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GraFighters co-founder Eric Cleckner, right, shares a laugh with fellow entrepreneur and BrandYourself co-founder Patrick Ambron, left. Photo: Ryan Delaney/WRVO
GraFighters co-founder Eric Cleckner, right, shares a laugh with fellow entrepreneur and BrandYourself co-founder Patrick Ambron, left. Photo: Ryan Delaney/WRVO

Drawing up their business was harder than they thought

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A stick-figure here, maybe a monster there: odds are most of us have been bored enough during a meeting or class to take to doodling in our notebooks. Maybe we even wished those drawings could come to life. That wish turned into an entire business platform for one group of friends. But as the Innovation Trail's Ryan Delaney reports, those friends soon learned their dream takes hard work.

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Four years ago, Eric Cleckner was sitting in class at Syracuse University with his friend Dave Chenell, not paying attention.

"Just drawing in our notebooks instead of taking notes and we were arguing about whose drawing would win a fight," said Cleckner. The argument didn't end when class did. The pair began working on building a digital battlefield for their hand-drawn creations.

That summer, Cleckner, Chenell and a third student, Sam Skelton, enrolled in a student business accelerator program called the Student Sandbox. Their goal was to jumpstart GraFighters. This time they did pay attention, but Chenell says creating a startup was harder than they expected. He said, "It's just kind of funny because when we first started we thought we were going to launch in six months and then it took three years. So I think that was just, you know, a wakeup call to how hard it really is to make games and start businesses and the whole process just takes a lot longer than you think it will."

The premise is pretty simple: users take a picture of a doodle and upload it to the GraFighters site. After players tell the game where the character's arms and legs are, the computer animates it and determines its attributes, such as strength and intelligence, based on the drawing. Then it's time for the doodle to take on other characters in the GraFighters universe. Fights take about 20 seconds and creations earns points if they win.

Despite the site being up and running, there are recurring challenges to creating a startup; raising money is one. GraFighters initially tried to raise cash through the online donation site KickStarter. That fell a little short, but Chanell says then they soon got a present.

"We got an email a couple months later from a guy who said he's from Europe and he'd love to invest and he signed it 'Father Christmas,'" said Chenell. "We thought 'this isn't real, this is spam, what is this?'"

The gift was real. Father Christmas wrote them a check for $200,000. Still, that cash infusion only lasted so long. Chenell said, "Then it was reality and we actually had to raise money and find people and pitch that was just a whole different world for us. We thought it was just going to come again in an email, but it doesn't really work out like that."

"When you first launch a company you're just flush with excitement; it's all about new possibilities," says Donna Harris of the Startup America Partnership, a foundation-backed group that helps cultivate entrepreneurship across the country.. "You think you're going to take the world over, but the majority of startup experiences aren't like that."

Only half of all startups make it five years, according to Startup America. Harris says things like having to constantly raise money can be a challenge for founders. She said, "There's a point that happens where sort of the reality of the work that's involved sets in."

According to Harris, one of the best ways for companies to push through that sophomore slump is to be surrounded by other startups. She said, "So that they have people who have more experience than them that know what know what they should and shouldn't be doing to grow their business."

GraFighters is doing just that. Not only is their office in the Tech Garden incubator down the hall from BrandYourself, a startup and fellow accelerator program participant, but also several of the guys are housemates.

GraFighters is also working to add a marketplace to their site for users to purchase weapons and special moves for characters in order to start bringing in revenue. That's because making doodles come to life is exactly what the three entrepreneurs see themselves doing five years from now.

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