Being a tech entrepreneur can be tremendously rewarding. There's the exhilaration of working with cutting-edge ideas, knowing you have potential to create something as game-changing as Google or Facebook.
But the road to success is long and hard. Along the way are untold hours of labor, crises over money, nervous investors, fickle customers, sleepless nights, setbacks, and skepticism from friends and family.
Having some good companions can ease the journey. And that's the idea behind Startup Lancaster.
Launched a year and a half ago by veteran Lancaster-area entrepreneur Charlie Crystle, Startup Lancaster has 46 members, all involved in getting early-stage tech companies up and running. The group holds monthly meetings to swap war stories and advice and to gain inspiration for the next stage of their efforts.
"It's interesting to see what happens when people get together and share ideas," Crystle said.
Normally, one- to two-dozen members attend any given meeting, he said. They give updates on their projects and break into small groups to discuss the topic of the month. In October, a presentation on financing drew an especially large turnout, Crystle said.
November's meeting was a little smaller than usual, with six company founders plus Crystle convening at The Pillar Lounge in Lancaster. Following a round of introductions, Crystle presented for discussion some themes from recent posts on his blog, "Digging In."
The more quickly customers understand your value proposition, the sooner they can make a purchase decision, he told the aspiring company founders. What can a company do to make that process as smooth as possible?
That led to a discussion of pricing, then to ideas on how to secure and retain those all-important first customers, the nucleus of the customer base any business hopes to build. Crystle called that "getting from zero to one."
"Make the first 10 people using your software into evangelists," Crystle advised. "You want to develop the true believers."
Leslyn Kantner, founder of a social virtual pin-map site called Uencounter.me, told the group she writes a personal email to every new subscriber. Uencounter.me has been operational for a year and celebrated the placing of its 10,000th pin the day of the meeting, she told the group.
"We're having fun," she said.
Wyatt McGuire talked about the shift from thinking in terms of a product and functionality to thinking in terms of growing a community of users. His project, Correctnicity, allows users to audit predictions, using crowdsourcing to answer the question, "What happens next?" It is in beta on the iOS platform.
Fran Gillott said the startup he co-founded with Ryan Keener, DeliveryCrowd, had soft-launched a few days before. It offers consumers, restaurants and retailers a database of delivery people called "crowdies" who sign in and make themselves available to deliver products as needed.
The Software Productization Center at Millersville University helped develop the DeliveryCrowd platform, and Millersville hosted a launch event for the business Nov. 1 at the university's Ware Center in downtown Lancaster.
Gillott said he and Keener visited about 60 restaurants to see if their idea had merit before forging ahead with it. The company plans to start in the Lancaster area and expand outward.
"Our idea has been very easy to sell," he said.
Even the best ideas face daunting odds. Three out of four firms backed by venture capital fail, the Wall Street Journal reported in September, citing work by Harvard Business School researcher Shikhar Ghosh.
Crystle, whose successful startups include ChiliSoft and Mission Research, said he found himself lamenting the comparative lack of support structures for would-be entrepreneurs in the midstate. Eventually, instead of complaining, he decided to create solutions.
"Hopefully we're building a startup ecosystem here," he said.
Given the intense competition in the high-tech world, it's highly beneficial to have access "to a community of people who share the joys and frustrations of starting a company," Kantner said.
The next step is capital, Crystle said. To that end, on Monday evening, Startup Lancaster will hold its first Investor Day. Six or seven companies will present their ideas to early-stage investors based in the midstate and Philadelphia, Crystle said.
The event is primarily intended as a practice run, enabling the hopefuls to hone their pitches, but there's a chance some investment commitments could be made, he said.
Crystle said he is considering raising a seed capital fund from local investors.
Lancaster is an inspiring place to create a business, Startup Lancaster participant Joe Mugavero said. His startup is WaveReform; its product, dubbed "Current," lets trade contractors produce on-the-spot estimates using tablet computers.
Mugavero said he has taken the slogan, "Lancaster is for doers," as a motto.
"There is so much potential here," he said.