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Buffalo's hottest new start-ups

There is a fresh wave of innovation and optimism in Buffalo, and the city’s newest entrepreneurs are a big reason why. From the tremendously successful 43North competition to a steady stream of startups impacting Buffalo and beyond, the WNY community has become an unforeseen hub of entrepreneurism.

We spoke with the founders and operators of five unique companies, all based in Western New York. They see tremendous growth potential here, and a future that seems unstoppable. And in each case, they discovered a like-minded community of individuals with a passion for supporting new business.

WeDidIt

Buffalo's hottest start-ups | Buffalo Magazine

WeDidIt is a fundraising platform for nonprofits that launched a tech start-up in Brooklyn but is now based in Buffalo. The company provides automated tools and resources that allow organizations like the Florida Aquarium, Boys Scouts of America and Los Angeles Zoo to raise money online through crowdfunding campaigns, ticket sales, memberships, and donor research.

Founded by Su Sanni, Bryan Lifff and Ben Lamson, CEO Sanni answered our questions.

What was your first step?
Creating a team. I organized a group of cofounders who believed in the vision and were capable of taking on the challenge. Together, we researched the market to validate our assumptions about customers, and then built a prototype solution.

How did being in Buffalo help or hinder your pursuit?
Being in Buffalo gave us the resources and afforded us the time to refine our business. We ultimately pivoted by changing our business model so that we can solve fundraising problems for very specific nonprofit organizations. The mentors and business community in Buffalo gave us advice, introductions to customers, and the opportunity to execute a new business model.

What’s next?
We’re currently hyper-focused on multi-chapter nonprofits. We’ll be releasing products designed to help these small chapters raise money faster and with greater transparency for their parent organization.

What’s your number one tip for budding entrepreneurs?
Deliberately surround yourself with mentors and advisors, or join a startup ecosystem that can accelerate your growth. For example, accelerators like 500 Startups or incubators and competitions like 43North are excellent channels.

What excites you about Buffalo’s future as a hub for new business?
The fact that you don’t have to move to Silicon Valley, San Francisco or New York City. Entrepreneurship should be accessible to all people, regardless of location, because big problems exist everywhere. Buffalo is a great example of how a city can quickly build the type of startup ecosystem that attracts diverse founders, as well as support homegrown solutions.

Whimsy Confections

Buffalo's hottest start-ups | Buffalo Magazine

Chocolatier Michele Ogden handpaints the beautiful bonbons available through her company, Whimsy Confections. Her past includes a dessert catering business in Washington, D.C. and an appearance on the Food Network’s “Cupcake Wars.”

What was your first step?
Reaching out to WEDI (Westminster Economic Development Initiative), who assisted me with writing a business plan.

How did being in Buffalo help or hinder your pursuit?
I’ve had access to great resources, including UB’s CEL (Center for Entrepreneurship and Leadership), WEDI, Queen City Pop Up Shop, and a mentor through SCORE. Buffalo is filled with amazing, creative and supportive small business owners, and they might be my greatest resource.

What’s next?
Building my wholesale business and expanding into other cities. Now that I have production space on site I’ll begin teaching chocolate workshops for both kids and adults, and hosting events.

What’s your top tip for budding entrepreneurs?
Put self-care first so you don’t burn out. There are always rainy days and the better you take care of yourself, the better you’ll weather the storm. Also, have a good lawyer and accountant before you begin!

What excites you about Buffalo’s future as a hub for new business?
So many neighborhoods are developing and growing, and making space for cool small businesses to open up. The possibilities are endless.

Thimble

Buffalo's hottest start-ups | Buffalo Magazine

Thimble, founded by Oscar Pedroso and David Brenner, is a groundbreaking company specializing in hands-on electronic kits that teach engineering and programming to kids ages 10 and up. Subscribers also have the opportunity to create their own projects. Kits feature all the necessary parts to build a new project. Pedroso answered our questions.

What was your first step?
Finding customers. We knew we wanted Thimble’s project-based electronic maker kits for ourselves, but we needed to be certain that there was a market. We completed basic viability research; we reviewed every study we could find on the maker, parent, and school market. We conducted surveys, phone calls, in-person interviews, and attended trade shows. One of our most successful moments was posting on Reddit to ask various communities for feedback around our concept. In three days, we received over 700 email addresses and tons of constructive feedback that would later help us strategize for our crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter.

