‘Entrepreneurs Helping Entrepreneurs’: Sorting Out The Maze Of Paperwork, Other Details Can Be A Daunting Task

By Dave Sutor
The Tribune-Democrat, Johnstown, Pa.

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Dave Sutor of The Tribune-Democrat takes a look at the multiple meetups and community organizations available to help Pennsylvania entrepreneurs find their footing.

The Tribune-Democrat, Johnstown, Pa.

Entrepreneurs feel a passion to create.

They get excited about the idea of making something new: food, video games, tools, clothing, electronics, furniture — whatever it may be.

But before those individuals can know the reward of holding a finished product in their hands, they often need to navigate through a world of submitting government tax forms, filling out loan applications, developing business plans, securing property agreements and taking many other steps that can seem tedious, frustrating and confusing.

There are local groups that help, though.

Entrepreneurial Alchemy, Johnstown Region Entrepreneur Meetup, Startup Alleghenies, Community Foundation for the Alleghenies, Greater Johnstown/Cambria County Chamber of Commerce, Johnstown Area Regional Industries, University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, Young Professionals of the Alleghenies, St. Francis University’s Small Business Development Center, Southern Alleghenies Planning and Development Commission, Vision 2025 and others are in place to provide assistance to new businesses developers.

“All the resources are here,” said Jose Otero, who recently was hired by JARI to be the Startup Alleghenies’ Cambria County entrepreneur coach/procurement specialist. “Now it’s just getting the information out to everybody.”

‘A grass-roots thing’
Sitting in a circle, inside the soon-to-open Stone Bridge Brewing Co. in downtown Johnstown on Thursday, a group brainstormed about business ideas as part of the monthly Johnstown Region Entrepreneur Meetup get-together.

“This is a grass-roots thing of entrepreneurs helping entrepreneurs,” Mike Hruska, founder of Problem Solutions, a company involved in government and commercial technology, said. The group has nearly 300 members.

Some are already established in the business community.

Others are just starting out.

Jeremy Shearer, who co-owns Stone Bridge and Press Bistro with his wife, Jennifer, has made the transition from being a newcomer into a leader in the local business community, thanks in part to being active in the meeting group and other organizations.

“I think the big thing that we’ve learned over our last five years here starting a business downtown is don’t be afraid to reach out and take advantage of the programs, and the assistance, and the help that’s out there,” Jeremy Shearer said.

“We came into this with a decedent amount of knowledge, having been in the restaurant business for a long time, but the knowledge that you get from different individuals is invaluable.”

Scott Miller regularly attends the meetings, looking for ways to further develop his two businesses: Punky’s Soft Shells and Almost Famous Pics.

“When you’re an entrepreneur and small-business owner and you need that extra kick in the butt every month when things are tough, or machinery breaks down, or you’re having issues, it’s always a good uplifter to really make you realize why you’re doing this and that you have a lot of good people on your team,” Miller said.

Similarly, Entrepreneurial Alchemy holds monthly meetings at UPJ, where participants share their knowledge with fellow members of the business community, including startup developers.

“That is a critical element because what we do is we focus on people having an opportunity to talk about their business or business ideas,” Donald Bonk, Entrepreneurial Alchemy’s director, said.

“What we do basically is say, ‘Who are you? What do you want to do? How can we help you?’ ”

Camillya Taylor, owner of Camille’s House of Styles who has recently gotten into clothing design and runway coaching, said participating in Entrepreneur Alchemy has “helped me expand, and it also gave me a different perspective on the new adventures that I’m trying to take. I think this class is wonderful. They have so many people doing so many different things.”

While those organizations provide the opportunity for collective brainstorming, other groups, such as St. Francis’ center, offer important one-on-one counseling for startup business owners, providing information abut a variety of issues, including funding.

“Unlike some programs that may specialize in one business sector — let’s say manufacturing or technology or something along those lines — the Small Business Development program can really work with any type of business,”

Barry Surma, director of St. Francis University’s Small Business Development Center, said. “That’s one of the things that we can do that helps out.”

‘Early validation’
Entrepreneurial Alchemy, in conjunction with UPJ, sponsors PITTchFEST in which contestants pitch their business ideas to a panel of judges with hopes of winning prizes and gaining valuable feedback. It is held with Showcase for Commerce, an annual business exposition, in what Bonk called a case of “putting the chocolate and peanut butter together.”

Dave Luciew won PITTchFEST in 2015 with Wristocat, a product designed to ease wrist discomfort when working on a computer.

“That gave us early validation ands that gave us feedback from the judges,” Luciew said.

Since then, he has raised funds online to continue developing his product, which is scheduled to be for sale on QVC, a home shopping network, during the upcoming holiday season. “This is going to be the year that we really go after it,” Luciew said.

Also, this year, Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Central and Northern PA, working with Startup Alleghenies, held a Big Idea Contest for budding entrepreneurs. More than 40 individuals submitted ideas with 10 finalists being named, including Heather Moyer with Crossroads Consulting, Ryan Kieta with Real Design, and Justin Capouellez with Boomerang Beacon from Cambria County, along with Mark Kasterko with MT Arms from Somerset County.

The winners are scheduled to be announced on Nov. 16 during an event at Bottle Works in Johnstown’s Cambria City neighborhood.

“There were some terrific ideas,” Jerry Hudson, a Johnstown native and portfolio manager for Ben Franklin, said. “I’m looking forward to the finals.”

Prizes are $25,000 for first place, $15,000 for second place, $7,500 for third place and $2,500 for the People’s Choice Award.

‘A lot of energy’
Otero; Shearer; Ethan Stewart, 814 Worx founder and Centennial Financial Group investment adviser; Allen Higbee, Young Professionals of the Alleghenies president; and others are part of a new generation of business leaders working to recreate the city and shed its image of a dying steel town.

“There is kind of a group that is forming that is really wanting to challenge the status quo a little bit and come with new ideas, and new ways of doing things,” said Mike Artim, president and CEO of the Greater Johnstown/Cambria County Chamber of Commerce.

“And we want to support that fully because there’s a lot of energy with those people. We need those new ideas. We need different ways of looking at things.”

Higbee described the YPA as a group that “bands people together that are not necessarily young in age, but young and driven. They have a young mind. They have the drive to make greatness happen, start up new businesses, to connect the social fabric, to answer that big question: ‘What’s there to do in Johnstown?’ ”

He added: “If you’re always fighting a hill of negativity, you can never rise to the top. But if you have a little nudge and a little support along the way, then eventually you’re going to get to the top. And at the top is where everybody in Johnstown will be greater and be more.”

Stewart, whose 814 Worx provides co-working incubator space for startups, also described the local entrepreneur climate positively, saying, “What keeps me around, what I really love around this area is how much opportunity there is. If you have an idea, and you can make it, and you can get it done, and you have the will, you see the opportunity to do it,” when speaking during Thursday’s meetup.

Meanwhile, Startup Alleghenies began earlier this year as an ecosystem designed to bring together different groups and individuals to help business owners deal with their own unique issues and also those commonly shared by most new ventures.

“It really varies on the folks that come in,” Otero said.

“Some of them have already gone through the maze and have gotten lost in it for as period of time. Others have absolutely no clue what it would even be to even get a federal tax ID or how to register your business in order to conduct business within this state. So that’s where folks that are working within the ecosystem — we have attorneys, we have accountants — can help provide that specific technical consultant advice.”

Otero has made a concentrated effort to present information about business development to local entrepreneurs of different races, sexes and socioeconomic backgrounds.

“Diversity-wise, I’m certainly targeting it all,” Otero said.

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