription program, and runs farmers markets on the East Side of Buffalo.

“Our prescription program is targeted to the underserved community with folks…who have health issues, such as obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and cardiovascular issues,” DeHonney explained. “So we work with clinics and physicians to bring that program into the community.”

DeHonney notes that her mentor “really understood my business and helped me focus on pricing my time, putting value on my time, and attaching monetary value to some of the services I provide.”

“I’m very happy I took the class,” she continued. “I’ve met some amazing people; my classmates have amazing businesses that I’m sure are going to be very successful. The class was really good at looking at what challenges you are facing and how (to) overcome some of those challenges. So I think it was a great experience.”

The Giving Project launches campaign benefitting Music is Art

The Giving Project, an online professional fundraising platform that works closely with local companies to generate large amounts of money for deserving charities while providing them with a low-cost and effective marketing tool, announced it will be launching its August campaign to benefit Music is Art.

Each month, the Giving Project will feature a new campaign to benefit a charity. These campaigns will be sponsored by area businesses and individuals who create exclusive prizes and experiences for the purposes of an online sweepstakes on When individuals donate to the charity via the website, they’re rewarded with entries to win the prize.

This month’s prize is two front row seats to the Goo Goo Dolls concert at Shea’s Performing Arts in Buffalo this October, as well as a meet and greet with Robby Takac, an autographed guitar, and a private tour of Takac’s recording studio. The contest kicked off Aug. 1 and concludes after the Music is Art festival on Sept. 8.

“We’re excited to announce this campaign. The prize is fantastic and we’re confident the community will be very receptive,” said Joseph Castle, founder and president of the Giving Project. “Aside from raising funds, we also hope to create exposure for Music is Art within the Western New York area.”

The Giving Project provides businesses with access to community outreach, social media development, brand exposure, employee satisfaction, and a low-cost advertising business model by sponsoring a campaign. If a business does not want to donate a prize, it has the option of becoming a partner in the campaign by matching a donation amount or making a flat donation to the cause.

“We want to have as many people as possible donating as often as possible,” said Castle. “In essence, we want to make giving a habit. We want to encourage everyone to take part in our fundraising campaign series by offering a chance to win great and exciting prizes. As always, we want to thank the Music is Art organization for making this campaign possible.”

Facebook boosts small businesses in Buffalo

When it comes to success in business, it’s not what you know, but who you know that matters. The City of Good Neighbors is lucky to know David Jakubowski, a Buffalo native who has been working at Facebook since 2014. Jakubowski was a champion for Ignite Buffalo and the Facebook Community Boost program to come to his hometown.

One of several such events held across the country, Facebook Community Boost was designed to help small-business owners improve their digital skills. But Buffalo’s program had an added incentive: the Ignite Buffalo competition, a $1 million dollar economic development initiative.

On July 9, the event kicked off at Erie Community College with keynote speaker Kevin O’Leary, a Canadian businessman, author, and television personality, who shared best practices from his years on “Shark Tank” and managing dozens of portfolio companies. Throughout the following three days, participants were able to attend breakout sessions and meet with Facebook staff to get answers to their questions on issues like connecting with customers and effective ways to use social media. The event culminated July 11, when 27 winners of Ignite Buffalo grants ranging from $25,000 to $100,000 were announced. These winners will also receive a year of free mentorship from Facebook and its partners.

Of the 27 winning businesses, 22 of which were women-owned, several were previously featured in Upstart NY. We asked a few of them how the program, and the grant money, will help their business.

Breadhive Bakery & Café and Revolution Spinning both received $25,000 awards. Allison Ewing, one of the worker-owners of Breadhive, says that they will use the grant to purchase another van, which will enable them to expand the café’s catering program. “It's amazing to see so many small businesses outside of the tech sector receive a capital infusion like this,” she said, “especially businesses like ours, that are difficult to capitalize!”

Colleen Kirk of Revolution Spinning explained that she and co-owners Amanda Meyers and Rachel McCrone are planning major renovations and expansion of their four-year-old business, and the grant will help them hire the additional staffing they will need, including a business manager, which will enable them to focus on long-term business development and community engagement. She added that attending the Facebook Community Boost workshops were an added benefit.

“Our biggest takeaways were social media related,” she said. “We learned some very useful info on how to better use Facebook and Instagram to target new clients, as well as some fun apps that can help our content be more engaging and interesting to our current clients. At 30-40 minutes per session, all the information was easy to understand, digest, and put into action!”

Both Mike Zak of Gro-operative and David Horesh of Oxford Pennant were the recipients of the top grants of $100,000 each.

“Winning this award is an honor and an affirmation that our mission of environmentally sustainable local food, that is democratically owned and operated by the workers, is as important to all people as it is to us,” Zak said. “We are going to use this money buy 10 new grow towers and six new fish tanks for our new, larger location. This will enable us to fulfill our current orders and more!”

Oxford Pennant has grown steadily during its five years in operation, Horesh said, but receiving the award was still “a really big deal to a company of our size. This is the largest injection of cash that we’ve ever received at one time, so I think the challenge that we face right now is making sure that we’re maximizing it and finding ways to combine it with our existing plans.”

Horesh is seeking guidance from his advisors and evaluating opportunities to ensure that he makes “the best possible investment and not just an investment that feels right.” Ideally, that investment will allow him to buy equipment, hire employees, and "supercharge the business.”

Whether they won an award or not, participants left the Facebook Community Boost program inspired with ideas to grow their businesses; ideas that they could immediately implement. It’s just another example of how Buffalo is continuing to find ways to support small business success.

Horesh notes that, thanks to the efforts of several local organizations, more new businesses are coming to Buffalo, and this influx is making Western New York an ideal location for programs like Facebook Community Boost. “I’m very grateful that we can enjoy the benefits of that,” he said.

Grant will sharpen focus on local clean energy efforts

FuzeHub, a nonprofit organization that assists small- and mid-sized New York state manufacturers with competitiveness issues, has been selected by the U.S. Department of Energy to receive a $150,000 award to help close the gap between American innovators who develop new energy technologies and domestic manufacturers who produce them. And very soon, a portion of the funds will be put to use in Western New York, assisting the region’s growing clean-tech sector—renewable and efficiency energy technologies that support a global clean energy economy—through educational workshops and resources for entrepreneurs.

FuzeHub applied for the DOE’s American Inventions Made Onshore grant in April 2018, said Kim Lloyd, FuzeHub’s director of special projects.

“We have always been engaged in helping manufacturers across New York state with their scale-up challenges within the energy industry, but we wanted to increase our efforts” Lloyd explained. “When we heard about the AIM Onshore opportunity, we were excited to pursue it. The process included competing with proposals from organizations all across the country. Knowing that they were only going to select four awardees, we knew that required putting our best foot forward."

Apparently, their best effort did not go unnoticed.

“We received notification that we won at the end of May, and we were invited to the announcement at the MForesight National Summit in Washington, D.C., on the afternoon of June 13,” Lloyd continued. “The National Summit explored answers to big questions for American manufacturing by thought leaders and politicians in support of advancing manufacturing initiatives. Daniel Simmons, who leads the Department of Energy's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, announced all four winners, including FuzeHub.”

While still early in the planning process, FuzeHub will be partnering with clean-tech incubators who will help them identify candidates for Build4Scale training, which helps innovators connect with manufacturers. Training also helps innovators avoid common pitfalls of product design by teaching them manufacturing design fundamentals in the early stages of prototype development, and provides them with the know-how they need to work with manufacturers.

As part of the New York Manufacturing Extension Partnership, a network of organizations that provides growth and innovation services to small- and mid-sized manufacturers in every corner of the state, FuzeHub’s efforts will extend beyond training.

“We need to make sure the training leads to manufacturing scale up, and the MEP centers are key to that effort,” Lloyd added. “In Western New York, these partners would include MEP InSyte Consulting and Launch NY to help with the necessary business and funding guidance the clean-tech sector companies would need to be successful. The Western New York Innovation Hot Spot/WNY Incubator Network, managed by the University at Buffalo, is a collaborative of multiple incubators (including the Directed Energy Virtual Incubator) and receives support from the state economic development agency. They will also engage its client innovators in support of our Build4Scale training.”

So, in a nutshell, what does this actually mean for the Western New York business community?

“Western New York is home to a lot of industrial manufacturing in a transition state” said Lloyd. “This landscape has changed drastically over the past couple of decades. Recently, there have been a few prominent renewable energy initiatives, including $1 million in investment in UB's Renewable Energy Future. The combination of these two trends makes Western New York ripe terrain for our efforts. Our goal is to be part of the clean energy solutions growth in Western New York and beyond, by helping promising clean-tech innovations get from the drawing board to the marketplace. As we help the clean-tech ventures grow, so too, will they help bring about business for existing Western New York manufacturers.”

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."

OneTen Capital announces third investment fund

With its largest investment thus far, OneTen Capital will partner with the Construction Robotics team to help them continue to create innovative robotic solutions to problems in the construction industry.


The company’s first system – coined SAM (Semi-Autonomous Masonry system) utilizes existing scaffolding and bricklaying workflow to precisely place exterior bricks.

“With mason worker counts down by 50 percent over the past 20 years, we saw that there was a very real problem and that a robotic
helper could make all the difference,” says Nate Podkaminer, chairman and co-founder.

Construction Robotics’ technology not only solves the labor problem, but also improves the health and well-being of the nearly 5.5 million production workers currently employed in the domestic sector alone. Heavy lifting poses serious ergonomic challenges to lifelong construction work—masons lay about 100 50-lb. cinder blocks daily. With this in mind, CR developed the MULE (Material Unit Lift Enhancer) and designed the initial system to help lift cinder and retaining wall blocks.


Using MULE, productivity increases dramatically and physical strain on the workforce is significantly alleviated. Customers are seeing a return on investment within months, and the company currently has a four-month backlog that is growing each day.


“When we brought the first MULE to a jobsite and realized how much faster it made the job go, we knew it would be impactful both to our company and to the well-being of hard-working masons. There are many other applications for this technology, and we are excited for the future of construction,” said Scott Peters, president and co-founder.


There are currently 11 SAMs and 56 MULEs in use today around the United States.


Even more impressive than these game-changing solutions is the growth of the business. CR is on pace to increase revenue by over 400 percent in 2018, and has several strategic partnerships with leading global companies in the works. The company has 30 employees today and expects to hire an additional 10 by the end of the year.

Construction Robotics has
been featured in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, CNBC, and Forbes, among other leading publications.

OneTen has begun receiving commitments for a $6 million fund specifically curated for Construction Robotics.


“We are very excited about the opportunity to scale the great business that Construction Robotics has built. It is a terrific local story that is being told all over the world,” said Jenae Pitts, OneTen co-founder.

OneTen Capital is Buffalo’s first locally focused venture capital firm and deploys an active partner to work alongside founders in each investment--a process they have trademarked, called Coalition Investing. The organization invests exclusively in hardware and advanced manufacturing companies with engineering founders.


OneTen’s initial fund was in support of Vader Systems--a Getzville father and son team that has developed the world’s first molten metal 3D printer. The company announced its first two commercial sales to Becker, a leading global precision automotive castings manufacturer, earlier this year.