How did being in Buffalo help or hinder your pursuit?
There are many pros: affordable cost of living; evolving and supportive startup ecosystem and network; wise and engaged mentor network; lots of schools to partner with, strategic partnerships — Launch NY, The Foundry/BuffaloLab, BMoS, UB Career Experience Program, ISEP, Boys & Girls Club, National Grid, Erie 1 BOCES. And there are some cons. For us, prototyping equipment — laser cutters, 3D printers — were hard to find, and we didn’t have the initial capital to purchase it ourselves. Public investment focused on publicly accessible prototyping equipment would pay huge dividends for both entrepreneurs and community education. It’s still harder than it should be to find great talent.

What’s next?
Our mission is to be the brand that inspired the next generation of engineers, scientists and technologists. To date, we’ve had success selling our monthly project-based electronics kits (robots, weather stations, video games, etc.) to parents and hobbyists through direct online sales. However, we know we can have a bigger impact by expanding into the school market.

What’s your number one tip for budding entrepreneurs?
Every business activity is an experiment. So hypothesize, test, measure, fail fast, learn faster, and always improve. Don’t get complacent. Be proactive, pick up the phone, talk to potential customers, do the research, surround yourself with the best mentors and learn from them. When plan A fails, learn from it, and try plan B. Finally, attention is the most valuable resource. If you find a way to secure user attention, you will find a way to monetize it.

What excites you about Buffalo’s future as a hub for new business?
Buffalo’s renaissance reputation is pulling talent back to Buffalo. Community-originated events (Startup Weekend, Creative Mornings, Buffalo Unconference) and programs aimed at helping startups (BNMC Spark grants, UB CEL programs) are making it happen.

Rebel One Studios

Buffalo's hottest start-ups | Buffalo Magazine

Founded by Samantha Haney, Rebel One Studios is a full-service animation company comprised of experienced animators and based in Buffalo. They serve a broad range of companies with offerings that include educational content, advertising and marketing materials, and technical and spatial visualizations.

What was your first step?
Every entrepreneur begins with a “what if?” moment. I saw a need for local animation and visualization services. I knew the creative side of the industry, and we had a talented team already in place. However, I didn’t have the first idea about how to launch or operate a business. So my first step was to seek out partners, resources, and advisors to guide me through the beginning phase.

How did being in Buffalo help or hinder you?
Any location will have benefits and challenges. As a Buffalo native, and seeing how far we’ve come as a city, it’s very hard to dwell on hindrances. Here we have access to world-class tech and hard-working, exceptionally talented creatives — two key elements in producing animation. Things have improved so much in the past few years that it’s impossible to be anything but inspired.

What’s next for Rebel One?
Visualization technology is evolving rapidly, and as we grow, we’re committed to embracing these innovations. We have to stay nimble and adapt quickly to ensure that we’re always providing clients with the best possible representation of their ideas, products or services.

What’s your top tip for budding entrepreneurs?
Establish your culture, evaluate your goals, and define your ethics early on. Craft your identity, then stick to your guns. It’s easy to lose sight of your goals when you get into the weeds, but a solid identity sets your true north.

OpenBottle

Buffalo's hottest start-ups | Buffalo Magazine

In the words of cofounder Dan Roycroft, OpenBottle is “on a mission to create amazing experiences for people who are passionate or curious about the world of wine.” A mobile app, OpenBottle uses technology called “Reserve-A-Glass” to allow users to pre-purchase portions of wine at nearby restaurants. The goal is to increase access to excellent wines for everyone, allowing diners to enjoy any wine of their choice — by the glass. Roycroft answered our questions.

What was your first step?
Experiencing the problem ourselves. Meaning, when you to go a restaurant there are so many great wines, but only a few listed for by-the-glass servings. My cofounder Scott Steffan states it best: When he and his wife go out to eat, she loves sweet whites and he loves big, bold reds. He would often order a bottle of white wine that he knew he would hate. Scott and I both shared this experience and that got us thinking: There must be a better way.

How did Buffalo help or hinder?
Without question, being in Buffalo helped. Both Scott and I had moved away but after several years came back to raise our families. The Buffalo technology start-up scene is really taking off. There are so many helpful programs — LaunchNY, Z80, WNY Venture Association, the Innovation Center — and other successful start-ups that are making it happen.

What’s next?
We are poised for growth. Our mobile application is in the Apple AppStore and on the Google Play store (search “OpenBottle”). We are raising funds to build our team and expand into other markets and restaurants.

What’s your number one tip for budding entrepreneurs?
Criticism abounds, but testing proves whether your idea is practical. At a very early stage, it doesn’t matter if it’s practical from a scalability standpoint or not. Get out and just see if there is demand. The minute you start testing, you’ll receive valuable feedback. Then you can incorporate and, over time, figure out how to either automate or scale the things that are really important to your customers.

What excites you about Buffalo’s future as a hub for new business?
The community is so supportive. There are many skilled people in this area and they are looking for opportunities to be part of an exciting start-up.

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