Empty storefronts and buildings are scattered along Lackawanna Avenue in downtown Scranton. With an economy that once depended on mining, Scranton’s population has dropped by more than 20,000 people since 1970, and the town is looking to attract businesses to shore up the local economy.
One bright spot — the Scranton Enterprise Center Business Incubator — is home to more than 16 companies looking to bring technology, innovation, and entrepreneurship to Scranton. The Scranton Enterprise Center staff helps tenants find loans and funders like MetroAction, a nonprofit community development organization, to finance their businesses. Scranton’s small-town vibe is felt through the halls of the incubator where entrepreneurs treat each other like family.
Guide, an app that uses artificial intelligence to provide life-coaching services, is one of the newest additions to the Incubator. Guide cofounder and Scranton-native Patrick Sandone, 45, said his company gives users “bite-sized increments” of self-development courses.
Sandone made his mark in 2007 after creating Net Driven, a website developer and Internet marketing company for small businesses in the automotive industry. It currently employs more than 60 people in an office just a few steps down the hall from Sandone’s new startup.
As the 2008 financial crisis approached, Sandone saw the uncertain economy as an opportunity to bring recently unemployed Scrantonians into this company. Unemployment in Scranton climbed from 5.7 percent in January 2007 to a high of 9.2 percent during the recession, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. “At that time, a couple of things shifted — people were looking to do different things,” Sandone said. “When nothing is working, people are more open to trying something new.” Today, Scranton’s unemployment rate is 5.2 percent, compared to the national average of 3.7 percent.
Net Driven was a success with clients across North America, and was sold to Internet Brands in 2015. The sale was contingent on Internet Brands’ promise to keep the company in Scranton, said Sandone.
Aaron Whitney, the incubator manager, said the space has seen an increase in applications and tenants in the last two years, and is happy to see tech entrepreneurs like Sandone return to Scranton.
Sandone left Net Driven in 2016 to travel around the country, after which he began to shift his focus to the self-improvement industry. Sandone said that personal development workshops are time-consuming and pricey, noting that he spent nearly $100,000 over two years on such courses. Sandone returned to Scranton and founded Guide in 2018 with Alison Skoff, 41, a trained life and wellness coach. The now-three-person team is now developing the app, and is testing its features on about 13 people within Scranton.
Down the hall from Sandone’s office, sits My College Roomie, a startup created by his distant cousin, Jason Sensi.
Founded in 2013, My College Roomie is an online platform that allows college students to find on-campus roommates and friends through an extensive questionnaire and an algorithm that matches people with similar likes and dislikes. “I had a less than ideal roommate experience,” Sensi said. “I remember going through a process where the school had a three or four question survey that I had to mail back, and then someone in the central office had to play matchmaker.”
Nine universities currently use My College Roomie, and the platform won the 2015 North Eastern Pennsylvania (NEPA) Business Plan Competition. “It’s nice to be doing something that the area recognizes,” Sensi said. “We don’t have a huge tech boom — we’re not a major metropolis where you have tech movement going on.” Sensi plans to keep My College Roomie based in Scranton, and is focused on the higher education market where there’s less competition for capital and users.
As the Scranton Enterprise Business Incubator welcomes more tech entrepreneurs, founders like Sandone, Skoff, and Sensi are laying the foundation for the economic growth they hope the tech community will provide.
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