43North's challenge: How to convince startups to stay during a lockdown

43North's challenge: How to convince startups to stay during a lockdown

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When the latest 43North prize winners move to town each year, the organization tries to immerse them in everything Buffalo has to offer.

That includes showcasing activities like local festivals and highlighting the region's restaurant, entertainment and outdoor scene.

The hope is that the startups' founders will enjoy the lifestyle here so much – on top of the prize money and the business support they get – that they will stay, even after their one-year commitment stemming from the business plan competition is up.

But not this year.

The Covid-19 pandemic is presenting a new challenge to 43North officials. How do you sell people on a region they can't experience in a normal way, with so many shutdowns and cancellations? And how do you build camaraderie among startups while meeting over monitors, instead of inside an office?

"We are in an industry where the [creative] collisions are critical, and running into one another as you wait for your coffee or in the elevator," said Colleen E. Heidinger, 43North's president. "That's what makes startup communities work, and that's where the sparks of new ideas come from."

43North moved into its sleek new offices inside Seneca One tower just a few weeks before the state put much of the economy on pause. The seven prize winners from last October's 43North competition switched to working from home, while remaining in the region.

43North has strived to stay connected with them, albeit in a different fashion, Heidinger said.

There have been frequent Zoom calls, virtual meetings with mentors and introductions to potential investors and customers. The work of developing the businesses goes on.

Heidinger said startups are accustomed to dealing with, and overcoming, adversity.

"These folks are fighters," she said. "They're not folks that are just going to turn things off and give up. They're constantly trying to find ways to reinvent both the business and themselves as they go forward."

43North kept plugging away at the social side, too. Through Zoom, 43North has held wine tastings, book club meetings and yoga classes. Staffers have dropped off gift baskets where the founders live.

"There's always a [weekly] touch point on the calendar, and not work-related," Heidinger said. "This is the time to show up to the computer, bring a glass of wine, have the kids crawl all over you. There were no expectations."

Here is how two prize winners from the 2019 competition have become familiar with Buffalo, under unusual circumstances:

Whose Your Landlord

Ofo Ezeugwu, co-founder and CEO of Whose Your Landlord, said it was tough for the new class of prize winners to leave Seneca One just as they were settling in.

"There's a cachet you feel when you walk into an office and your logo is in the window and the team is in one place," he said.

His company won $500,000 as a runner-up in last year's competition. Whose Your Landlord allows people to post reviews of landlords and for landlords to see what's being said about their properties. He runs the business with his brother, Andre.

Ezeugwu relocated here from Brooklyn, but soon found himself working from home, an apartment in the downtown Sinclair building.

Ezeugwu stays in touch with the other 43North 2019 prize winners through a Slack messaging channel. He's also been busy with work, and eagerly making new business connections.

"Our demand has gone up a lot because of the fact that housing is part of the national conversation right now," he said. "I thought I worked extremely hard before. I think I work even harder now."

Even so, he has taken time on weekends to get out and explore. His parents met as students at Niagara University, and Ezeugwu lived in Buffalo for a few years in the 1990s while he was growing up.

But it's also been challenging at times. Ezeugwu lost a 49-year-old aunt to Covid-19 during the pandemic.

"That's been devastating and sad for my family, for me personally," he said. "But a lot of our energy has been channeling that anger and that pain towards the business."

The shutdowns gave Ezeugwu perspective on the lifestyle difference between New York City and a smaller place like Buffalo.

"New York City is a city that's predicated on the culture, the opportunity, the access, the mobility," he said. "When all of those things come to a screeching halt, you're left usually in a shoebox, and that can be pretty tough. To be here, to be able to still get out and walk around and still get out and jog and still get out and connect to people in a socially distanced way, that's pretty invaluable."

Strayos

Ravi and Kim Sahu moved here from St. Louis, Mo., after their company, Strayos, won the $1 million grand prize last October.

Their challenge of working from home was different from that of some founders: They have two young children. But Kim Sahu, the general manager, said it was just one more changing environment to adapt to.

"When we started, we were working in my parents' attic," she said. "Then we we working out of our house. And then we were working out of an office. And then we were working out of 43North's office. So this was just the most recent move."

The company's technology is similar to an under-the-ground version of Google Maps, serving the mining and construction industries with the help of drones and computer analysis. On the business side, Ravi Sahu, the CEO, said there really wasn't any disruption from the pandemic, since most of its customers continued to operate.

What was trickier was pitching to new customers. Strayos is accustomed to conducting field demonstrations, but companies weren't interested in those types of visits at the moment.

"At the same time, it's allowing us to think creatively about how to do an outreach and field demonstration to understand the value of the product without stepping into the field," Ravi Sahu said. The company pivoted to making presentations virtually.

Strayos already had some workers remotely, so the company was well equipped to function that way, Kim Sahu said. And Strayos is continuing to hire.

Kim Sahu said 43North has made their family feel welcome in Buffalo. She has enjoyed the virtual yoga classes. "It's kind of fun trying to do yoga and be all zen when you have a 10-month-old baby crawling around the floor and a 3-year-old climbing on your back," she said.

When the shutdowns started happening in March, Kim Sahu was worried at first. The family was in a new city, without relatives nearby.

"It was really hard until our neighbors stepped up and filled the void," she said. "What I've seen is, it's not about the activities or the restaurants, it's the people."

With phase two of Western New York's reopening underway, businesses are allowed to return to offices like 43North's.

"So far, about a quarter of the incubator has returned to the office, and we expect to see a steady increase should all continue to go well in the coming weeks," said Maura Devlin, a 43North spokeswoman.

Usually by this time of year, 43North has started accepting applications for the next round of contenders. Heidinger said the competition will be held later this year, and that details will be released soon.

Heidinger said she looked forward to the startups returning to Seneca One tower, high above downtown.

"The view is even better now, with the lake glistening and the sun shining," she said. "It'll be there for all of them when we come back in."

Inside Seneca One tower: A tech hub, drone startups and a company named Peanut Butter

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