“We see a number of very exciting technologies in this area and are committed to building upon the manufacturing backbone of Buffalo and Western New York,” said Pitts.


“When you think of the Buffalo 20 or 30 years from now, it is possible that one of OneTen’s investments could be the next major employer and defining company for our region,” said Jonathan Amoia, OneTen advisory board member and co-founder. “That is exciting and will be made possible by the many people who have worked hard to build a supportive startup environment in Western New York.”

Small businesses and their champions honored at Small Business Week award luncheon

Small businesses in Western and Central New York were recognized for their accomplishments at a U.S. Small Business Administration Buffalo district awards luncheon earlier this month.

On May 11, 46 small businesses, nominated by local banks, chambers of commerce and community lending institutions, were recognized at Salvatore’s Italian Gardens in front of about 300 attendees, Kelly LoTempio, Buffalo district SBA economic development specialist, said.

The small businesses were nominated based on a set of criteria established by the SBA, including the companies’ staying power, employee growth, sales growth, innovation, response to adversity, and contributions to the community.

“Small businesses are the engine to our economy,” LoTempio said. “They’re not all family owned. They range from concrete to clothing. They’re all small businesses that contribute to our local economy.”

Winners include Jason P. Barrett of Black Button Distilling, who was named Small Business Person of the Year, and Jonathon Ling, business development officer at PathStone Enterprise Center, who was honored with the Financial Services Champion of the Year recognition.

Chef’s Restaurant was named the Family-Owned Business of the Year, and John Vitale, chairman of SCORE Buffalo Niagara, won for District Director’s Recognition Award.

“Small Business Week recognizes the hard work, ingenuity, and complete dedication of our entrepreneurs. I am proud of the Buffalo district office winners for their personal achievements and their contributions to the American economy,” SBA Buffalo District Director Franklin J. Sciortino said.

LoTempio said attendance was up this year with several new partner agencies and their nominees represented. That includes Bank on Buffalo, Northwest Bank, and the Lackawanna Chamber of Commerce all presenting small businesses.

The awards banquet recognizes businesses in 14 of New York’s westernmost counties, which includes Rochester.

The following is a list of the SBA’s 2018 Buffalo District Office Small Business Week award winners.

773 North
Ace Specialty Company, Inc.
Andrew’s Jewelers
Arbeit Software LLC
Arro Manufacturing, LLC
Bailey Manufacturing Co., LLC
Baltz Concrete Construction, Inc.
Benefit Brokers of WNY, LLC
Benzinger’s Clothing Care
Borsari Food Company, Inc.
The Cat’s Pajamas Feline Hotel
Cedar’s Bakery & Deli
Dr. Francis P. O’Day DDS PC
Greg Liberto Focus
Growing Painz LLC/ POP! Party Supply
M.C.M. Natural Stone, Inc.
Makeup & Beauty Parlour Inc.
Mandela Market
The Mess Hall
Nash Connors, P.C.
Phatman Boardshop
Preston Medical PC
Ride Today Powersports, LLC
Robb’s Glass Inc.
Runners Roost
The Small Business Partners
SME Properties LLC / Auto Planet Leasing & Sales, LLC
Toralti & Marfurts Restaurant Inc.
Westside Value Redemption Center
Young Lion Brewing Company LLC

SBA District Winners:

Jason P. Barrett, Black Button Distilling: Small Business Person of the Year
716 Home Inspections: Home-Based Business of the Year
Chef’s Restaurant: Family-Owned Business of the Year
Jonathon Ling: Financial Services Champion of the Year
Tammy Worden/ConServe: Government Contracting Champion of the Year
John Vitale, Chairman, SCORE Buffalo Niagara: District Director’s Recognition Award
Herbert Courtney: Minority Small Business Champion of the Year                                                             
Hélène Biandudi Hofer: Women in Business Champion of the Year
William Ritter, SCORE, Upstate New York: District Director’s Special Award of Distinction & Achievement
Vanocur Refracteries, LLC: Exporter of the Year                                                 
William Smalley Cleary: Veterans Champion of the Year

Athenex begins work on new manufacturing plant in Dunkirk

Athenex, a global pharmaceutical company headquartered in Buffalo, has officially found a home for its new state-of-the-art manufacturing facility.

The company, which was started out of a laboratory at the University at Buffalo in 2003, recently announced it will begin work on a 320,000-square-foot facility this month located in the Town of Dunkirk.

“Our Dunkirk site is the perfect fit for our project,” said Teresa Bair, vice president of legal affairs & corporate development for Athenex. “The site is easily accessible, has the potential for expansion, has access to sufficient energy and water supplies, and is close to the thruway, which will be convenient for our transport activities.”

The facility has been in the works for several years, with Governor Andrew Cuomo announcing the original plans in February of 2016, and is expected to have its construction completed in early 2019.

Athenex, which tabs itself as “a leader in the discovery and development of next generation drugs for the treatment of cancer,” has been on the stock market since last June, raising $66 million in its initial public offering on the Nasdaq.

The company, formerly named Kinex Pharmaceuticals, has been in operation for nearly 15 years, where it was run, in part, by former University at Buffalo chemistryp David Hangauer.

Hangauer, who retired from Athenex in 2016, spent much of his career focusing on developing protein-based kinase inhibitors, which are believed to restrict the growth of certain cancers, according to the Athenex website.

He, along with former CEO Allen Barnett, and current CEO Johnson Lau, have done extensive research and clinical trials on a chemotherapy treatment in pill form that has the potential to reduce pain and have patients spend less time at the hospital. According to The Buffalo News, the pill is a combination of a popular chemotherapy drug Oraxol and a molecule created by Athenex that allows the drug to be effective in the pill form.

The company has stated that it will invest $1.5 billion of its own money into the new manufacturing facility, with New York state also giving $225 million to the project.

The company, which has its home office in Buffalo, has nearly 500 employees worldwide, with other offices throughout the United States, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and China. The new facility is estimated to have nearly 450 employees once it is fully operational, with the majority of those employees being from the area.     

“We look forward to attracting talent from across Western New York, including mechanical and electrical engineers, mechanics, operators, warehouse workers, plant service folks, and a broad spectrum of other positions we’ll need to keep the facility running smoothly,” Bair added.

UB students getting notice for innovative musical device

It’s one thing to make a lot of noise in Buffalo’s startup community. It’s quite another when you can do it while helping to make music.

Shane Nolan and Ryan Jaquin, both MBA and electrical engineering students at the University at Buffalo, made news this spring with their company Bitcrusher, as they notched impressive top finishes at the Henry A. Panasci Jr. Technology Entrepreneurship Competition and the New York Business Plan Competition, and second place at the Bright Buffalo Niagara Entrepreneur Expo.

The pitch competition performances earned the Bitcrusher co-founders over $50,000 in startup money. Their product is a device that enables digital sound effects on a guitar while eliminating the need for additional bulky equipment.

Friends since their freshman year of college, both Nolan and Jaquin have a passion for music and are avid guitar players. Just a week away from graduating UB, the co-founders are balancing exams with managing a company that has a bright future in Western New York and an investment from a community that is showing it believes in them.

“It’s what we want to do. It’s what we do anyway. We’re kind of taking our natural interests and applying them to something that can take us into a career,” Nolan, a Westchester, N.Y., native, told Upstart NY during a recent interview at the Jacobs School of Management.

Like playing in a band, their pitches are confident riffs at this point, with Nolan and Jaquin playing off each other, both knowing what note to hit and when. They attribute some of their pitch success to practicing it in a performing arts class at UB. And they’ve been on the same page when it comes to difficult recent business decisions as well.

“It’s a really good partnership as far as our product beliefs go. Ryan and I are kind of at a point where something will come up and we kind of already know without saying it whose realm that falls into,” Nolan said.

One year ago, Nolan, 22, and Jaquin, 23, were finishing a senior design course at UB, where they had the opportunity to develop a prototype for the product while earning course credit. The following summer, the Bitcrusher co-founders began to explore the product’s market value and ask what the next steps are.

Their first pitch competition was the Bulls Launch Elevator 90-second event that earned them $1,500.

“I knew it was a great idea and I was really excited about it,” said Jaquin, a Long Island native. “But at the end of the senior design course we really just had a product. We didn’t know how we would make a business quite at that time or what it would look like. We really just leveraged our business knowledge and entrepreneurial knowledge from the MBA program to construct that aspect of it.”

Both the UB and Western New York entrepreneurial communities were beginning to take notice of the product. And as Nolan and Jaquin prepared for the prestigious Panasci competition, they were assigned Jack McGowan as a mentor, a project manager at Insyte Consulting and director of the Western New York Venture Association and Buffalo Angels.

“They take suggestions and they act on it. They continue to move their company forward and the results are demonstrated by the multiple competitions they’ve won over the last several weeks,” McGowan said.

Unlike the previous competitions, Bitcrusher was the only student-led company at Bright Buffalo.

“They’re very good presenters. They show the work that they put in. Their hard work comes out,” said McGowan.

Nolan and Jaquin said McGowan has been there for them every step of the way. And he introduced the Bitcrusher co-founders to representatives at So Park in Buffalo, an electronics contract manufacturer.

Having an agreement with So Park, Nolan and Jaquin said, has made a huge difference in their recent success.

Jaquin, a classic and alt rock enthusiast, still finds time to play locally with his band Remotely, while Nolan considers himself more of a technical guitarist, with formal training and an ear for the virtuosos. After exams, Jaquin and Nolan will be exploring a location in or around Buffalo to locate the company. The co-founders said they’ll be needing help soon to handle marketing, sales, and development.

“We’re hoping for it to be out there and in people’s hands in a year. Who really knows?” Nolan said. “Things can happen so quickly or with technical stuff things can take longer. But we’re really looking to get something that is true to our value proposition and get it out there and start seeing the market, taking on our technology.”

Youth Entrepreneur Marketplace empowers Buffalo’s young people to launch businesses

Too frequently, people of color living in Buffalo’s East Side communities aren’t seeing someone who looks like them on the other side of the counter at local businesses.

By teaching entrepreneurial skills to young people in those neighborhoods, local organizations and business owners are hoping to change that. Which is how the Youth Entrepreneur Marketplace and workshops started this spring.

Through the Community Action Organization of Western New York and in partnership with the MLK Business District Association, Masjid NuMan, Inc. and J&W Planning Group, LLC, young people under the age of 18, predominantly from Buffalo’s East Side, will learn skills to sell products designed and made by them and their families.

“Our motto is, we want people of Africa descent behind that counter because 20, 30 years earlier, businesses up and down Genessee, Bailey, Fillmore, they were (owned by) African people and we want that again,” Pamela James, program coordinator at the Community Action Organization, said.

Participants will go through a five-week training workshop program at the Community Action Organization on Fillmore Avenue, culminating in a Juneteenth marketplace at MLK Park on June 16 where their goods will be sold. There are six other marketplace dates scheduled throughout the summer at Fillmore and East Utica Street.

After a prior orientation meeting, about 25 kids between the ages of 6 and 17 and their families gathered May 8 for the first workshop. They heard from local business owners, including Royce Woods of Local Initiatives Support Corporation, who brought Monopoly to teach young people about exchanging money and the cost of doing business. In subsequent sessions, families will learn how to pitch a business and make a business plan. For those interested in serving food at the marketplace, the workshop will go over necessary permits and inspections. But beyond foundational business skills, the workshop will also teach young people that they can reach their goals through hard work and a passion for what they do.

