Helm founders find a new way to create digital solutions

Four years ago, one of Buffalo’s most innovative design companies made its entrance. Ever since, Helm Experience & Design has made an impact in the Buffalo tech community by helping local entrepreneurs and pushing the boundaries of design.

Helm is a digital products studio that helps build everything from websites to mobile apps to interfaces. Together, the co-founders of Helm, Jonathan Gorczyca and Nicholas Barone, have helped nurture startups and launch companies across the area.

Gorczyca and Barone met in the digital media program at Canisius College circa 2002, and resumed their collaboration years later, producing designs and layouts for the publication Buffalo Rising.

Once among the startup community, Gorczyca and Barone often served as the de facto designers for emerging companies, creating apps and logos for friends.

About five years ago, they finally hatched the idea to start their own business.

“Essentially, we started Helm to cater to a growing startup community that was happening in Buffalo,” Barone said. “Before we created the company, we were doing grassroots events like Buffalo Startup Weekend. (We were) just trying to create a groundswell of opportunities for people to start companies.”

Barone and Gorczyca both grew up in the Buffalo area and saw an opening in the local ecosystem where they could offer a new kind of product design.

“A lot of it just has to do with wanting to create these things here,” said Barone. “When we started, we were focusing on UX (user interface experience) and UI (user interface) design. There really wasn't any firm doing that, and there still aren’t many that do product development in the way we do. “

Now, Helm takes pride in hiring locally and fostering connections with other businesses. They credit Z80 Labs and initiatives like Launch NY for helping get the firm off the ground. But both founders say it’s the grassroots community that really made Helm possible.

“In the beginning, everyone wanted to help each other,” said Gorczyca. “And Buffalo is still very much that way, especially in this space. There are companies that sit next to each other, and we all want to help each other grow.”

With their nine-person team, Helm helps startups build, design, and maintain digital tools.

“We help startups get their ideas off the ground in a way that keeps risk low for them,” said Gorczyca. “Technology businesses are typically an investment, so we help them understand what they’re going to build, (and) create a plan and strategy to bring it to market.”

“Everybody here is kind of this experimenter and entrepreneur, so we're always tinkering with different code and different design methods,” he continued. “We want to get things out into people’s hands very quickly and learn from them.”

What sets Helm apart is that it also educates startups on how to navigate the business side of design.

“You can’t just launch an app and push it out into the store and make money,” said Gorczyca. “You actually have to build infrastructure around it and sales teams and customer support.”

The studio is able to deliver in a multidimensional way because of its team’s expertise and skills.

“Most everybody on the team is cross-functional,” said Gorczyca. “They can design really well, as well as develop and write code. That allows people to be very flexible.”

“The rest of the team can kind of do a little bit of everything, and that’s just a thing we value generally,” added Barone. “We both came from that generalist sort of school of thought in terms of digital design, so we have shaped the company that way.”

One challenge Helm encountered early on was defining their company to prospective clients.

“The thing with design is it means so many different things to people,” said Gorczyca. “We’re not a marketing firm. We’re a product design studio.”

Gorczyca says that Helm doesn’t focus on SEO or social ads like many companies, which can be hard for some people to understand.

“We really try to focus on technology and design and business, and when those three things come together, that’s really where our wheelhouse is,” he said.

In just four years, Helm has already worked for places such as Independent Health, Shea’s Performing Arts Center, and ACV Auctions. For one client, they created a mobile telemedicine application that allows doctors to reach patients anywhere in the world.

Barone says that reflecting on how their work impacts people is what motivates them each day.

“When you’re in it every single day, you don’t really think about how these things might have been really impactful to the community and the people that use them,” added Gorczyca.

As for the future, Helm wants to spread out regionally and grow the team. Gorczyca says they want to be the place to go to launch and design a digital product or service.

Helm also sees an opportunity to help legacy businesses--which still use old-fashioned technology--take advantage of modern digital tools.

“We know we can provide a lot of benefit to these groups,” said Barone. “We’ve already seen it, we’ve done it.”

The founders of Helm hope to continue to play the role of connector, advocating and supporting other companies to help them reach their potential.

“We don’t want Buffalo to be this siloed off place,” said Barone. "We want to connect people and continue to grow the community as a whole.”

Read more articles by Michaela McGrath.

Michaela McGrath is a freelance writer living in Niagara Falls, N.Y. She studied communication and writing at Niagara University.
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