Crossing Boundaries to Build Startup Community

A delegation of a dozen business and professional community leaders from Binghamton took a day out of their already busy schedules to travel to Syracuse. They toured assets in the Syracuse startup community, and interacted with local leaders to learn from their experiences in building startup community.

The delegation included people from Binghamton Chamber of Commerce, City government, Binghamton University and local business leaders. These people are committed leaders with a stake in growing Binghamton’s startup community. They understood the value of getting an inside look at steps a neighboring city went through to build momentum around creating companies and jobs in newer industries. These efforts are now attracting top talent to a revitalized downtown area, and certainly worth paying attention to.

Journeys begin with vision

CenterState CEO’s Rob Simpson welcomed the delegation and provided an overview of some initiatives that started a decade ago. This ingenuity included critical public private partnerships, which set the stage for today’s job creating thrust.

A tour of the Syracuse Technology Garden, undisputed hub of Syracuse’s tech community, featured a recap of programs and entrepreneur supporting activities. Rick Clonan presented, and had John Liddy, Founder and Director of the Syracuse Student Sandbox sharing insights on how the college student accelerator engaged local mentors that were critical to graduating students deciding to put their roots down in Syracuse instead of going elsewhere to start their first company.

The delegation toured the new Syracuse Marriott Downtown (a project CenterState CEO helped lead), and enjoyed a luncheon discussion with Marc Viggiano, a retired business executive who shared his personal experience on how becoming involved with the Seed Capital Fund of CNY, StartFast Venture Accelerator, Genius NY program and Upstate Venture Connect all lead to helping entrepreneurs start companies and create jobs.

Entrepreneurs revitalizing downtown

A tour of Syracuse CoWorks, a nationally prominent co-working/living space, provided an inspiring look at how downtown space can be configured to foster relationships that attracts both millennial entrepreneurs and residents. The “community” also serves as a base for StartFast Code – a coding academy that puts individuals on a career path as professional web developers or helping advance their existing businesses.

Final stop was SpinCar, graduate of StartFast 2013 cohort and now a blossoming company with 40+ employees headquartered in Syracuse. Co-founder Mike Quigley shared the SpinCar story, including how the community helped his team on the path to success. This included connections to key people and resources of which Mike says made all the difference in SpinCar getting to the right customer market, finding investors and talent.

We closed the day with an engaging discussion around elements of a strong startup community. This long-term outlook and willingness to cross geographic and institutional boundaries relies on people working in concert. The result is connecting entrepreneurs to the resources needed to grow companies and create high-paying jobs.

True leaders break new ground

Five or more years ago, we could not have seen a delegation from one of our Upstate cities traveling to another community to learn about building a startup ecosystem like this. Not only would best practices have been harder to identify, but the interest to travel and learn from others just wasn’t getting any traction.

Over the last year, I’ve spent a lot of time in Binghamton and I’m impressed with the seeds of change that have clearly been planted. There is no doubt that this group of leaders, who are crossing boundaries are leading the way in accelerating change. Working together, we’ll have a meaningful impact in growing companies and creating jobs in Binghamton’s future economy.


CatskillsConf: Fun mashup helps build startup community

Just came off a very fun and worthwhile weekend at the inaugural CatskillsConf – a three day affair that brought together an eclectic mix of creatives, tech people, foodies and startup community supporters.

Was cool not only because the organizers were able to successfully pull off marketing to assemble 120+ people that touched on all those themes, but the diversity included an audience nearly evenly split between Upstate and NY metro.

This was the first ever such gathering in the Hudson Valley/Catskills area. It came about after founders of the Hudson Valley Tech Meetup (Dan Stone, Daniel and Sabrina Shutzsmith and Kale Kaposhilin) met Aaron Quint, (web entrepreneur and former Paperless Post CTO/Chief Scientist) who recently transplanted from NYC to the Hudson Valley.

Pooling their combined organizational talents, passion for bringing people together and lists of contacts is what catalyzed CatskillsConf and their joint marketing outreach filled the room.

Leveraging Local Assets

Whether it was musical talent, farm to table culinary, wood crafts and natural settings of the Ashokan Center, this was a thoughtful mashup that brought diverse elements together with common themes that spoke to the millennial target.

