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Want to Launch a Tech Startup? Here's How These NYC Entrepreneurs Did It

 Andrew Young, 32, launched Swill, an app that lets you order-in alcohol - like a Seamless for drinks - last year.
Andrew Young, 32, launched Swill, an app that lets you order-in alcohol - like a Seamless for drinks - last year.
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Andrew Young

NEW YORK CITY — Ever wonder what it would be like to launch a tech startup?

Maybe you’ve been sitting on some killer idea for an app, or the world of tech entrepreneurs — which seems to be everywhere in New York these days — feels more exciting than your daily grind.

And then, of course, there’s that hope you’ll quickly become a millionaire doing something you love.

So, we asked a bunch of enterprising folks — some who’ve already raised millions, others who are still slowly growing their companies — how they did it, and how you can get started-up, too.

Just Get Started Already

“Everybody has a good idea,” said Jake Levine, 29, the founder of Electric Objects, a new company that creates framed, high-definition computer screens meant to display digital art on your wall. “There’s too much pressure put on this notion of a great idea. What’s more important is: are you going to get up and do something about it? It really takes a lot of work.”

Some founders we talked to had tech backgrounds, but almost all, like Levine, were not coders. They may have switched careers — Levine was originally in finance — or started tinkering in their free time, learning about the startup industry and picking up new technical skills from the vast amount of resources now readily available on the internet.

“If you’re passionate about an idea and really want to pursue it, there’s probably never been a lower barrier to launching a startup,” said Andrew Young, 32, the founder of Swill, an app that lets you order liquor online — like a Seamless for drinks.

The Brooklyn native began learning programming on his own. “You don’t have to learn programming, but I think its at least useful to have a familiarity — it's also easier if you can build or play around with some prototypes on your own,” he added.

Networking Is Key

In 2010, Young got something of a crash-course in startups through Startup Weekend. At the event a few hundred designers, developers and marketers come together to form teams, and within 54 hours, get working on potential startups. At the end, you get the opportunity to pitch your new product to startup experts.

Young said that process got him fired up. “You’re surrounded by all these passionate, focused people with different backgrounds, but who all want to create something,” he said. “It’s a good way to make connections.”

Other entrepreneurs said seeking out panel discussions and events, like the NY Tech Meetup, can be good ways to meet and mingle in the tech scene.

Young ended up meeting some other passionate, entrepreneurial types that became his friends, and eventually, his co-founders of Swill.

Getting started, however without any previous experience can be tough and a bit daunting, said some of the entrepreneurs. If you’re not ready to give up your day job to risk going it alone, you may just want to switch day jobs first, into a startup. That’s what Levine did, and it helped him understand how a startup worked, and give him important connections for when he struck out on his own.

Get Funding to Build Your Company

So let’s say you have that idea you want to throw your energy behind, maybe have a couple of people to work with you — how do you get it off the ground? Well, there's the funding issue.

Some good news, said Oren Bass, a co-founder of Pave, a startup that provides affordable loans to young people through a crowdsourcing platform, is that "it's probably never been easier to raise funds than it is now."

If you're looking for bigger investment from venture capitalists (from here on referred to as VCs), there are a growing number in New York that are interested in funding startups. VCs give you money in exchange for a piece of the company's equity — so the more money you make, they more money they make.

If you're going after bigger money, be prepared and do homework about who you're trying to pitch to. Many VCs actively blog about what types of companies they are interested in investing in.

Raul Gutierrez, the founder of Tinybop, a Brooklyn-based startup that makes educational apps, said he met a VC at conference and that contact eventually spurred a sizeable round of what’s called “seed funding” — money to get the project going. He raised more than $1 million, just on his idea.

That type of investment is less common, however, entrepreneurs said — and most investors want to see growth before they invest.

Especially if you’re trying to build a physical object, like Levine’s mounted screen, working with crowd-funding platform Kickstarter can help move the process along. People can order a product in advance, which gives you the cash to build it.

Another way to get your company going is through a startup accelerator or incubator. You’ll have to apply, but these organizations can help you get going with mentoring, some funding (in exchange for some share of the company’s equity) and also vitally important to success — connections in the industry. In New York, entrepreneurs mentioned accelerators like Techstars, and Entrepreneurial Roundtable Accelerator.

Some incubators many have a specific business focus, like the New York Fashion Tech Lab, which, as its name suggests, helps early-stage fashion-tech ups.

But many, like Young, who launched in December, said they’ve been “bootstrapping” to get their business of the ground. Using their own savings, and any funding the could get from friends and family, they pushed ahead with Swill. Their company, which now works with hundreds of retailers across the city, is now actively looking to expand, and seeking investment to help grow the business.

"Now we have a track record of growth, so we're trying to do what we can to get more funding," said Young. "But, we'll not relying on that — we'd love it, but we're just going to keep moving ahead, working as hard as we can."