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.