Lists. You know, the top ten this and the best and worst of that. Most are pretty bogus. But one this week really stopped me in my tracks. Buffalo ranked number two on Entrepreneur Magazine’s list of "booming communities for start-ups." Really?
To fully comprehend how startling the inclusion of Buffalo on this particular list is, just take a moment to think back to 2006. That was the year of the October Storm. It was also the year that I came back to Buffalo after 32 years. It was the year that I first held Buffalo Old Home Week, a four-day re-enactement of a 1907 event designed to bring back those who had fled Buffalo after the Pan Am and the assassination of McKinley. Buffalo Old Home Week showcased Buffalo's successes and tried to change the perception of Buffalo as a dying, rust belt relic. We included a Career Fair to prove there were jobs in Buffalo, a downtown housing tour to show off the cool lofts that were being carved out of long abandoned buildings...you get the picture.
I had just spent 25 years in Boulder, Colorado, where investors were ubiquitous. Entrepreneurs were celebrated and their endeavors were supported. I was shocked to discover the lack of seed funding, the scarcity of angel funding, the dearth of start-ups, the plight of entrepreneurs. Many wanted to stay in Buffalo to start their business - heavens knows it was the cheapest place to get started - but discovered that they had to head to Boston, NYC or Silicon Valley to find investors to woo.
Buffalo was still hemorrhaging people in 2006. Since the whole point of reviving Buffalo Old Home Week was retention and attraction - to bring back those who had left, and to keep those who were here - trying to address this barren investor/entrepreneur landscape as part of the event was a no brainer. So, at the suggestion of Chris Smith (creator of the Cash Mob concept, co-founder/owner of Community Beer Works, and brilliant, entrepreneurial community activist), in addition to the Career Fair, we invented the "High Tech Investor/Entrepreneur Forum." These two events took place simultaneously in the Statler, across the grand Lobby from each other. If you can't find the job you want, why not start your own business?
The High Tech Investor/Entrepreneur Forum featured pitches by entrepreneurs, as many potential investors as we could round up, and "birds of a feather" tables where the twain could meet. It was a heavy lift, as I recall. There seemed to be no real "investor community." Just a lot of would-be entrepreneurs with great ideas on how to grow Buffalo with innovation and grit, and nowhere to turn for funding or mentoring. No incubators. No co-work spaces. Hard to believe today, just ten, short years later.
Explore Buffalo Niagara, the brain child of Jan Barrett, another amazing community resource, incorporated the Investor/Entrepreneur Forum into its innovative event in 2007. Jan drew business leaders from around the world to Buffalo, inviting them to do business here, invest in the city, import products from Buffalo, open offices in this strategic, bi-national city. The Forum grew and flourished.
By 2008, the Hauptman Woodward Center and the NYS Center of Excellence had both opened on what was becoming the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus. Marnie LaVigne, a true force of nature, was guiding the translation of the amazing primary research being done at UB into viable businesses as part of her valuable work at the Center of Excellence. The still moribund investor scene in Buffalo was a serious impediment. She put together a strong team of those who shared her concerns and brought skills and contacts to the table - David Colligan and Jack McGowan with the WNY Venture Association come to mind - and transformed this event into the ongoing, annual infusion of energy needed to fuel the creation of a vibrant investment community. It is now known as the Bright Buffalo Niagara Entrepreneur Expo and was held last month at the Hotel Henry.
UB and many other organizations and individuals pitched in. I will never forget pulling together a team and competing in the 2009 Panasci Challenge at the UB Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership (CEL). We came in a close third... And participating in the CEL Allstate Minority and Women Emerging Entrepreneurs (MWEE) program.
When the Buffalo Billion hit town in 2013, it was not necessary to start from scratch to fuel entrepreneurism and innovation to help kickstart the regional economy. The strong foundation needed to support the creation of DiG, to build out the Innovation Center, to launch 43North was ready and waiting for the infusion of the funds and energy needed to take Buffalo to the next level.
On Entrepreneur Magazine's list of eight cities, Buffalo trailed only behind San Diego. It came in ahead of Richmond, VA; Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill, NC; New Orleans, LA; Cincinnati, OH; Nashville, TN; and Baltimore, MD. Just being ON this list in a prestigious national business publication promises to lure additional businesses to consider re-locating to Buffalo, and help attract start-ups and companies in growth mode. This is where the jobs are, folks - in small companies that are growing. This is where millennials - and others - want to work.
And now people want to live here, too. Buffalo's resurgence is making national news, changing people's perception of this place. From snow to solar panels. From rust to resurgence.
With $5 million in prizes, 43North is not only in a league of its own, its national and international campaign to attract entrepreneurs to accept the challenge has literally put Buffalo on the innovation map. Launched in 2014, the focus of this high profile program now seems to be slowly shifting from luring entrepreneurs from elsewhere to compete, to focusing more on home-grown business ventures, seeking to keep them here. With Buffalo at the top of Entrepreneur Magazine's list of "8 Cities Whose Entrepreneurship Communities Are Booming," that may present a challenge of its own!
What a wonderful conundrum for Buffalo. Home-grown entrepreneurs? Or imported talent? I say BOTH! The entrepreneur/investor landscape has been completely altered in just a decade. Who would have thought?