MarQes, a 9-year-old East Side resident who sells collectibles and inspirational items and is also a motivational speaker, was one of the youth in attendance Tuesday.

“I just want him to know that he can do anything he desires,” said his mother, Lekya. “It doesn’t have to take him to be an adult to be an entrepreneur. He doesn’t have to wait until he graduates from school. He can dream big, he can inspire others, and he can also be inspired by what other people are doing.”

James said that those interested in participating in the workshop are welcome to come to the next event Wednesday, May 16, at the Community Action Organization, 1423 Fillmore Ave. in Buffalo from 5 to 7 p.m.

With entrepreneurship, James explained, families learn to be self-sufficient. That means they hire within their communities, generate capital, increase the tax base, and bring prosperity back to districts that were once booming decades ago.

“Our mission is to put businesses back on Fillmore, Genessee, and also East Ferry and East Utica,” James said.

For more information, contact Pamela James at the Community Action Organization of Western New York, 716-332-3773,

Good Neighbor app wins top prize in Civic Innovation Challenge

Clark Dever and Jordan Walbesser, the creators of Good Neighbor, a mobile phone-based app that gives Buffalo residents easy access to key data on services provided by the City of Buffalo, Erie County and New York state, as well as local non-profit organizations, were awarded the top prize in Mayor Byron W. Brown’s inaugural Civic Innovation Challenge – Powered by AT&T.

“This app embodies what I had hoped would come out of this competition. Good Neighbor equalizes access to city information for all of our residents. It also offers translation for those who do not speak English,” Mayor Brown said. “Anyone with a cell phone and this app can find the nearest police station or firehouse, get details on city services in their neighborhood, and much more. This is what the City of Good Neighbors is all about.”

"The quality of the innovative solutions developed for this challenge is extremely impressive and serves as an example of the vibrancy and creativity of Western New York's technology community," said Marissa Shorenstein, president, Northeast Region, AT&T. "AT&T is proud to have collaborated with Mayor Brown to host this visionary innovation challenge."

One hundred developers signed up to participate in the challenge, and 16 complete app entries were reviewed by a five-member panel of judges, which included Mayor Brown, Shorenstein, and Ulla Bak, president of Bak USA.

The journey to funding: Buffalo Automation’s story

Thiru Vikram learned a lot about artificial intelligence in self-navigating vehicles while studying engineering at the University at Buffalo – in 2015 it was still an evolving technology with applications that had yet to be fully explored.

But Vikram’s colleagues were focused on applying AI to motor vehicles. No one, Vikram said, was exploring AI uses for self-driving boats, both recreational and for commercial shipping.

Three years later, the company Vikram co-founded, Buffalo Automation, has reached several milestones in fundraising through venture capital investors, its most recent a $900,000 seed investment led by the Jacobs family, with a $100,000 follow-on investment from Z80 Labs.

“I’m very surprised,” Jon Spitz, managing director of Z80 said. “That’s a lot of money for Buffalo.”

Vikram’s business and engineering expertise may come naturally – he gained experience running a company through his family while growing up – but to grow a tech startup from the ground didn’t come easily.

The momentum for Buffalo Automation began in 2016, when Vikram and his team, including co-founders Emilie Reynolds and Alex Zhitelzeyf, all UB graduates or current students, began to win pitch competitions, including the locally prestigious Henry A. Panasci Jr. Technology Entrepreneurship Competition through the UB School of Management. The Buffalo Automation team earned first place in the 2015 Buffalo Student Sandbox competition and the 2016 New York State Business Plan Competition, among others.

That level of achievement, Spitz said, caught people’s attention.

“We got to the point where we were raising a significant amount of capital,” Vikram said. Z80 worked with the Buffalo Automation team to refine its pitch and introduced the young engineers to investors both locally and nationally.

For now, the team of eight is focused on growing revenue. Vikram said Buffalo is the logical location for Buffalo Automation. The eastern tip of Lake Erie is still a major shipping hub, and when commercial boats are dormant near the frozen mouth of the Niagara River, Vikram’s team can test AI applications for the self-driving ship.

In the last round of seed funds, Buffalo Automation surpassed its $700,000 goal. Other investors include Gerald Lippes of Lippes Mathias Wexler Friedman, investment manager Ted Pierce, and John Somers, owner of Harmac Medical Products.

The funding will go toward developing Buffalo Automation’s AutoMate system, which uses analytical data through sensors to pilot a boat, detecting debris and water depth and using an algorithm to find the most efficient routes. The technology can optimize fuel efficiency and improve safety, according to the company.

“He made a lot out of a little in terms of financing,” Spitz said about Buffalo Automation’s rapid growth. “He wasn’t going to be stopped no matter what. It’s still obviously very early, but with this financing he’s going to have an opportunity to continue to validate this idea and scale up.

“It’s the first step in a series of steps,” Spitz added.

Vikram said another added benefit to Buffalo is its proximity to Canada, where many major shipping companies are based. There’s no shortage of local talent, but Buffalo Automation can recruit from virtually anywhere with developers’ ability to work for the Amherst-based company remotely if they can’t relocate here.

Fleet management and autopilot applications are the company’s focus, but most recently Vikram said Buffalo Automation is exploring self-driving devices for yachts, speed boats and within recreational markets.

That means the UB engineers get to spend days on boats that can travel over 50 knots. And that part, Vikram said, can be a lot of fun.

Vikram credits the UB Technology Incubator’s tenX co-working space for supporting the company in its early stages. “We were always fortunate to have other people with experience lead the way,” Vikram said.

Currently, Buffalo Automation is also still developing customer testing, and constantly in the stages of responding to feedback from its products.

“As long as we can help him out, we’re going to do our best. We have an incentive to do that,” Spitz said.

Buffalo’s CDFIs reach out to the community

It’s a sunny Saturday morning in late March, and Yanush Sanmugaraja is standing before fewer than a dozen curious entrepreneurs on Buffalo’s East Side, explaining the importance of cash flow.

Sanmugaraja is an economic development director for the Westminster Economic Development Initiative, Inc. on Grant Street. Events like this make up the bulk of WEDI’s week-to-week community outreach programs.

For alternative lending and community development financial institutions in Buffalo, programs like the recently completed “Filling the Finance Gap” two-part series are an enormously important part of how they find potential small business entrepreneurs who may have a strong work ethic and solid business plan, but no way to secure financing.

These events, Sanmugaraja said, may not have an attendance of more than three to five entrepreneurs. But establishing relationships, he said, particularly in underserved populations on Buffalo’s East and West sides, is fundamental to developing a healthy small business ecosystem in those neighborhoods.

For local CDFIs and alternative lending agencies, the “Filling the Finance Gap” series was an opportunity to pool resources and work together in reaching potential clients. The series included participation from WEDI, PathStone Enterprise Center, Erie County IDA, and Excelsior Growth Fund.

“We want to show how financing can help you turn around your business,” Sanmugaraja said. “So that's really the job of our outreach. To be out in the community, show people that we’re here to meet their needs, learn what their goals are, and learn how they're doing and find ways to help them.”

Sanmugaraja said that just from the two events, the first held in February at the Beverly Gray Business Center and the second in March at the Community Action Organization, WEDI met five clients with whom it is now working. One client from the second workshop, Sanmugaraja said, was just approved for their first loan.

But not all loan agencies are the same. From Erie County IDA to traditional banks, the size and scope of loans differ. A large part of the “Filling the Finance Gap” series was to lay out what each agency does specifically, and who might be the best candidate for that organization.

“Right now, we’re trying to support small businesses and support our partners,” said Beth O’Keefe, a business development officer at Erie County IDA. “All these different organizations are doing different kinds of outreach on their own. The whole goal was to put efforts into collaboration, lower costs and time by working together, and hopefully, build on something there.”

Erie County IDA primarily specializes in maximizing tax incentives and providing larger loans within targeted industries, as well as smaller microloans to qualified businesses. O’Keefe said that at one time, there were limited microloan and CDFI agencies in Buffalo, and it primarily came from the City of Buffalo and the IDA. Today, the microloan community locally is not only more prevalent, but also working together in collaboration.

“I think, the people that I spoke to, they didn’t know what a CDFI was,” Sherri Falck of Excelsior Growth Fund said. “People I talked to at the event and leading up to the event were eager to have that information, and that was the whole purpose, to share information and raise visibility of who we are and what we do.”

Excelsior Growth Fund also does webinars and small business seminar series throughout the year. EGF’s next event is a webinar on how to apply for a small business loan, hosted by the Women’s Business Center at Canisius College May 31 from 2 to 2:45 p.m. More information can be found at

On Thursday, May 3, WEDI is hosting its own workshop on the importance of record keeping at West Side Community Services. Visit or call 716-393-4088 for more information.

As the weather grows nicer, bringing the community together from outside grows more difficult and attendance tends to drop. But Buffalo’s CDFIs are considering what’s next for another collaborative lending series in the fall.

“A lot of business owners, especially in Buffalo’s refugee communities, won’t explore the possibility of financing, in part because of the assumption that they won’t get financing from traditional sources,” Sanmugaraja said. “They won’t even reach out. And that interpretation is obviously completely incorrect. (As) alternative lenders, our goal really is to help people increase sales and revenue. We want to see how financing can help you turn around your business. So that’s really the job of our outreach."

Grant awarded to Excelsior Growth Fund and Westminster Economic Development Initiative

The KeyBank Business Boost & Build Program, powered by JumpStart, is celebrating the start of National Small Business Week by awarding $100,000 to Excelsior Growth Fund and the Buffalo-based Westminster Economic Development Initiative.


EGF promotes economic development and job creation by providing streamlined access to small business loans and business advisory services. WEDI works to empower Buffalo’s economically disadvantaged through economic development, community development and education.


"We are excited about our collaboration with Excelsior Growth Fund and JumpStart through KeyBank Business Boost & Build's financial support,” said Ben Bissel, Executive Director of WEDI. “Through this assistance, our organizations will be able to provide a full continuum of service, starting with training and capitalizing minority- and women-led microenterprises with microloans. Then Excelsior Growth Fund will help them and other businesses to scale up to be viable, sustaining and successful companies through small business loans and advisory services. The funding will lead the organizations to serve hundreds of additional entrepreneurs, who will start and expand companies that create local jobs. Buffalo's business ecosystem continues to grow through this investment in its future."


With this new funding, the two collaborators will deepen their existing partnership and together will offer a full range of loan options, from $500 to $500,000, to minority and women owned business enterprises (MWBEs) in the City of Buffalo.


Startup assistance and smaller loans will be handled by WEDI. EGF will focus on larger loans and associated advisory services. Both partners will also hold a series of collaborative educational workshops for minority and women owned businesses and entrepreneurs.


“Supporting small businesses and helping them thrive is central to KeyBank’s mission,” added Buford Sears, KeyBank Western New York Market President. “We are proud to be assisting two great organizations, WEDI and EGF, as they expand their efforts to help more women and minority business owners capitalize on the economic renaissance that is underway in Buffalo.”


