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New 43North director hopes to build on momentum from contests first year

John Gavigan has a tough act to follow.

The new executive director of the 43North business plan competition is taking over as the contest enters its second year, following an inaugural competition that attracted nearly 7,000 entries and captured the attention of entrepreneurs from around the world.

Gavigan, who replaced the departed Andrew J. Pulkrabek as the competition’s leader earlier this month, discussed his outlook for Year 2 and beyond.

Q: Where does the contest go from here?

A: We want to fuel the excitement that was already built from this last year. We want to capitalize on that and we want to renew that spirit for this year and get people excited about what’s coming.

Q: What’s your view on how the first year went? What’s there to build on and what needs changing?

A: Our community has fundamentally shifted from ‘What’s in it for me?’ to ‘What’s in it for us?’ And it’s actually shifted one space further to ‘What can I do for you?’ To me that’s a key component.

The other element is the collaborative spirit that seems to be evolving in our community – our willingness to work with each other and lever each other’s assets to tackle common problems or common interests. That’s the backdrop to 43North.

I think it’s energizing. I think it’s interesting. I think it gets people excited to be here. You listen to some of the winners who had no previous experience with the Buffalo community, it’s remarkable what they say. The outpouring for support for these organizations shows you what kind of community we are.

So what’s my impression? We did our job. Our objective for this year is to put it on steroids and do it better.

Q: How do you do that?

A: We have an added responsibility. The primary mission of our organization is to go find the right companies to be in the region and then enable their success so that we create opportunities for everybody.

Last year, it was very much about finding the right fit. This year we have the added responsibility of enabling their success. We have the responsibility of guiding these companies through the process to help them be successful and have great quality of life. That’s an added responsibility.

We want to take what we did really well last year and tweak it and add some adjustments to it. In addition to that, we’re layering on it a couple of really exciting initiatives that I think the community is going to be very excited about.

Q: What areas do you see changing?

A: We are going to attract a higher density of the pool and actually bring more companies to Buffalo. Last year, we had 11 winners. This year, we’re going to be reaching for more.

Q: Meaning more companies, smaller prizes?

A: We’ve already laid out prize structure. We’ve got some precooking to do with Jordan [Levy, the chairman of 43North’s steering committee] and our board and our partners to make sure we’ve got the plan.

Our objective is to bring more of the right companies to Buffalo. We want to expand the pool of good companies that we’re bringing to the community. Secondly, we’re going to be adding in more of an early-stage component. We’re going to be adding another whole component to the finals week that really targets more early-stage opportunities and companies.

And the third element is we’re going to be focusing on the student population and start building a culture of entrepreneurship in this community. The entrepreneur side is very important to this.

Q: Now that you have a year under your belt, does the fact that you have a facility at 640 Ellicott St. for last year’s winners help you keep the wow factor? How do you get 7,000 entries again?

A: Because it’s real. It’s not just an idea. Essentially, 43North is its own entrepreneur. The whole objective of the entrepreneur is to go from an idea to something where they can make money and add value. And that process goes through many stages, and it’s a very difficult role.

This organization, being it’s own microcosm of an entrepreneur, is on that road. It’s no longer just an idea. Does this space help us? It tremendously helps us because we’ve achieved the next milestone, and milestones are essential in an entrepreneur’s trajectory toward ultimate self-sustainability and success.

Q: 43North’s winners only have to stay here for a year. What do you have to do to keep the winners from taking the money, staying a year and then just leaving?

A: Quite frankly, I struggled with that. The answer to that question actually came from one of the winners who I spoke with. We’re building ambassadorship. It’s the responsibility of our community to show them quality of life in Buffalo and in this region. If we collectively bring in these companies that really had no prior experience in Buffalo and we show them you can have great quality of life and be successful, they’re not going to want to leave.

The outpouring of support from our community across all quarters – from taxi drivers and restaurant owners to the Buffalo Niagara Partnership and their whole coalition – if you hear what we’ve done as a community for them, you’d say we’re doing our job. And If they want to stay, great. But if they choose to take their organization somewhere else, we will have cultivated the best possible ambassadors for Buffalo that we could have hoped for. And that’s the reason why we do it.

You can’t buy that good press as it comes from someone sharing with his friends or people he meets on the street how wonderful our community is to do business and have a good quality of life. That’s what we’re building

Q: How much attention did you pay to the first year of the contest?

A: I watched it from its inception. Secretly, in the background, I wished I could have been more involved, but you get involved in the things you get involved in – career, kids, your other responsibilities.

I admired the fact that the teams, the partnerships, the coalition, was able to get this competition over the goal line.

When I found that Andrew was moving back to Minnesota, I was so excited. Not excited that he was moving back to Minnesota, but I kept on thinking to myself, ‘How cool of a job would that be? How exciting to be involved in the entrepreneur community and what an interesting role that would be. What an opportunity to leave a legacy of what the community is building here.

Q: How will your background help you do a good job at 43North?

A: I feel like I’ve been preparing for this responsibility since I was 13. I grew up in a family business. I started doing payroll for my father’s company when I was 13 years old.

I had four startup companies I was involved with. I did one turnaround here and in Rochester, Zero Graphic Solutions. We sold that to Xerox. We sold that in 2011. Prior to that, I had a number of years with Xerox. I went for my MBA during that time. And then going through the entrepreneurial road myself, starting companies, doing a turnaround, selling a company, trying to buy a company.

My brother and I started the Discover Buffalo Niagara calendars back in 1999. At that time, we worked for Buffalo Place and we raised money. Sixteen years later, he’s still got Buffalo 716 and Discover Buffalo. It’s still going. All those experiences led me here.

I felt like I was on a walkabout and they led me home.