Have a software company that’s not making money yet? Startup Boost Pittsburgh wants to help

Apply to the free program by March 15.

Hillary / flickr
MJ Slaby

Seed funding. Accelerator program. Venture Capital.

All those terms are familiar to Kit Mueller, who has worked with startups for decades. But for someone just trying to break into the startup world, they can be intimidating, he said.

That’s why Startup Boost Pittsburgh doesn’t use them.

While local programs like Founder Institute Pittsburgh and Idea Foundry also help early stage companies, new Startup Boost wants to fill a niche for software companies that have a product but are still trying to figure out how to make money.

Each time a program like this launches, it’s a sign of a growing ecosystem and the community’s expanding entrepreneurship literacy, local startup experts told The Incline. But there are somethings — resources, funding and customer testing — that new entrepreneurs will always need.

First steps

There’s no one path to launching a startup, said Audrey Russo, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Technology Council, but programs like Startup Boost help invigorate the ecosystem and provide opportunities to new groups of people.

Figuring out that path often comes down to what founders want to do with their company, said Erica Peterson, founder of Moms Can Code. That’s the first question she asks people who come to her for advice.

Often, early-stage founders also need an education about the different types of funding, which can impact the types of incubators, pre-accelerators and accelerators they can turn to. For example, it’s important to know that if they go with venture capital, they are building a company to be acquired, Peterson said.

William Parker, founder of VendSpin, wanted to have a “homegrown startup story,” so finding local venture capitalists who focus on the city was one of the first things he did after launching his app.

But at New Sun Rising, startups aren’t typically tech companies, looking for an exit, but small companies looking to grow, said Scott Wolovich, executive director of the nonprofit focused on neighborhood-scale innovation.

And whatever the funding route — the fledgling company needs to start proving its product. Quick.

The sooner a company can test out its product with real customers, the better, said Terri Glueck, director of community development and communications at Innovation Works. “It cannot start too early.”

Peterson said the No. 1 way that founders can raise money is to sell their product, so they shouldn’t let a fear of launching get in their way. It’s no good to spend nine months on an app only to learn that it has no customers, she said.

‘Now what?’

Mueller noticed a need at the end of Pittsburgh’s annual Startup Weekend, where after 54 hours together, local teams had a new business, but little else. They were asking themselves, “Now what?”

Startup Boost, started in Dublin, is in more than a dozen cities and was brought to Pittsburgh this year by Mueller, Jim Gibbs, CEO and founder of Meter Feeder, and Mitch Turk, a consultant for autonomous technology.

The goal for the first cohort is to have six to eight businesses that are a mix of community, corporate and university companies with products determine their best financial paths, Mueller said. Organizers will host info sessions across the region to reach underrepresented groups, including its next session Wednesday at the Braddock Carnegie Library.

Applications are due March 15, with a start date of April 2.

Startup Boost, which will create a support system and build connections, will meet on Tuesday evenings for six weeks at Beauty Shoppe in East Liberty, allowing participants to fit the program in with their day jobs. The program is free to participants, but the pre-accelerator doesn’t invest in the companies.

It can be tricky to try to find the right participants because it takes time to communicate and people can’t quit their day job for full-time training programs, Russo said, adding that no one program is a silver bullet.

Jenny Sharpe, program director at Ascender, said that while they offer multiple ways to help entrepreneurs, sometimes Ascender sends people to other organizations in the city. And that’s OK.

“That’s all a win for us,” she said. “We look at it as an ecosystem, it’s not a competition.”