Funded by a grant from the KeyBank Foundation in 2017, the KeyBank Business Boost & Build program is designed to stimulate economic growth in Ohio and Upstate New York by helping startups and small businesses grow and prepare the workforce for the needs of those companies.


Small businesses and entrepreneurs interested in learning more about the KeyBank Business Boost & Build program can visit

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, 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 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

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 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 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

Complete information about the Civic Innovation Challenge, along with registration information, can be found at

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, 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

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 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 or email Hunt at Inve[n|s]t UB's kickoff meeting will be held Wednesday, Feb. 28, from 5-6:30 p.m. in 113A Davis Hall.

5 cost-conscious sales strategies for startups

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Filling the finance gap

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

Event Dates:
February 21
March 24
April 23

For more information, click here.

Girl Develop It opens doors to tech jobs for women

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New dog boutique in Lewiston offers healthy options for treating pets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




The Book Fairy brings the magic of reading alive for children

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buffalo’s entrepreneurial community fostered success for CoachMePlus

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

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

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

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

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

He’s glad he didn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Workforce coalition makes headway in identifying needs of employers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Online startup accelerator program now accepting applications

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 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.

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.

Making working from home work

Proactive and forward-thinking companies across the globe have begun adapting to an ever-growing remote workforce. There has been a tremendous increase in the number of people who work from home, and several companies have taken advantage of this. One such company is Walkabout Workplace.

A Buffalo-based organization, Walkabout Workplace has created one of the most comprehensive online workplaces in the country, giving employees working from home a virtual office experience.

Antoinette Forth, Co-Founder and CEO of Walkabout, has looked to develop the ideal online working experience for decades, and feels that her team has done just that with its latest design.

“For the past 20-25 years, we’ve managed remote teams, but we were not able to find a technology solution that really helped us communicate in a spontaneous and highly personal way,” said Forth. “Everything we did happened through chat or email. If we wanted to talk face to face, we had to play phone tag, or we had to send a bunch of emails to get a meeting scheduled. We just felt there was a need for something that was much more personal, dynamic, and spontaneous.”

With those needs in mind, the company began doing extensive research to find what employees really looked for when working from a remote location.

“We found out that people who worked remotely felt like they were kind of forgotten about--out of sight, out of mind,” Forth stated. “They were called part of a team, but didn’t really feel they were a part of it. They felt like they were missing the benefit of being able to walk down the hall, knock on somebody’s door, and ask a quick question. ”

After looking over the feedback they received, Forth and her team hit the ground running. They looked to create an efficient virtual work place (closely resembling some of our favorite computer games) that also included a strong sense of belonging. This became Walkabout Office.

“What we’ve done with our technology is create a heads-up display,” Forth noted. “That heads-up display shows where everybody is in the online office, and that’s something our clients look at constantly throughout the day. They log in in the morning, and they can click on the heads-up display (which is a floor plan). They can see who’s in the office and if people are meeting together. If they need to talk with someone, they can just click on that person’s avatar and have an immediate conversation.”

This feature, along with several others, gives the company the social aspect they looked for from the outset.

“We make it easy for people to get together. We have a virtual breakroom where you can play games or chat about your weekend, do the things you would normally do in a breakroom,” Forth said. “But it is only technology, so unless the culture of the company is such that people are encouraged to talk with each other, the technology isn’t going to solve the problem.”

With more companies than ever embracing the remote workplace culture, Forth feels her application has the possibility of being used to its full potential.

“Companies are embracing working remotely, they accept people working from home,” Forth noted. “However, there are some companies that feel they are not getting that collaboration. That’s why our product has been so popular. They are looking for different platforms that make people feel like they’re physically together.

“We say that we’re not a tool, we’re a place,” she continued. “We’re not just having someone log into our tool. When they log in, they are actual entering a virtual building, and that is a big difference.”

The virtual building approach is something that has made Walkabout Office stand out from the competition.

“Instead of another tool, we really look at our virtual workplace as a place that you go to every day, get people together, and facilitate collaboration,” Forth added. “There are other companies that are working toward this, but we feel we’re one of the first ones on the scene, the leaders in the marketplace.”

Assistance available for startups seeking government work

Eastern Foundry and Boston Consulting Group recently collaborated and released a report discussing the struggles startups face while trying to work with the government. Their study consisted of 109 interviews with startups, venture capital firms, and angel investors.

The report states numerous startups were interested in contracting with the government, but faced many obstacles “including a lengthy and overly complex contracting process, a lack of clarity on how to connect with agencies, and a sense that newcomers have little chance to win contracts over incumbents.”

Finding that connection, however, can help the community prosper, and there are several organizations in Buffalo to help startups do just that.

Small Business Development Center

The Small Business Development Center, located in Cleveland Hall on the campus at Buffalo State College, offers a wide range of management and technical assistance services, including helping startups complete certification that can help them obtain government work.

“Our main flagship is one-on-one mentorship,” said business advisor Andrew Delmonte. “We can help people complete Minority-Owned Business Certification (MBE) or Women-Owned Business Certification (WBE) state certification. Through the one-on-one mentorship, we walk clients through steps and go through all of the qualifications. We also help with bid links and go through an aggregator of bid opportunities on federal and state levels. We set clients up on our system and send them emails on a daily basis so they can make a bid. Our procurement specialist can also work with clients on how to speak to prime contractors with procurement agencies.”

Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership

Designed by entrepreneurs and for entrepreneurs, the Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership, in the School of Management at the University at Buffalo, provides a variety of services that prepare entrepreneurs to bid on government work.

“We play a large role in helping small businesses obtain government work, indirectly, by helping them improve their businesses, thus being better prepared to take on government contracts that are often beyond the current capabilities of many small businesses,” said Thomas R. Ulbrich, executive director of the center. “We do this through experiential learning, practical information where students can immediately apply the learning to their businesses and current challenges.

“We also bring in a diverse group of speakers from county, state, and federal agencies that give our candidates information about the best resources by which to become MWBE certified and more,” Ulbrich continued. “We do our best not to duplicate existing resources in the community, but rather convene the best resources available and then fill any gaps with custom development content.”

Women’s Business Center

The Women's Business Center at Canisius College works with local women- and minority-owned businesses to support their efforts in doing business with the government, or government-funded projects, through Minority/Women-Owned Business Enterprise certifications.

“The governor of New York increased our state goals a few years back to be 30 percent, meaning 30 percent of the state-funded projects are completed by doing business with woman- or minority-owned businesses,” said Sara Vescio, executive director of the Women’s Business Center. By contrast, the federal government requires that only 5 percent of its funded projects be awarded to a woman-owned business, she noted.


“We want to support women in learning about these opportunities and how to use them to grow their business' revenue,” Vescio continued. “We hold a ‘Getting Certified 101’ class every year, sometimes twice a year, to break down all of the different certification options, qualifications for each, what's involved, and invite the representatives from each government body - Erie County, NYS and SBA for federal - to speak to the entrepreneurs directly.”


Also, with the support of Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, the Women’s Business Center runs a contracting series which offers workshops for those women whose businesses are already certified to help them learn how to utilize the certification to get the contracts and grow their business.




4 keys to choosing the right mentor

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

You’ve heard about the power of mentors, but honing in and landing the right one can be difficult. While some programs, like University at Buffalo’s Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership, provide help in connecting mentors to mentees, they typically match people based on industry and skills.

Although there are tactical benefits to this approach, it overlooks what might be the most important factor in a mentoring relationship-- the chemistry between mentor and mentee.

The best mentors:

  1. Put the relationship first.

For real mentorship to succeed, there needs to be a baseline chemistry. Studies show that even the best-designed mentoring programs are no substitute for a genuine, interpersonal relationship between mentor and mentee.

Mentoring requires rapport. At best, it propels people to break from their formal roles and titles (boss versus employee) and find common ground as people.

Pat Whalen, director of Niagara Global Tourism Insititute, said “Chemistry is important, and it doesn't happen with just anyone. What my mentors had in common was that they cared about me. They saw something in me others didn’t.”

When the relationship is the foundation, both parties will invest more in helping one another to be accountable and to make one another proud. All of which drastically improves the final outcome.

  1. Focus on character rather than competency.

The best leaders go beyond competency and skills, focusing instead on helping to shape other people’s character, values, self-awareness, empathy, and capacity for respect. They know that, in the long run, these soft skills are the basis of leadership and lead to success, and that mastering others is strength, but mastering yourself is true power.

  1. Are optimistic, but will challenge you.

Mentors should help you consider both why an idea might work as well as why it might not. They should challenge your way of thinking and ask you the hard questions, but then help you sort through different ways of attacking the challenge.

Matt Pelkey, partner at Colligan Law, shared this, “My best mentors have always pushed me outside my comfort zone. They challenged me to take risks in my career and to be the best version of myself.”

  1. Seek first to understand, then to help.

The best mentors recognize that the best way to inspire others is to be fully and selflessly committed to the best interests of their colleagues and employees. They don’t seek only to uncover their mentees’ strengths; they also look for their underlying passions to help them find their calling.

At its highest level, mentorship is about being “good people” and having the right “good people” around us — individuals committed to helping us become fuller versions of who we are.

THE PITCH competition kicks off entrepreneurship week with a bang

Four days after winning $25,000 toward her West Side small business in 43North’s THE PITCH competition, Phylicia Dove still hadn’t quite soaked it all in.

Dove, owner of Black Monarchy on West Utica Street, was named the $15,000 first-place winner in the Main Street category of the event Thursday, Sept. 28, at the Buffalo Museum of Science. She took home an additional $10,000 when Black Monarchy was named the Five Star Bank People’s Choice Minority and Women Small Business Award winner, voted on via text message by attendees.

The second annual THE PITCH competition, sponsored by 43North in collaboration with the City of Buffalo and New York Business Development Corporation (NYBDC)/Excelsior Growth Fund, was the kickoff for the fourth annual 43North Finals Week, a series of events in Buffalo highlighting entrepreneurship and collaboration locally.

Thursday at the museum, hundreds turned out to listen to three finalists in two categories make their five-minute presentations. The runners-up were each awarded $5,000.

In the Growth Companies category, Zandra Cunningham, 17, of Zandra Beauty, took home the $15,000 top prize in her category.

For both entrepreneurs, the prize money offers an opportunity to make an investment neither thought they would have the chance to make.

“I’ve only dreamed of something like this,” Dove said. “There have been times when I was ready to give it up after so many no’s. I feel really privileged to be included in such a platform.”

Dove earned first place by telling the story of her journey to South Africa in 2007, which led her to establish a store that focuses on art, jewelry, fashion, and design, inspired by her “origin of one” motto. Dove creates much of the jewelry in the store herself. She says the earnings from THE PITCH competition will allow her the opportunity to expand selection and invest in difficult-to-find artwork and fabrics.

The winnings will also allow Dove to build further relationships with the West Side’s refugee community, she added.

Cunningham said that she expects to use the prize money to help grow her company as it heads toward the holiday shopping season. Right now, Zandra Beauty consists of four employees, including her parents James and Tamara, but she hopes to hire two more associates before the New Year.

That will be especially important as Cunningham continues to expand Zandra Beauty into stores like Rite Aid, Target, and Whole Foods. That involves traveling from Dallas to Atlanta, Cincinnati to New Jersey, in discussions with businesses she hopes will carry her product.

