On July 13, 2009, Darren Ascone was fired by the management team at Vaspian, a local voice and data firm.
Ascone, who had served as chief operating officer for about four years, met that afternoon at a T.G.I. Friday's in Amherst with Sean Hus Var, his longtime business partner, and Sara Quinlan, and the trio decided to set up their own company to compete with Vaspian.
The partners incorporated Hover Networks, which provides hosted voice-over-Internet phone service, the next day.
" 'Thank you for the four years of education,' " Ascone said he thought at the time. "We believe in the business and the model and we're ready to go head-to-head."
Today, the privately held company has 10 employees and, Ascone said, has seen sales grow 100 percent each year since its inception. Hover Networks has about 350 clients, including Perry's Ice Cream, Dunn Tire and Hunt Real Estate.
The company is only the latest high-tech venture for Hus Var and Ascone, who began working together in the late 1990s. They are two of the founders of Chek.com, one of the region's first tech companies, which later became Synacor and remains active.
"As long as people aren't getting in for a quick hit, those are the people who really survived," Hus Var said.
Ascone was a recent University at Buffalo graduate in 1997 when he began working for Hus Var's EdgeNet, a website company that eventually was acquired by Choice One.
Ascone, Hus Var and George Chamoun, an Ascone friend and fellow UB alumnus, came up with the idea to form Chek.com, a business that offers affinity email addresses. They sold the service to companies such as the Buffalo Bills, who could provide team supporters with a vanity email address that ended in @billsfan.net or @budweiser.com instead of @aol.com.
Hus Var brought to the table his experience running an Internet company, as well as the necessary infrastructure, while Ascone and Chamoun handled sales and product development.
The three partners raised $9 million in venture capital in two rounds of financing. By December 1999, Chek.com had 45 employees and the company was handling 200,000 emails per day for its clients.
Three years later, however, Ascone left the company, saying he felt he was a marketable commodity and he realized his vision for Synacor didn't fully match management's vision. "I didn't love it anymore," Ascone added.
He said he remains proud of the ongoing success of the company, which now designs and hosts Web portals for telecommunications companies that provide email, video and other services to the firms' customers.
"They've taken it to another level," said Ascone, who, like Hus Var, is a Synacor shareholder. "I guess the seeds we planted are still growing today."
After leaving Synacor, Ascone consulted for and invested in various tech startups before joining Vaspian in 2004 or 2005. He worked there as COO until 2009, when he said half the company's workforce was laid off.
"The writing was on the wall for a while," Ascone said.
Greg Schreiber, a Vaspian vice president, said only three employees, including Ascone, out of 15 total workers were laid off at the time. Vaspian filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in September 2009 but emerged from Chapter 11 in May 2011 and is Hover Networks' largest local competitor.
"I wish them success," Schreiber said in an email. "Competition can be healthy. As both Vaspian and Hover succeed, we educate customers on the benefits of hosted services and overall drive the demand towards these newer, more innovative services."
The companies offer voice-over-Internet-protocol, or VOIP, services to their clients, providing telephone service over the company's broadband Internet.
Internet-based telephone service can be cheaper than traditional phone service - known in the industry as POTS, for Plain Old Telephone Service - but, even when it isn't, Ascone said VOIP offers features traditional service can't match.
For example, the company has set up the phone system at a car dealership so that when someone calls a sales associate in her office, and she doesn't answer because she's on the floor with a customer, the call after three rings will bounce to her cellphone instead of going straight to voice mail.
Similarly, Hover Networks set up the system for its Allstate Insurance clients to ensure that after-hours claims calls to a local agent can go through to the main Allstate number - with the agent's phone number attached to the call - while people calling to request additional coverage leave a message that is converted to text and forwarded to the agent's cell phone or Hover Anywhere remote phone.
"We've made more money for these guys because they're not losing the after-hours revenue calls," said Ascone, who serves as Hover Networks' CEO.
In addition to Vaspian, Hover Networks competes with Time Warner Cable and Verizon FiOS, which offer phone service over their own networks. Hover Networks' VOIP service is carried over a client's existing high-speed Internet network, usually provided by Time Warner.
"Time Warner gives the dial tone, they're not giving the service," Ascone said.
Hus Var said he had been urging Ascone during his years of employment with Vaspian to consider starting his own company offering VOIP service.
Hus Var said he was drawn to hosted telephone service as a business model because, unlike many technology innovations, it promised a reliable revenue stream. "Finally we had a business that was a utility, basically, and generated revenue right away," he said.
The partners have raised $250,000 in venture capital for Hover Networks, which has offices in West Seneca. Ascone declined to provide financial details but said the company has become profitable and expects to pay a dividend to its investors in the 2012 fiscal year.
Hover Networks is in negotiations to acquire a Louisiana company that provides VOIP services, and they remain bullish on Buffalo's tech community.
"We will never leave Buffalo. There's no reason for us to. There's a huge talent pool. I can service anywhere in the world from here," Ascone said.
Hus Var and Ascone continue to invest in startups such as AppVue, the first tenant in the Z80 Labs incubator in downtown Buffalo.
For Hus Var and Ascone, it's an odd turn for two guys who started out as the new kids on the tech block in the 1990s to now be among the grizzled veterans of Buffalo's Internet scene. That's not all bad.
"To use some of my experience is nice," Hus Var said, adding that in the old days, "We were always going by the seat of our pants."