On the learning side, my personal favorites were Dennis Crowley’s “put it all out there” story reflecting struggles at different stages in the startup journey, and also an amazing education segment featuring live birds of prey doing their thing.

birds of prey

When you’ve got a group together for more than a day, it gives opportunity to go beyond a large group learning setting to do some things that can be hands on, fun and social – all adding to the potential of building on strong relationships among participants.

The Catskills flavor for small group activities included options like foraging, blacksmithing, cider making, bookbinding, and drone piloting to name just a few.

Institutional ownership not a requirement for success

More than just a well run event, what’s unusual here is that the outcome wasn’t oriented towards benefiting a particular organization – but rather to just grow the relationship networks for participants, while having a fun time and creating many memories.

My boomer generation just isn’t used to seeing grass roots organizing like this without institutional ownership and resources.

New relationships will yield downstream benefit

As I browsed around, a frequent comment from local tech people sounded like “I used to think I was the only person around here like me. As a result of the groups forming and events bringing like minded people together, I’ve now got a growing network of supporters to help me.”

As I try to calculate the number of “creative collisions” that occurred and what happens when like minded people stumble into each other for the first time, there is little doubt that startup formation and growth will include some life changing outcomes sparked by what seemed like chance encounters.

Good things happen when a few people step up to lead

Kudos to the organizers as they took financial risk and put in a ton of hours along with a full supporting team of volunteers.

They set an inspiring standard for others to follow and their leadership adds further fuel to my optimism about why it is the millennials who are making the difference in powering Upstate towards a big jump in the number of new industry companies and jobs that will rise here from humble beginnings as people meeting at an event that then lead to collaborating on a startup.

We pledge our resources at Upstate Venture Connect to support their efforts and look forward to doing the same for all others ready to lead the charge in their own local market.


Recognizing Startup Community Builders

With a twist on the traditional “Entrepreneur of the Year” awards celebration, Upstate Venture Connect has partnered with Upstate Venture Association of NY to do our first ever celebration to recognize people who are making a difference in building our burgeoning startup ecosystem across the Upstate region.

Entrepreneur leaders make things happen by powering the launch and growth of activities and initiatives ranging from Startup Weekends, angel investor funds, accelerator programs, tech meetups and hackathons to name just a few from the diverse range we already see here in Upstate NY.

Who comes to mind in your community that is out front and leading with their actions to help startup entrepreneurs launch and grow companies?

You can nominate them here for one or more categories in our Venture Ecosystem Awards.

All too often, startup community leaders are people motivated by no more than wanting to leverage their time and talent to make things happen. Our goals include putting the spotlight on those making a difference as well as sharing examples that will motivate others to step up and lead.

Don’t delay as nominations close Monday August 31. The nomination format is easy – if you know someone making a difference they will be in good company.

Sign up yourself to attend our October 9th celebration luncheon at Turningstone Resort in Vernon. We anticipate a turnout of 2-300 people who are leaders and supporters from throughout the Upstate startup ecosystem.

Join us in the fun and show support for those that are building Upstate’s startup economy.

See you there!


Ecosystem investment helps propel new startup creation

Yesterday morning I had several unsolicited requests for funding from Mohawk Valley entrepreneurs. It seemed odd, since a bunch came in at the same time from the local area.

Then someone pointed out an article in the Utica OD profiling my donor advisory fund at the Herkimer and Oneida County Community Foundation.

While the article wasn’t inaccurate, I can see now that when people think of entrepreneurs helping startups and the word funding is included, than conclusions gravitate towards this being about investment dollars going directly into startups.

It’s true that I’m one of Upstate’s most active startup investors. I’ve touched more than 70 companies through both direct investments and LP relationships in seed and private equity funds. My portfolio and investing interests are profiled on my UpVentures.com site.

But the High Growth Entrepreneur fund at HOC Community Foundation is different. That fund is not about my investing directly in companies, but instead towards supporting infrastructure that helps build our local and regional startup ecosystem.

Startup Ecosystem Infrastructure

For me, startup ecosystem infrastructure includes things like programs, activities, events, online assets and other resources that help bring the right parties together.