“Honestly, I wasn’t expecting it,” Cunningham said about her pitch, which she put together the night before, as she was a last-minute addition to the competition. “I’m just grateful for the opportunity. It was bananas.”

Cunningham adds that she hopes to grow her company so she can hire other young people who need part-time work, and a big part of her company’s growth right now is focused on building a brand that inspires girls and young women in the community.

From the opening violin solo by local composer and musician Henri L. Muhammad, the night promised to be an exciting one for six business owners, all of them women or minorities. New York Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul was in attendance, as was Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown.

The panel of judges for the competition included Bryan Doxxford of the NYBDC Excelsior Growth Fund, Su Sanni of Wedidit, Ann Segarra of BHS Foodservice Solutions, Jamel Perkins of Sodexo, Dr. Raul Vazquz of G Health Services, and Alexandra Wehr of Key Bank.

Contestants made their five-minute pitches, then had five minutes to answer questions from the judges.

In the High Growth category, Luanne DiBernardo presented her cooling vest company, Coolture, a product marketed toward both those with chronic conditions where regulating body temperature is difficult, and athletes. The other runner-up was Dr. Melissa Franckowiak, a local anesthesiologist who pitched her tracheal intubation device for her company, Pneumaglide.

The other Main Street runners-up were Abiyu Aynalem with his company, Empire Transportation Services, which provides transportation support to the low income and handicapped, and Annette Pinder of Buffalo Healthy Living magazine.

Each runner up received $5,000. NYBDC/Excelsior Growth Fund served as the Signature Sponsor of THE PITCH, with additional support from KeyBank, ECIDA, Kaleida Health, Foit-Albert Associates, Iroquois Construction Services, and Launch NY.

“Many have watched this journey and have watched us grow,” Dove said. “I can’t wait to show them what we’re going to do next.”

Medical Campus brings best in the world to Buffalo for coding event

Forget the NCAA basketball and World Junior hockey tournaments. Buffalo is hosting the best in the world in another competition this fall, and it has nothing to do with athletics.

The Topcoder Open Finals 2017 will take place at the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus (BNMC) Oct. 21-24, bringing together 110 of the world’s top computer science experts and coding wizzes to compete in challenges like UI design, algorithm, and development.

“It's the Olympics of coding,” said Sean Heidinger, BNMC Curator of Events and manager of dig Buffalo co-working space at the Innovation Center on the Medical Campus.

Tech experts from 30 different countries will travel to Buffalo for the Topcoder Open Finals. Coding experts are ranked in a way that’s similar to chess, BNMC Chief Innovation Officer Sam Marrazzo said, and the ones competing in this event are the best in the world.

Buffalo, with the support of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and SUNY Buffalo, earned the bid over cities like Austin, Boston, Las Vegas, and San Francisco.

“When they asked why Buffalo, we said, ‘Why not Buffalo?’” Marrazzo said.

Eight cities around the world held qualifiers for the event, and Heidinger was able to travel to China to assess the infrastructure capabilities necessary to host the Topcoder finals smoothly. Many of the competitors are from China, India, and the U.S., but for the first time, there will be a Topcoder competitor from Ghana.

Winners, Heidinger said, can expect to walk off the floor of the competition and into a job offer from companies like Google and Facebook.

Topcoder is a workforce marketplace with 1.1 million developers, designers, and data scientists around the world. Its flagship event is the Topcoder Open Finals.

The four days of competition will be mixed with events at the Medical Campus, including an opening ceremony, visits by coders to an area high school, an innovation summit, and a video challenge, where area students send 60 second videos about how the tech sector will affect the future of Buffalo, with the finalists and winner announced during the competition. And in typical Buffalo fashion, competitors can participate in a wing-eating contest, as well.

The competition is not open to the public, but Erie and Niagara County residents interested in attending can participate Tuesday, Oct. 10, at 6 p.m. in an algorithm competition at BNMC.

The top 10 finishers will win all-access, VIP passes to the Topcoder Open Finals, and the top three finishers receive Amazon gift cards. Details for the event can be found here.

Marrazzo said the Topcoder Open Finals gives Buffalo instant credibility with major companies, and offers an opportunity to converge the tech industry with local companies in Western New York.

“We want educators, students, and entrepreneurs to know about the great opportunities for them that are here in Buffalo,” Marrazzo added.

A perfect match: the underemployed and startups

More than 132,000 people in the Buffalo area are considered to be underemployed, according to a recent study done by the economic development group Invest Buffalo Niagara.

The underemployed tag was given to anyone who is either working part time or feels unfulfilled with his or her current full-time job, accounting for nearly 12 percent of the Western New York population.

With this rather large number of underemployed or unsatisfied workers, many entrepreneurs in the Queen City see an opportunity. Whether it is a brand new startup or a company simply looking to expand, the number of available workers is beginning to be noticed by entrepreneurs and business owners across the area.

For example, Ernie Lynch. Lynch owns and operates Lynch Fluid Controls Inc., which specializes in creating hydraulic and motion control products used by organizations such as NASA, the International Olympic Committee, and the United States Military.

With its expanding headquarters located in Mississauga, Ontario, Lynch recently decided to open a distribution facility in North Tonawanda. The company exceeded its distribution goals at its Western New York branch by 210 percent in the month of June, according to the Invest Buffalo Niagara website, and will be looking to expand its employee base in the near future.

With more and more companies like Lynch’s sprouting up in the Buffalo area each month, there is no better time for an underemployed worker to make the leap and join a fledgling startup company, and for startups to consider workers who may be in the second stage of their careers.

Growing businesses in Western New York are continually searching for employees who are looking to work for a company they feel passionate about. Several websites, including Viaduct, which was created to help “small and emerging businesses post their open jobs and rely on an in-house team of recruiters to find the perfect match for your team,” according to its website, have made the process easier for them.

There are a variety of different job areas on the site including: creative and marketing, information technology and software and web development. The Viaduct job-seeking page is continually updated and can be used as an important resource to the underemployed.

Other initiatives throughout Buffalo include Startup Grind, an organization that hosts monthly speaking engagements to help budding entrepreneurs connect and learn from successful entrepreneurs in the area, as well as, a website with many different areas that include the opportunity for like-minded entrepreneurs to chat online or get together to discuss ideas they are interested in pursuing.

If you are one of the 132,000 people who want a change in your work life, the opportunities in the greater Buffalo area are vast if you are willing to take a deeper look.

Two Buffalo startups vie for grand prize in 43North business plan competition

Buffalo startups made a great showing in the recent 43North business plan competition, with two area companies among the 16 finalists competing for eight cash prizes during a daylong pitch contest that will take place on Oct. 5. More than 500 businesses from around the world applied for entrance into the competition.

Burner Fitness is an online fitness, nutrition, and health program marketplace where personal trainers, nutritionists, doctors, and health or wellness experts can create, publish, and sell their programs, which are then accessible to users on the Burner Fitness application. Burner also provides users with free tools to track diet and exercise, determine optimal caloric intake and nutrients for the users’ goals, and gamify the experience to motivate users. Each program has a community of users, competing for and sharing results.

Cellular Preservation Technologies is a medical device company focused on applying their unique technology for the preservation of human cells across multiple cell and tissue types. Their initial focus is on the preservation of blood platelets, where there is a high degree of product waste due to their short shelf-life (4-5 days).

In addition to the $1 million grand prize, the runner-up will get $650,000 and the third-place finisher will receive $550,000. Five other companies will get $500,000 prizes. Winners also receive incubator space, expert mentorship, and 10 years of freedom from state taxes, as well as access to the resources and infrastructure of Buffalo, N.Y.

Local companies aid in startup diversity

Though not nationally considered an overly diverse community, Buffalo’s entrepreneurial scene has gone against many misconceived notions, with diverse local businesses thriving over the last few years.

The most recent U.S. Census from 2010 suggests an uphill battle for diversity among Buffalo entrepreneurs, with the largest portion of Buffalo’s population being Caucasian (50.4), while African Americans (38.6), Hispanics (10.5) and people of Asian descent make up the other half of the population. The struggle for diversity may seem even greater when, according to, men outnumber women 9 to 1 in the City of Buffalo.

Despite these numbers, there has been a surge in diverse businesses and workers across the area, due in large part to several recent initiatives.

43North announced in August that it will sponsor its second annual business plan competition for minorities and women called THE PITCH, which will give a total of $50,000 to local small businesses and growth (startup) companies throughout Buffalo, according to the 43North website. This year, four local entrepreneurs in two categories will present their business plans at the Buffalo Museum of Science on Sep. 28. In the category of Main Street Businesses, Buffalo Healthy Living and Empire Transportation will vie for the  grand prize of $15,000, while in the category of Growth Companies, Coolture, LLC, and PneumaGlide will compete. NYBDC/Excelsior Growth Fund is the Signature Sponsor of THE PITCH, with additional support from KeyBank, ECIDA, Kaleida Health, Foit-Albert Associates, and Iroquois Construction Services.

The University at Buffalo is working in a similar fashion. It has made it a prerogative to help local startups and small businesses by instituting a plan that 15 percent of the school’s spending must go to minority and women-owned business enterprise (MWBE) companies, according to the University at Buffalo website.

Since implementing the program, the school has seen the amount of money it has spent on MWBE businesses grow to 41 percent of the budget, as compared with only 7.5 percent in 2011.

In those same five years, the school’s business contracts with minority-owned businesses expanded from .33 percent of the budget to 25.5 percent, according the University at Buffalo website.

For those looking to become certified by the state as MWBE companies, SUNY Buffalo State offers free assistance to get certified, making now an ideal time for minorities with a business idea to get their plan into action.

The University at Buffalo website and 43North have several examples of startups that have succeeded with this initiative. With these opportunities, and countless others, there is no limit to what a diverse company can accomplish in Buffalo.

Buffalo entrepreneurs have options to combat loneliness

Blazing your own path as an entrepreneur is an honorable feat, but sometimes it can be a lonely occupation.

But for Buffalo entrepreneurs, there are numerous resources to connect with others. For example, entrepreneurs can learn from others, make things, and play with technology, art, science, food, and more at a community workshop called Buffalo Lab. Buffalo Open Coffee Club is a Google group where members discuss local initiatives, national news in tech, and local events. Entrepreneurs who want to assess the viability of their startup concepts can attend the Pre-Seed Workshop sponsored by the University at Buffalo, and female entrepreneurs can tap into the resources Syracuse-based WISE Women's Business Center provides. Startup Grind, a community that is “actively educating, inspiring, and connecting 1,000,000 entrepreneurs in over 200 cities," has a local group. These programs, and many others, provide opportunities for like-minded people of varying experience to come together and share their experiences.

Local collaborative working spaces, accelerators and incubators also provide opportunities for networking and sharing, and there are several in the Western New York area, including DIG Buffalo, a cross-sector coworking community that offers affordable work space, access to mentors, and opportunity for collaboration within a thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem; Z80 Labs, Buffalo’s first Internet-focused technology incubator that gives entrepreneurs the ability to build new and innovative tech companies; Cowork Buffalo, a mix of social, open tables, and heads-down desks in the center of the City of Buffalo; and Harrison Place, a multiuse building that is ideal for industrial, office, or retail companies.

