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November 21, 2011 BUSINESS STRATEGY

Entrepreneurs hoping to make SmallTalk pay

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO The SmallTalk team celebrates with its first place award from Startup Weekend Hartford. Pictured are, from left, Chris Czarnowski, Mike Szubka, Igor Anisimov, Eric Rogers, Drew Evarts and Ryan Rose. Szubka, who owns his own software company in Bristol, is no longer with SmallTalk.

It has been a crazy couple of months for Ryan Rose and the team from SmallTalk.

A mobile application designed to support face-to-face networking by linking users with common interests, SmallTalk captured top honors at September’s Startup Weekend Hartford — a 54-hour sprint with aspiring entrepreneurs hoping to find support for and build a viable business based on a 30-second pitch.

The app is in beta testing and the search for capital is on, but the SmallTalk team — born in a conference room — is convinced it has a real game-changer on its hands.

The Startup Weekend judges were impressed with SmallTalk and its potential.

“The SmallTalk app was interesting because it leveraged the existing social media trend to extend the functionality of an in person networking situation by making it easier for people to find common ground,” said judge Lacey Banks McGill, a business advisor at the University of Hartford Entrepreneurial Center.

“The app itself is relatively simple, repurposing existing tools, and the potential market for the app (conference organizers) is also relatively accessible and insular increasing the likelihood of getting market penetration without huge startup costs.”

Interestingly, Rose came up with the concept for SmallTalk only after arriving late for the Sept. 23 event.

“When I first got there,” Rose said, “I didn’t see anyone I recognized and I pretty much stood by myself for awhile looking around the room and wondering, ‘How do I start a conversation with someone?’”

“I was thinking to myself, ‘What if there was a better way of knowing if you had a shared interest with someone else in the room?’”

Fast-forward from that whirlwind weekend to today.

The SmallTalk team — Rose, UConn seniors Igor Anisimov and Chris Czarnowski, and Eric Rogers and Drew Evarts, who work at Westinghouse — is in almost daily contact developing and testing the app with every free minute — a task made more difficult with two members in school and the other three holding full-time jobs.

The first official beta test was held the opening night of Startup Weekend New Haven on Nov. 11.

“Things are moving faster than we could’ve ever expected, but we desire to move even faster,” Anisimov said. “Every week we make important contacts; people who want to be our advisers and people who ask us to use our app at their future networking events.”

“There are no slackers. Everybody pulls their weight, and then some. It is the greatest feeling to be a part of this team.”

Anisimov sees SmallTalk transforming the event planning industry — being used at conferences to support face-to-face networking, significantly increasing the value of these events for event planners, attendees and sponsors.

Rose said they are open to interested investors and are currently working on several possible partnership opportunities.

Winning the competition brings with it a valuable prize cache, including incubator space and face-time with attorneys and accountants.

“All of the prizes are geared towards growing your newly-formed startup idea into a real business,” Rose said. “This included legal time donated by Updike, Kelly & Spellacy and accounting time with BlumShapiro.”

SmallTalk, with a central meeting space in Hartford and an official business address in North Haven, has already formed an LLC and is actively pursuing patent and trademark applications.

Rose said although things are moving quickly, the team is being deliberate in its business plan.

“We practice agile software development,” he said, “so the plan is to release the app in stages with frequent updates based on customer feedback. We will target small, local events to start but have already received some interest for use at larger, more prominent events.”

Rose’s advice for aspiring entrepreneurs considering attending Startup Weekend Hartford next year?

“Definitely be prepared not to sleep. Drink lots of coffee. You’re going to have probably the most memorable experience of your entire life and the most exhausting at the same time.”

“It’s just a wonderful atmosphere, very community driven. Everyone wants their startup to succeed and they want everyone else’s startup to succeed — that’s the whole point of the event, to get people up off the couch and start building.”


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