Jordan Levy is a rarity in Western New York business and political circles: a successful venture capitalist deeply involved in the civic challenges facing Buffalo.
Together with longtime partner Ronald Schreiber, Levy co-founded and grew two software companies in Western New York that were later sold to Ingram Micro and Softbank Capital, respectively. Since 1999, they’ve continued to run a venture capital and investment business here, through Seed Capital Partners and Softbank, and have helped other businesses get off the ground with dollars and advice.
More recently, he spent several years as chairman of the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp., charged with conceiving and pursuing a plan to revive Buffalo’s inner harbor area.
And he and Schreiber launched a new technology incubator called Z80 Labs to foster the growth of startup companies in Buffalo.
Q: How do you see Buffalo’s prospects?
A: I frankly wish that there was an opportunity for a silver bullet. I’m still hopeful, even though everybody thinks that’s a bad idea.
I know [spending tax money to lure a large employer] is corporate welfare in everyone’s minds. But we need jobs, because we have everything else. We have a phenomenal quality of life. It’s inexpensive to live here. It’s cheap. It’s easy. It’s a phenomenal place to raise kids.
What we need to do is create jobs and open opportunities. The startup world is going to be very tough.
Q: But what about the efforts to promote an entrepreneurial startup climate here?
A: There’s not really enough support here. We have a long road ahead. The ecosystem doesn’t exist. The mentality isn’t there. The infrastructure is still in its infancy.
It’s going to be hand-to-hand combat for a while, and right now, we could use a little high-altitude bombing to get things going — a big economic development win.
If we could have a Dell Computer Corp. here, a Groupon, that would be great. That would alter the landscape. But hope is not a plan. So while we get started with funding and supporting entrepreneurs, it’s really [in the] primary school [stage] at this point. We haven’t even gotten to college or high school yet.
It takes time. I think people are looking for some shorter-term success to maintain the momentum people are feeling about Buffalo, with Canalside, the Medical Campus, Elmwood Village, Larkinville, etc. Now we need additional things on the economic front to support it.
People have no idea. You walk into the hotels and restaurants during the week, and they’re busy. Synacor fills dozens of hotel rooms every week. Imagine having dozens of these.
That’s what we’re trying to do, but we need some help to get there.
Q: Is it too hard or too late to do?
A: It’s never too late. It’s a dynamic environment.
All of these efforts... they all will contribute. But it’s not going to instantly change the culture.
We have a culture of kids that graduate from college and they’d rather go to work for the bank than start their own company. Investors would rather put their money in CDs.
That culture isn’t here yet. But there are these steps. They’re planting the seeds and it takes time for the roots to plant. It takes time to change the way people think and act in Buffalo about entrepreneurs and technology.
Q: What’s the problem with our culture?
A: People don’t look at businesses with optimism. They’re cynical.
Look at someone who comes along to start another restaurant where others have closed. In Silicon Valley, you’d say that guy is a great entrepreneur. In Buffalo, people would say he’s an idiot. [Las Vegas billionaire and Republican donor] Sheldon Adelson went bankrupt six times.
We look at them as losers. In a lot of other areas, they look at them as risk-takers.
Incubators are about calling audibles, about nurturing ideas and risk-takers. Hopefully, they’ll find the right artery that will lead to the heart.
Q: Can the state or federal government do more to help?
A: I don’t think this is the kind of program that government can make happen. They can create some opportunities and clear the deck, such as with Innovate New York, the Buffalo Billion and the Empire State Development Corp.
There is a lot of stuff out there that people can take and develop. Even the IDA (Industrial Development Agency) has resources.
They’re all there. But now it’s up to us. It’s got to be the private sector, the community. There’s resources, there’s dough out there. Now we need talent.
Q: So what can we do to move it along?
A: We have to just change the mindset so people take risks and there’s the infrastructure out there.
It’s coming. A lot of law firms will do the work for next to nothing, hoping it builds. We need landlords with cheap rent, but it’s cheap already.
It takes time to change all that. That’s why I’m not against the silver bullet. I am looking for a quick win. I’m grateful for what Howard [Zemsky] and the Buffalo Billion are doing.
I believe [startups] will be essential in the long run. But nothing’s going to be quick. Look at the Senecas investing in businesses. It’s all going to make a difference.
It is a happy story? People should be optimistic about the things going on. Unfortunately, people are not going to see the results for a while, and they’re going to have to be patient. We’re not New York, we’re not Boston, we’re not Silicon Valley or Austin.
This is hand-to-hand combat. We’re going to have to work hard to make this all happen. We’ve got to keep our young people.
If I’m not optimistic, who will be?