Working alone is not always a negative experience--in fact, many entrepreneurs have found success by making decisions on their own -- but when alone time feels more isolating than creative, remember that there is an entire entrepreneurial ecosystem in Buffalo that offers opportunities to connect.

Blue-collar demeanor leads to entrepreneurial success

Buffalo, a city defined by its hard-working and resilient citizens, has seen an uptick in successful startup companies in recent years. This success can undoubtedly be credited to the blue-collar qualities that the individuals of the Queen City possess.

These traits, handed down from generation to generation, are the backbone of the city and a definitive reason why Buffalo is in the middle of an economic revival.

Below are a few attributes that encapsulate the spirit of Buffalo.

Sense of Community: Buffalo is nicknamed “The City of Good Neighbors” for a reason. The city of Buffalo has long been known as one that cares for its fellow man. Whether it’s helping someone shovel a car out of a driveway on a blustery January morning, or simply supporting a local business, the people of Buffalo are there for one another when it really counts.

From an entrepreneurial standpoint, that holds true as well. A local project called 43North is a perfect example. Since its founding in 2014, the competition, made possible by the Buffalo Billion initiative, has donated $5 million each year to local startup companies in need of capital. Where else can you find a community that is willing to help to that extent?

Resiliency: There was a time when the Buffalo economy was spearheaded by steel mills and manufacturing plants, but those days have come and gone. When those factories closed, the abandoned buildings created major eyesores in the downtown area.

Over the course of the last several years, tremendous strides have been made by the local government to revitalize areas of downtown Buffalo, such as Canalside and the Outer Harbor, and entrepreneurs have refurbished vacant factories for office space and restaurants. Although the city has been through some difficult times, it clearly has the ability to come back better than ever.

The Underdog Factor:  Nationally, the city is known for its cold weather and unsuccessful sports franchises, but savvy entrepreneurs see beyond the perception of a downtrodden community. While some may not think of Buffalo as a premier location to start a business, these smart startups recognize that residents of the city comprise a workforce with the resolve and determination to help them achieve tremendous success.

While Western New York may not be foremost on the minds of entrepreneurs or investors, these and other desirable factors should convince the startup community to give the Queen City a second look.  

Buffalo named a hotbed for startups

The idea that Buffalo is one of the fastest growing entrepreneurial communities in the country may surprise many, but a recent list compiled by of the eight cities whose entrepreneurship communities are booming ranks Buffalo in the number two spot, and for good reason.

The former industrial town has been given much attention by New York Gov. Andrews Cuomo, who initiated the Buffalo Billion fund “to create thousands of jobs and spur billions in new investment and economic activity over the next several years,” according to the initiative’s website. Focusing on the area’s strengths—advanced manufacturing, life sciences, and tourism, among others—the fund has launched the establishment of organizations that offer support to startups, including START-UP NY and 43North.

START-UP NY was created in 2014 to enable new and expanding businesses the opportunity to partner with colleges or universities across the state, giving them access to research laboratories, development resources, and experts in key industries, while operating tax-free for 10 years. The program has created more than 4,000 jobs and allotted over $230 million dollars to startup companies throughout the state (with the University at Buffalo being one of its main partners).

43North, coined “the world’s largest idea competition” in a recent Inc. article, is designed to systematically generate new business ventures in Western New York, support early-stage firm growth, and attract additional venture funding to the region. Since its launch in 2014, the competition has already awarded $15 million dollars in cash prizes to local startups.

Encouraged by the success of its initial investment, New York state recently announced a proposal for a $500 million expansion of the project “to continue building on the renewed economic engines and reinvigorated civic spirit throughout Buffalo and the entire Western New York region.”

With the support of the state and the backing of organizations like START-UP NY and 43North, entrepreneurs and venture capitalists alike are recognizing that this former factory town is developing a well-earned reputation as a hotbed for startups.

Another Buffalo Startup Weekend is just around the corner!

Traditionally kicking off 43North Week, Buffalo Startup Weekend is an intense, 54-hour event where local entrepreneurs, developers, designers, marketers, product managers, startup enthusiasts, and anyone interested in building a business come together to share ideas, get inspiration, form teams, and launch a startup.


The event, which begins Friday, Sept. 29, and lasts through the final judging on Oct. 1, has been the launching pad for several successful Buffalo startups. Photos of the 2016 event can be seen on 43North’s Facebook Album.


Heads Up, which has recently raised an undisclosed seed round, refined its idea for a wearable safety communications system at the event. “We came into Startup Weekend with an idea for our Heads Up indicator product, we had no clue what it would be used for in particular, how we would build it, or sell it,” says Brendon Dever, founder of the company.


In addition to pulling together teams to inspire startup ideas and companies, Startup Weekend also provides experienced entrepreneur coaches to help the teams. Dever found their advice invaluable. “The mentors provided valuable insight into how to make a business case for this product. Identifying costs, and potential markets to sell into,” he said.


Today, Heads Up has sold its solution to multinational corporations and distributors, and has raised additional funding from private investors. Dever offers advice for those thinking of attending: “Come to Startup Weekend with your ideas on your sleeve. We are often scared into thinking that one needs to protect their ideas, and only discuss them under confidentiality. In my experience, nothing could be more false. You need to have the input of as many other people as possible so you can ensure your product or service is going to be received in the way you intend.”


Other companies launched from Buffalo Startup Weekend include The Atinga Project, social activists partnering with Rwandan artisan shoemakers; and Buffalo Automation Group, which was voted the top information technology and software startup in New York state in 2016.


This is organizer Matt Hostetler’a second Startup Weekend. He noted that “previous participants have also gone on to other startup businesses and 43North winners such as ACV Auctions, CoachMePlus and 19Ideas.”


“This year we are focusing on the importance of community when it comes to taking an idea to the next level,” Hostetler continued. “We want entrepreneurs to feel the momentum of the people and resources around them to feel empowered taking their idea to the next step. This is such an important part of building an ongoing startup community, and we feel Startup Weekend is uniquely positioned to provide that energy.”


Hostetler also has advice for people who may be thinking about seeing what it’s all about. “Just show up! Taking the first step is always the hardest, but once you arrive, you will quickly find that all talents, abilities and experience levels are needed! Startup Weekend is a very rewarding event for the participants. And register early! It is very important for organizers to make sure we get the right mix of idea generators, developers, creative professionals, and business-minded entrepreneurs; signing up is the best way for us to track and organize the right mix of people.”


On a personal note, I was a coach at last year’s event, and the overall energy, enthusiasm, and excitement was inspiring. It was an ideal environment for people to form teams and brainstorm on a deadline, which is part of the captivating nature of Startup Weekend. I’ll also be coaching at this year's event, and hope to see you there!


A Harvard degree from home

Harvard Business School has one of the most respected MBA programs in the country. And now, entrepreneurs can take advantage of the prestige of a HBS education by enrolling in a new four-week, online course, Entrepreneurship Essentials: People, Opportunity, Context, and Deal, offered through its HBX program. 

Participants will walk through the entrepreneurial journey, from finding an idea, to gaining traction in the marketplace, to raising capital. The learning is active, case-based, and social, and is structured to allow students to complete the coursework on their own time. The overarching framework of the program—People, Opportunity, Context, Deal— has been taught to thousands of Harvard Business School MBA students over the past 30 years.

Entrepreneurs John Osher, who has successfully launched many consumer products; Jennifer Hyman, CEO of Rent the Runway, which rents fashionable dresses and accessories; and Scott Cook, founder of Intuit, a software startup that grew to multibillion dollar enterprise, will offer insight and advice  based on their personal experience.

Applications for the program, which costs $950, are accepted on a rolling basis. The first session will be held in October. For more information, click here.

Millennials staying local: No better time than now for Buffalo startups

A 2016 Pew Research study shows that only 20 percent of millennials, including entrepreneurs, have moved away from their home in the last year.

This phenomenon is not entirely surprising or new. With the lack of jobs available in their fields, new graduates are, more times than not, forced to find an entry-level position close to home to pay their bills.

But many young entrepreneurs see opportunity in these realities. They recognize that the lower cost of living in their hometowns (compared to Silicon Valley or New York), coupled with less competition, presents them with the opportunity to take a chance on creating a successful startup of their own.

And more and more young entrepreneurs are taking this risk. The 2016 BNP Paribas Global Entrepreneur Report showed that twice as many millennials (aged 35 or younger) are creating businesses, as compared to their parents (eight to every 3.5). And luckily for young Buffalo entrepreneurs, startups have been extremely successful in the Queen City in recent years.

A 2017 article by Inc., Forget Silicon Valley. Move Your Startup Any of These 3 Places, tabbed Buffalo as one of the best places in the country to create a startup. It cited the city’s proximity to larger cities like Toronto, New York, and Chicago, along with “an impressive amount of funding from both the state’s Buffalo Billion initiative and private investors.” It also noted that companies are not forced to run on tight budgets, with employees barely being able to afford rent.

The piece also mentioned 43North (a competition created out of the Buffalo Billion project in 2014) as a major asset to Buffalo entrepreneurs, calling it “the world’s largest idea competition.”

According to the 43North website, the organization gives $5 million in capital to local startup companies each year, with a grand prize of $1 million (eight winners overall). In addition to the capital, winners also receive office space, mentorship, and 10 years of freedom from New York state taxes.

Even if you are not one of the lucky companies to win money from 43North, you still have a strong chance to succeed, because many venture capitalists are willing to invest in companies in “second-tier” cities like Buffalo, where less competition can lead to greater growth for startups. And today’s technology enables companies to easily connect with current or potential investors, whether they are in the area or not.

With Buffalo on the rise in many areas, now could be the ideal time for young entrepreneurs to take the chance to go after their dreams, even if it is in their own backyard.

Do Buffalonians have that ‘one thing’ Mark Zuckerberg calls key ingredient for success?

It all starts with a problem and the desire to solve it. That’s according to entrepreneurs Daymond John, Mark Zuckerberg and Mark Cuban, who all agree that the most investment-worthy businesses are the ones driven by a passion to find answers to the world’s challenges.


“Shark Tank” judge Daymond John warns entrepreneurs not to develop ideas specifically in the hopes of being picked up by other major companies. Mark Cuban believes that a business should be founded on passion and commitment. And Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg urges up-and-coming business owners to create for the sake of change, versus creating in the interests of money.


We at UpstartNY think Buffalo startups exemplify these aspirations. Take Mary Goodwill, owner of Mary's Little Lambs Childcare, who goes the extra mile for families in need of childcare in the city of Buffalo.


“Our extended hours, from 6 am to midnight will allow working families to have one consistent provider to meet their needs and ensure healthy meals and remarkable care is given in both the traditional and evening hours,” she says.


Or Zaw Win, who came to Buffalo as a refugee in 2005. His venture to help serve Buffalo’s refugee community is the Westside Value Redemption located at 327 14th Street. After hearing about their experiences being bullied at other centers, Win developed his center geared toward refugees to help protect and encourage hard work through incentives.


Even the more obscure businesses are rooted in more than solely money-making motives. Hatchet and Hops, owned by Dustin Snyder and Andrew Piechowicz, is not just a place to drink and competitively throw axes. It is built on values like community and confidence.


“We wanted to bring people together,” Snyder says, “We wanted a place that was fun to work at as well, and where we could practice our values.”