Building such infrastructure is my full time volunteer role as I created and help run Upstate Venture Connect, a 501c3 non profit now in our fifth year of operations. (Visit UVC.org to see some of our program initiatives and resources that bring entrepreneurs into contact with others who can help.)

Among the initiatives brewing locally is the thINCubator – a college student startup accelerator program housed at Baggs Square, the Commercialization Academy at AFRL’s Rome Labs and accelerated curation of a startup ecosystem map and events calendar that will bring more visibility to our local startup resources and activities.

Also being worked on is launch of a Mohawk Valley seed capital fund comprised of high net worth individuals qualifying as accredited investors who work together to invest as a group, as well as help mentor and support the startups they come into contact with.

With the Community Foundation donor advisory fund I’m interested in supporting leaders with similar ecosystem building aims – likely to include some new ideas on what could bring the right people together such as experienced entrepreneurs, technical talent, investors, service providers even academics and community leaders. The common denominator is a personal passion for being committed to help startups.

Who knows? Maybe a Startup Weekend, Tech Meetup group, Hackathon, 1 Million Cups chapter or something else not even on our current menu will percolate up.

I’m looking forward to seeing proposals and helping support leaders who are ready to put themselves out there to get something going that helps entrepreneurs and startups.

Whether you’re a startup seeking investment or you see an opportunity to help contribute to building the ecosystem, you can message me through the Babinec.com web site. And consider commenting right on this post below and/or sharing the link with others you know who might have interest.

This is a fun journey with big time impact in helping our best and brightest talent – join us!


Building Relationship Capital

With a big chunk of my time devoted to accelerating Upstate NY’s startup ecosystem, I think a lot about how starting new relationships is critical to making a successful startup community.

The ease in which strangers can drop into a place like Silicon Valley and meet the right people is a dynamic that outsiders aspire to, but don’t seem to put much energy towards figuring out in second and third tier markets like ours.

So among other initiatives, I’ve been playing up the importance of building relationship capital when I’m interacting with first time entrepreneurs who are usually pretty light when it comes to the relationship network they need to build a company.

Relationship impact may not be obvious at initial interaction

Any entrepreneur who has built a serious company will have their own stories about key people they met along the way who ended up having a significant impact on their success, yet their initial interaction seemed fortuitous.

In contrast, I’m seeing a lot of first time entrepreneurs focus maniacally on pursuing relationships they perceive will lead to capital, but with too narrow a focus that puts them at risk of overlooking others who might be possible mentors, advisors and referral sources. These are the relationships that eventually lead to capital providers, customers, channel partners or other highly prized relationships vital for a startup’s success.

A person I just met might open one door, many or none but I won’t know what will unfold until a relationship deepens over time. That means planting lots of seeds, nurturing the right first time interactions into relationships – especially with people having a mix of capability and interest in advancing a dialogue.

Relationship Capital Fueled By Being Proactive & Crossing Boundaries

Figuring out who to meet has never been easier. In this transparent world with such readily accessible information about people in business, how hard is it to come with a top 10 list of people that would be good to know, or the intel on who their friends are or where they hang out?

Supplementing a targeted list of people would be organizations/groups and events populated by people likely to include the profile of those having some things in common with your interests.

Again, a bit of research is needed – just don’t fall into the common trap of thinking that the only relevant groups are those somewhere within immediate view such as your university, local area or industry.

Developing high impact relationships are well worth the time to invest in targeting, crossing boundaries to new organizations and even traveling as needed to interact with a group of like minded others to tap into new networks and forge new relationships.

You give before you get

The principle of reciprocity captures the essence of what it takes to turn a chance encounter into the first stages of what could become a productive relationship.

Think about the casual interactions you might have at a reception event. In these settings, the most successful people I know are naturally curious and usually not the ones opening up unless questioned by others. Instead they query you about your interests, often times subtly honing in on the areas where they might possibly be able to help you.

Can you uncover something in your dialogue to offer up (even if at a later time) to that successful person asking you these questions?

Once you know more about the other person, your give might be a relevant article or post you came across, a recommended place or event or best of all – an introduction to someone else or a resource that you’ve figured out would be helpful to who you’re talking with.