Not to mention Bak USA and BreadHive Bakery, two very different businesses who are making a difference in their communities. Bak USA is providing local manufacturing employment while Breadhive is building worker equity.

Do Buffalo businesses have the passion for solving problems? Here at UpstartNY, we give a resounding yes.

And the winner is ….

Being an entrepreneur requires learning and determination. That can help explain why entrepreneurs naturally create close-knit and supportive communities.

Upstart NY is devoted to supporting Buffalo’s and Western New York’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, and as part of our successful launch, we decided to help build that community by offering sweepstakes featuring one of that ecosystem's premier products.


We partnered with Bak USA to provide new readers interested in entrepreneurship and innovation one of their very own Bak USA Seal tablet, valued at $699.


Bak USA builds their Seal tablet, which is waterproof, weatherproof, dust and drop resistant, right here in Buffalo. Carli Battin of Bak USA, a startup itself, shares that the company is “so excited to see the startup culture take off in Buffalo along with 43 North, Launch NY, and now Upstart NY are talking about the startup culture and helping to make those connections among each other.”


She adds that “it just helps us create a powerful network of the startups here and we can rely on all the momentum from each of us individually to help all of us entrepreneurs succeed.”


Battin, along with Upstart NY team members, was recently on site at Bak USA’s headquarters to proudly hand over the tablet to the sweepstakes winner: Sandra Ann Talley of Buffalo.


Talley was very surprised to learn she had won Bak USA’s Seal tablet and knows she is going to put it to good use. “I am an entrepreneur here in Buffalo, and this tablet will really help me with my business,” she says.


“I love Upstart NY,” Talley adds. “I am trying to expand my business, so it was great to see a new online magazine about entrepreneurship to learn and grow from.”


Talley was one of nearly 400 sweepstakes entrants and now new members of Upstart NY’s growing community.


Upstart NY is devoted exclusively to entrepreneurship & innovation in Western New York. We are committed to covering the full entrepreneurial ecosystem in the region, from venture capital-backed, high-growth startups to grassroots, neighborhood small business--and everything in between.



Buffalo featured in multiple city 'best of' lists

The revitalization that is taking place in Buffalo is astonishing. The pulse of a city on the brink of a new renaissance beats quicker every day.

And it’s not only the residents of Buffalo who are noticing the city's burgeoning appeal. Buffalo is catching attention across the country once again, and not for sports this time (or rather, not only for sports.) 

Buffalo has been featured or mentioned in several “Best Of Lists” in the recent past, which can only mean the economic and social boost is far from stalling.

Here's a sampling of those mentions:

1.— 8 Cities Whose Entrepreneurship Communities Are Booming

Buffalo is almost at the top of this list, ranking #2 behind only San Francisco. The post is complimentary of Gov. Cuomo’s implementation of the "Buffalo Billions” fund, the project he proposed and instituted that aims to invest over a billion dollars in Buffalo. The 43North competition is supported by the Buffalo Billions initiative, which requires startups to relocate their companies to Buffalo for one year to enter a contest that could win the start-ups funding and prizes.

2. National Geographic— Top 10 Food Cities

Buffalo gets an impressive #3 spot in this tantalizing list, which includes such exotic places as Lyon, France and Chennai, India. Of course, the Buffalo wing is the only food mentioned, but Buffalonians know that there are other culinary experiences besides the famous chicken appendage.

3.— Forget Silicon Valley. Move Your Startup Any of These 3 Places

The article points out that many of the “traditional” places for startups to flock to, like Boston or New York City, may have outrageously high rent or not enough availability for a brick and mortar business. Remote workers are becoming more of the norm, so presses that physical location may not be as vital to start-ups as they may think. 


4.— The 25 Cities Where Millennials are Moving

Millennials are still seeking out large metro areas like Los Angeles and New York City to make their home, no surprises there. But has discovered that smaller cities are where most millennials are headed. Buffalo ranks 12 out of 25 on this list, just below the Philadelphia/Camden/Wilmington area and above San Antonio. The Buffalo area saw a 6 percent rise in millennials, young adults ages 25-34, in just a half decade 2010-2015.

5. Travel and Leisure— America’s Favorite Cities 2016

Buffalo ranks #1 on this list, surprising everyone except perhaps native Buffalonians and recent visitors. Travel and Leisure note the unexpected victory taking place primarily for one reason: Buffalo is highly underrated.

T&L mentions the outstanding food options, from high-end to local favorites, the revitalization of Canalside and Riverworks, and the charm of Buffalo’s historic architecture. Also, it goes without saying that Buffalo is more affordable than most major cities in New York State. Criticism goes only to Buffalo’s weather, something well known to all the USA anyway. Tourists are just encouraged to visit in the warmer months.

Buffalo floats toward new opportunities for water-based seasonal business

From Canalside to the Outer Harbor, Buffalo’s waterfront is growing with new events and businesses.  

The waterfront has a long and proud history marked by heavy industry. Buffalo’s proximity to the Erie Canal brought booming business to the area in the 19th and early 20th centuries, with shipping in the west and commercial and financial centers on the east end. The canal district stood at the center of the city's growth and development in the 19th century. The Inner Harbor was an exchange point for goods and culture, while the Outer Harbor was home to the industrial sites which brought numerous jobs to the city. 

Deindustrialization followed, and the bankruptcy of Bethlehem Steel marked the beginning of an economic downturn. For a time, Buffalonians turned away from their waterfront. But with recent efforts spearheaded by the Green Code's Local Waterfront Revitalization Plan, modern Buffalo is in the midst of an economic and cultural reinvention of the city’s waterfronts.

Today, you will find newly constructed hotels, summer concerts, and food festivals. You’ll also find entrepreneurs leveraging these assets with tours of the Buffalo river and nearby silos, cocktail cruises, restaurants, water bikes, and more. Here are 17 ways to patronize these businesses and enjoy the waterfront.

Since 2013 Buffalo has integrated more than $19 billion in construction projects, including the redevelopment of the city’s waterfront, according to the city of Buffalo's website. Strategic public investments in parks and amenities have spurred private investment, and business startups have followed.

Canalside is the centerpiece of this effort. The waterfront’s revival has brought a half billion in private development surrounding Canalside including the HarborCenter (home of the Buffalo Sabres) and (716) Food & Sport, where sports fans can indulge with a 38-foot TV screen.Open throughout the year, patrons can participate in the winter with an outdoor rink accommodated with skate rentals and a concession lodge. During the summer the waterfront hosts a concert series, food trucks, and other entertainment. 

Last year more than 1.5 million people partook in the waterfront’s summertime amenities. Construction growth has included $30 million in renovations at One Canalside, which includes office space, retail, and a Marriott hotel. Three more buildings are in the works, including an Explore and More Children’s Museum.

Beyond downtown, the Outer Harbor waterfront and areas of the Buffalo river are also under development. Buffalo River Landing and the 301 Ohio building are two newly developed residential buildings along the river, with construction totaling $27 million. Wilkeson Pointe, at the Outer Harbor, provides rentals for bikes, kayak and stand up paddle boards, a beer garden, and numerous other amenities.

Buffalo is not the only Rust Belt-era city taking advantage of its long-abandoned waterfront. Look to nearby city Cleveland, where rowers and sailors (and the businesses that support them) are being encouraged with new facilities along the Cuyahoga River. The Lakefront West Project is using bike and pathways to connect the west side neighborhoods with the lakefront, and the Edgewater Park beach house will provide a new concession stand for citizens. Additionally, the Detroit waterfront has transformed itself from a derelict warehouse district to a recreational hub for residents and tourists, led by the Detroit RiverFront Conservancy. More than five miles of land will be transformed into a walkway with access to parks, plazas and pathways to green spaces.

So get out there and enjoy the blue, Buffalo!

Next week's Buffalo Float on Sunday, Aug. 6, a community event for locals with kayaks and canoes, is designed to celebrate the revitalization of the waterfront. The event, hosted by Buffalo Paddle People and Camp Good Days and Special Times Inc., and will take place from 10 a.m. - 2 p.m. at Buffalo Riverworks, located at 359 Ganson St.

Amazon’s Buffalo sortation center set to help local entrepreneurs

Amazon, the largest internet-based retailer in North America, announced in early June that it would be opening a new distribution center in the town of Lancaster, according to The Buffalo News. The new facility, located at 4201 Walden Ave., will serve as a “sortation center,” where its primary focus will be sorting packages by ZIP code to increase the speed and efficiency of package deliveries, the local newspaper reported.

The center is projected to create nearly 500 new jobs for the Buffalo community, as well as spawning an opportunity for increased productivity and sales for entrepreneurs in the Western New York area.

The idea is simple; Amazon gets over 100 million visitors to its site every month, which allows for a much larger audience to view entrepreneurs’ products that may have never been readily available to a mass audience.

With the new sortation facility, a 525,000-square- foot warehouse, previously rented by the supermarket company Ahold USA, local businesses also will be afforded the opportunity to have their products shipped quickly through the same company they worked with to sell their product, The Buffalo News said.

Amazon is a company that is self-proclaimed to be driven by innovation. According to its website, the company created a program called Amazon Launchpad in June of 2015, with the intent to help startup companies with little experience market, sell and distribute their products. The page, which features products from electronics to beauty products to board games, allows the opportunity for almost anyone to get their product out on the world stage.

Amazon does charge a small fee for every product sold on their site, but that cost would most likely be inconsequential if a local product were to become popular on the site.

If used properly, Amazon Launchpad could become an attractive tool for many local entrepreneurs with the hope that their product can gain national attention. With the building of the sortation center, it may be a final reason for many to look into using Amazon for their business.


Baker brings her donuts to Allentown

Niagara Falls native Ann Hogan is serving up sweetness in the Buffalo food scene. Fry Baby Donuts, a vegan doughnut shop on Elmwood Avenue, opened its doors in the beginning of June.


The shop initially began with a renegade approach. A friend of Hogan’s was working to open a bar and restaurant, and Hogan rented the kitchen to test out her recipes and batch capacity. 


“I would make these large-scale batches of donuts, and I wouldn't want to throw them out so I just kind of texted everybody in my phone who would want donuts,” she says. Later that night she would be out dropping off orders. You could call it “the underground donut delivery,” she says with a laugh.


Eventually, an opportunity to open up a storefront at 336 South Elmwood Ave. presented itself. Designed to be take-out only, the inside of the shop consists of a spacious bakery with a couple of stools. Hogan is the sole owner of the shop, accompanied by her right-hand baker.


As the only vegan doughnut shop in Buffalo, Hogan says she believes the closest is Beechwood Doughnuts in St. Catherines, Ontario and Misfit Doughnuts in Rochester, N.Y. But regardless of being made with egg replacer and soy milk, vegans and non-vegans alike are flocking to the shop. 


Hogan says, “I wanted to do something that was accessible for everybody, just so I wasn’t honing in on a super-niche, exclusive kind of thing.”


Popularity has grown as the shop is selling out of their donuts nearly everyday. There are a few staples such as chocolate, vanilla, cinnamon buns and fritters in addition to some rotating flavors. Coffee, tea and a soda selection are also available.


As a new business owner she shares advice on the uncertainty that can come in the beginning stages. 


“There’s a lot of ambiguity to starting your own business. I guess just kind of stick to, and be true to what it is you want out of the business. Try not to lose sight of what your goals are,” she says. “There’s a lot of support out there and a lot of people will tell you ‘this is how you should do this’ or ‘ this is the best way to do it’ - you have to kind of assess what’s really going to work best for you and stay on top of your vision.”


As a female business owner, Hogan reflects on how her efforts have a small but impactful effect on gender inequality in the workplace. 


“Something I can draw from this is seeing my obligation to combat this notion of female inadequacy that exists in workplaces, especially in a food service setting. Our staff is mostly women and I'd be lying if I said it doesn't feel good to look around and see that we were able to build a work environment where as women, we are aware of how microaggressions and workplace biases can take a toll and make a job suck. It feels good not really worrying about whether or not your coworkers respect your opinions or actually take you seriously.”


Fry Baby Donuts is open Thursday through Saturday from 11 a.m. until 6 p.m. or until sold out. Make sure they’re still open if it’s later on in the day by checking out their Facebook or Instagram for updates.

Perseverance pays off with IPO for local company Athenex

When Athenex, a Buffalo-based biopharmaceutical company that focuses on non-traditional cancer treatment, had its initial public offering (IPO) on June 14, it was a validation for many hard years of work and research.

The company, formerly named Kinex Pharmaceuticals, can be traced back to 2004 where it was run, in part, by former University at Buffalo Chemistry Professor David Hangauer.

Hangauer, who stepped down from his professorship at UB in September of 2013 to be named Chief Scientific Officer of Kinex, has spent much of his career focusing on developing protein-based kinase inhibitors which are believed to restrict the growth of certain cancers, according to the Athenex website.

His team also has done extensive research and clinical trials on a chemotherapy treatment in pill form that has the potential to reduce pain and have patients spend less time at the hospital. According to The Buffalo News, the pill is a combination of a popular chemotherapy drug Oraxol and a molecule created by Athenex that allows the drug to be effective in the pill form.  

The Athenex team has administered trials on the pill for close to six years and is waiting to see if all of their hard work will give them the positive results they seek.

Many parties, including New York State, are hoping for great success for the chemotherapy pill. The Buffalo News reported that New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo allocated over $200 million to Athenex to build and equip a manufacturing facility in Dunkirk.  The company also has many outside investors and substantial funding from its partners in China.

Athenex’s IPO closed on June 19 after having 6 million shares of stock available from $11 to $13 a share. When it is all said and done, The Buffalo News reported the company hopes to generate nearly $60 million dollars from the sale, with the majority of the funds put into further research and trials for the chemotherapy pill.

Rachel’s Remedies takes top prize at Bright Buffalo Niagara

Entering its ninth year in existence, entrepreneurs, investors, and innovators gathered for Bright Buffalo Niagara Entrepreneur Expo 2017 at in the newly renovated Hotel Henry on Wednesday. 
At the day-long event, five finalists from a pool of 25 pitched their startup ideas to the audience. Rachel’s Remedies, a patent-pending wearable moist-heat technology that relieves pain for women breastfeeding, won the top prize of $20,000.

Recently partnering with Dr. Brown’s Baby, the company is entering the consumer market with strength and a team ready to take the product nationwide. 
“This definitely opens up our channels of investors and contacts. And it spreads more than locally, so this is a great opportunity for us,” says founder and CEO Rachel Jackson.

In addition to the top prize, the People’s Choice Award, a $5,000 award, was presented to SweetSpot, an application that provides real-time parking information to users. The company uniquely uses artificial intelligence to identify parking spots moment to moment.

SweetSpot’s CMO Tamera Knight talked to UpstartNY about the future of the company. 
“We got a great validation for our product that it speaks to a lot of people and the next step is getting some investor funding to launch it at UB and alleviate 40,000 people’s headaches. So that is where we would like to head next,” she says.

Bright Buffalo Niagara proved to be an exciting platform for new and upcoming Western New York entrepreneurs. The event sponsors included: Leadership Buffalo, the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, Upstate Venture Association of New York (UVANY), Z80 Labs and Print2Web.

Ten Thousand Villages embraces the pop-up

As many retailers get away from the traditional brick-and-mortar storefront, pop-ups continue to make their mark on the streets of Buffalo.

Built on the model of the European market and introduced first in the U.S. in Los Angeles, pop-ups now house all types businesses from restaurants to high-end fashion shops. Recently, Buffalo’s branch of Ten Thousand Villages, a global nonprofit fair trade organization with a shop in Williamsville, announced they will move to a pop-up in the Brisbane Building in downtown Buffalo.

The area’s Ten Thousand Villages business was selected to participate in the Queen City Pop-Up, a partnership between Buffalo Urban Development Corporation, Buffalo Place Inc. and Working for Downtown.

The goal of Queen City Pop-Up is to: “Create a vibrant Downtown that serves as a destination for the Western New York Region. We will achieve this goal by facilitating the short-term lease of vacant storefronts in Downtown Buffalo to assist small retailers with entering the downtown market. Queen City Pop-Up transitions empty storefronts into vibrant retail shops to create new and exciting destinations and a positive economic impact on Downtown Buffalo."

Vice-Chair of the Board of Ten Thousand Villages Kevin Opp says the organization has looked to relocate to the city of Buffalo for a long time.

“This ‘pop-up’ store concept provides us the right opportunity to bring our fair trade merchandise to the city’s residents and test this urban marketplace,” he says.

Ten Thousand Villages sells home goods, gifts, and artisan work from more than 130 groups in more than 38 countries around the world. The Ten Thousand Villages, Queen City Pop-Up shop will open on Thursday, June 22 and run through the summer to September 1st, 2017.

SBA kicks off startup series

According to the Small Business Administration (SBA), more than fifty percent of startups begin in the home. To foster this trend, the SBA of Western New York is launching a series of workshops to educate and encourage home-based entrepreneurship.

“The SBA and its resource partners offer a wide array of classes and training sessions for entrepreneurs looking to launch or grow their businesses,” says SBA Buffalo District Director Franklin J. Sciortino. “Getting the right information and proper advice from the onset only helps to increase a small business owner’s odds of succeeding. It’s what I like to say is the foundation needed to build a successful small business,” he adds.

Kicking off the series, the SBA will lead “Starting a Veteran Home-Based Business” on July 19th. The content will focus on the legal and business implications of working at home and participants do not need to be veterans. 

On August 10, it is hosting “Finding the Right Idea,” a look at what startup ideas can and will get financing and how to decipher a bad idea from a winning idea.

Also, on September 14, the organization will hold “Creating an Effective Business Plan,” a workshop on how to put an idea into a viable strategic plan.

The SBA encourages the use of mentoring services, like SCORE, and workshops like the series offered to ensure startup success.  SCORE is a nonprofit aimed at getting small businesses get off the ground through mentoring, an online business plan how-to and free workshops. It is supported by the SBA.

To sign up for these workshops and other sessions for entrepreneurs, go to:


RepHike helping brands manage campus marketing

A Buffalo-based startup is changing the way brands manage their marketing to college students.

Western New York native Olivia Goldstein and partner Shashank Roy launched RepHike last year, providing brand ambassador software to enable companies to grow and manage their campus marketing programs.
“Brands are looking for more authenticity in their messaging and students are looking for word-of-mouth referrals from friends,” Goldstein says.
Word-of-mouth recommendations from friends and family continue to be one of the most trusted forms of advertising. In fact, a 2016 survey found that 80 percent of Americans ask for a recommendation before making a purchase of any kind. RepHike’s software makes it easier for businesses to recruit and manage brand ambassadors on college campuses that are helping spread the word.
“We were using a lot of different tools to manage everything,” Goldstein adds. “We were using Slack, Excel, different ways to give brand ambassadors rewards – and we wanted an all-in-one solution so that people that manage campus marketing can do so easier and more effectively.”
Goldstein cited Western New York’s “strong University ecosystem” as a great location for growing RepHike and to research how brands successfully market on campuses. The company currently works with organizations and businesses at SUNY Buffalo, Binghamton, NYU and James Madison University in Virginia. Out west they’re working with UC Berkeley, UC Davis, and Stanford.
“We’re changing the way brands can do advertising,” Goldstein said. “We’re very data driven with a finger on the pulse on what our customers are doing and who they are targeting so over time they can see the trends that are happening.”
RepHike recently announced $25,000 in seed investment funds led by StartFast Venture Accelerator. The financing will be used to build university partnerships with campus organizations and for its proprietary technology platform.


Buffalo introduces parking app

No more digging through the car for quarters or running out of restaurants after breaking a dollar for change. In June, the City of Buffalo unveiled Buffalo Roam, an app on your phone that allows you to pay the meter fees for parking with the push of a button, The Buffalo News reported.


According to local media, Buffalo Roam was created by Passport, which is a mobile payment software company that services cities, universities, and private companies, according to its website. The company has created parking software for cities including Boston, Chicago, Detroit, and Miami, among others.


In addition to allowing drivers in Buffalo the ability to pay to park by phone, the app allows them to track how long they have remaining to park and add time if needed. The Buffalo News reported the app is free to download, but a ten cent service charge is included for credit card charges to Passport each time a person uses the app to park.


ACV Auction plans to add 100 new hires

ACV Auctions, the Buffalo-based online car auction, announced it will add 100 jobs as it sets to expand across the U.S. This announcement comes a little more than two months after the mobile platform said it had secured $15 million dollars in venture capital funding from California-based Bessemer Venture Partners (BVP), according to The Buffalo News.


ACV Auctions, which began as a startup, plans to open for business in eight new markets, which means new jobs in these areas. These markets are Boston, Charlotte, Cincinnati, Hartford, Louisville, Nashville, Roanoke and Southern New Jersey, according to local media.


ACV Auctions also plans to expand its presence and workforce at its headquarters in Buffalo.


ACV Auctions got its start when it won the 43North startup contest in 2015. It earned $1 million dollars in funding and also earned another $1 million from an angel investment, The Buffalo News said.


The mobile service allows used-car dealers to view, bid on, and buy vehicles online. ACV Auctions thereby took away the need for used-car dealers to head to an inventory lot to review cars physically.


It currently employs about 60 employees but, with this most recent announcement, looks to grow its number of staff and reach significantly.


West Side urban market garden campaigns for dirt

A West Side urban market garden is on the hunt for the most nutritious soil it can find—$5,000 worth, to be exact.

WestSide Tilth is about halfway to its fundraising goal on IndieGoGo. The farm, which launched in 2015 on Normal Street in Buffalo's Front Park neighborhood, is run by partners Carrie Nader and Alex Wadsworth. The pair launched the enterprise in an effort to "inspire more people to get involved with sustainable agricultural practices," according to Buffalo Rising.

Why such an effort to procure soil?

"We grow exclusively in imported soil separated from the city soil with a geotextile barrier," Nader tells UpStart NY. "We believe good food starts with good soil."

WestSide Tilth is dedicated to making their produce serves the community where it is grown. The median income in Front Park is $23,700 per year, with 44.5 percent of the population receiving food assistance, according to the American Community Survey.

 "We accept WIC and SNAP benefits at our markets to be sure our food is accessible to everyone," adds Nader.

Find out more about the campaign here.

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