Being Systematic

Planting lots of seeds and nurturing a whole bunch of recent contacts into productive relationships takes work that most people won’t do. Those who are truly connectors are organized with disciplined contact management and calendaring of follow ups.

In the TriNet world of referral generated sales, we learned to get highly systematic in building processes around keeping our reps constantly identifying and nurturing their top relationships – a foundational element of our building a referral based culture and company.

More recently, that systematic approach to relationship building is incorporated into IntroNet – an app which helps people connect others and track what happens with the introductions they make.

Any one of these relationship development tactics would produce some results in helping meet and come to know more people who could help you.

Put them together and you’ll be on your way towards achieving that next big thing, no matter what that might be.


Startup Optimism Grows in Mohawk Valley

No one is likely to mistake my hometown area of Upstate’s beautiful Mohawk Valley with the dynamism of Silicon Valley. But those who know me are also aware of my deep commitment to help foster an Upstate wide startup ecosystem – so seeing some meaningful progress close to home is especially motivating for me.

Before I explain this new source of optimism, let me give some Upstate NY geography context. I reside in the Utica/Rome SMSA of about 300,000 persons. An area once heavily industrialized, but now struggling with the gut wrenching changes arising from the region’s inability to adapt from loss of high paying manufacturing jobs and closure of what was once a huge Air Force base in Rome.

Air Force Research Laboratory

Last year I attended a briefing at the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) to hear about plans to commercialize defense research by engaging Upstate college students to help drive the initial commercialization phase.

My expectations coming in were pretty low. After all, the whole model seemed to be grounded as a government led play – something that runs counter to my principles of how to build a startup community. In fact, were not for the urging of my Upstate Venture Connect Board Member John Zogby, I would not have gone to that briefing at all.

My first surprise was that the head of AFRL, Georg Duchak – a former Air Force general, presented a compelling vision that touched on key elements from Brad Feld’s book Startup Communities. A book he not only read, but incorporated themes from as he envisioned how this initiative would unfold.

Ok. That was impressive and it got my attention. But I could still foresee the many roadblocks yet to overcome, not the least of which was to find an entrepreneur capable of leading this charge amidst an alphabet soup of government bureaucracy and to stitch together an outreach to get some of the best and brightest students from around our Upstate region to come and participate.

It’s about the entrepreneur, stupid

The brilliance of George’s choice in successfully recruiting and relocating Mike McCoy as the entrepreneur to lead the effort was so clearly shown this past weekend when the Commercialization Academy’s first graduating cohort of 9 student teams pitched to an auditorium of excited investors, business professionals and startup community supporters.

Since I helped start and run the StartFast Venture Accelerator, I’m a guy who can appreciate all that was involved to recruit and season talented startup teams for this inaugural Commercialization Academy program.

This was a very professional output that I would rank up there with what we typically see in mature accelerator programs of the big startup hubs like NYC and Boston. All the more amazing when you consider it was comprised of student teams that came from 13 different colleges.

While not all of the student teams finished with a viable product opportunity, there was little doubt that this program just created a whole new crop of highly charged entrepreneurs and startup candidates who will soon populate Upstate’s startup scene.

Live interactions spur other outcomes

There was also a true “wow” effect from the perspective of the nearly 200 Mohawk Valley residents fortunate enough to be in the audience to take part in the Commercialization Academy demo day.

You won’t hear any of those attendees grousing about lack of potential for growth opportunity here Upstate. They saw our future in front of them and suddenly realized we have the assets to start creating real companies that someday generate a lot more jobs than the big box efforts we still hear about from our political leaders.

Another near term outcome from this event is that it has likely been the tipping point for us now to start building a Mohawk Valley seed capital fund so that our successful local entrepreneurs and professionals can join forces by pooling funds that will help get some of these startups into motion.

As UVC has done this already in Albany, Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo, we have the pattern recognition to know what it will take. It’s exciting to see the Mohawk Valley now arrive to this level of startup ecosystem development.

Community effort begins with individuals willing to step up

Kudos to George Duchak and Mike McCoy for their prescient vision and more importantly, disciplined execution staying true to key Startup Communities principles like being led by entrepreneurs and crossing boundaries to engage others way outside the scope of their own organization.

I am totally jazzed about the fabulous success of this first true hometown effort and am looking forward to doing all I can to help propel the program forward as they become a leader nationwide in defense research commercialization.

For more info on these and other efforts in the Mohawk Valley and Upstate register on the Upstate Venture Connect website at www.UVC.org and/or follow my blog or twitter feed.


Paying it Forward with High Impact Mentoring

Our Syracuse based StartFast venture accelerator just completed our third cohort – graduating six teams at our August 14 Demo Day that featured 250 enthusiastic attendees.

For the third year in a row, ours was the largest gathering of accredited startup investors ever assembled in Upstate NY.

While startup teams and investors are in the Demo Day spotlight, watching the event unfold made me think about the real back story involving hard work and dedicated commitment of both the StartFast staff and our network of mentors who gave so much to propel these teams forward over the 3 months of the StartFast program.

StartFast mentors are volunteers. While some may advance to become an investor in a participating startup, the majority are taking time away from their own businesses and activities to help our fledgling teams without getting any compensation beyond their own satisfaction of making a difference.

This is pay it forward in the spirit of Silicon Valley and something we’re working hard to spread throughout the Upstate region.

Mentoring Comes In Different Flavors

Mentors have varying degrees of involvement, typically driven by finding the right match between the startup’s needs and mentor’s interests.

Some mentors will drop in for a site visit, interview each team and offer insights, possibly capping a visit by making a presentation to the overall cohort.

Others are tapped by Nasir Ali and Chuck Stormon (StartFast Managing Directors) to help fill an identified need for a particular team that is in line the mentor’s background and/or relationship network.

Whether it’s strategy, tactical options to fix a problem or opening up doors to a critical resource – these spot engagement can be very helpful to the startup and not require a big time commitment on the part of the mentor.

An even bigger contribution comes when a mentor evolves into an ongoing advisor role, staying involved in guiding the startup through multiple stages of the program and potentially beyond.

High Impact Mentor

The highest level contribution comes when a mentor believes so passionately in what a startup is doing that they dig in and find ways to help craft and execute some aspect of what the team is trying to achieve that it puts the startup on a different trajectory than the one they were planning at the time they entered StartFast.

Our case study for this involves StartFast alum SwipeToSpin (STS) – an intuitive interface making 3D imaging of objects easy for users to navigate as they examine a product from any angle of their choice while inside a browser.

Entering StartFast, the STS value proposition was aimed for high ticket luxury goods and content oriented web properties where 3D images would have some user appeal.

As with most startups, STS experimented with several product market categories, seeking to find the right segment where the STS solution solved a user problem that customers were ready to pay for.

Soon after some testing started in the automotive sector, STS began interacting much more with StartFast mentor John Max Miller, a serial entrepreneur with several successful exits in the auto sector – a guy knowledgeable about issues from the customer perspective, and also someone with a deep set of industry relationships.

John helped STS understand the need in the market and was active in shaping the STS product for this new target sector. He even personally called upon his dealer relationships and helped close initial sales.

In just a few months, STS’s growth in the auto dealer sector gained faster traction than any of the other verticals the company was marketing to. With further market analysis and the proven speed at which new sales were now closing, it was blindingly obvious that this segment was worth pivoting significant company strategy towards.

That growth spurt in turn raised investor confidence and following Demo Day, STS closed an equity round led by StartFast that included institutional investors.

The company continues its trajectory and is on plan for key milestones. John remains involved as he introduces the company to major partners and other vendors in the space, as well as supporting management in both strategy and execution.

STS is shaping up to be a company with lots of upside potential, creating opportunity for investors, the team and our Upstate startup ecosystem.

All of this made possible because one mentor tuned in, and then didn’t give up in his quest to help. In character of the persistent entrepreneur that he is, John steadily engaged with the STS team helping them navigate through a vertical previously unfamiliar to the team. Not just with strategic input, but the tactical execution of the tasks necessary to get there. All of this required his time and mindshare commitment without expectation of a financial return.

We salute John, STS and all the mentors who helped StartFast become an accelerator program built in the spirit of TechStars by engaging experienced entrepreneurs who give of themselves to help their earlier stage brethren. Interactions like these are the lifeblood of building a true startup ecosystem and it is gratifying to seem them take root and set the example for many others to follow.