Philadelphia might not be the first city you think of when starting a business as a budding entrepreneur. However, the emerging business scene and growing number of startups in Philly means that there are plenty of opportunities for a breakout business or innovative idea.
We interviewed three founders and CEOs from Philadelphia companies to find out how they started and grew their businesses. They also share startup resources that they recommend any new entrepreneurs utilize in Philly.
AJ Bruno – QuotaPath
After leaving his first company in 2019, AJ Bruno co-founded QuotaPath along with Cole Evetts and Eric Heydenberk. It’s a commission tracking tool for salespeople, used to motivate and retain top talent with real-time insights into revenue and earnings.
Bruno was inspired growing up by an entrepreneurial father who started his own production studio and an uncle who ran a successful business. “From observing him, I wanted to make sure that I went down a similar path to founding my own company,” says Bruno.
Now with his own successful business, Bruno enjoys being a proactive member of the entrepreneurial community of Philadelphia. He has invested in a dozen startups and serves as a mentor to many more. He also acts as a Board Member for Philly Startup Leaders and is an alumnus of Dreamit Ventures.
Bruno describes Philly as having an emerging startup culture. “It’s been emerging for a few years now and I think we’re waiting for a couple of founders to break through that ceiling and get to an exit that allows for liquidity for investors and employees to invest in the ecosystem,” says Bruno.
For now, the city certainly isn’t over-saturated with entrepreneurs. In fact, it has a low percentage of self-employed residents compared to other major U.S. cities, with just 5.6 percent of residents claiming to be self-employed, according to Pew Trusts.
However, one of the real benefits of starting a business in Philadelphia is that it’s “a real city, and with real cities, you have a diversity of industries, which is great,” believes Bruno. This means there are plenty of opportunities, especially for networking. But you must be prepared for a long game. “You don’t launch a startup to get rich. You do it to learn. You have to have passion for what you’re doing 100 percent of the time,” says Bruno.
George Melillo – Heart + Paw
Heart + Paw began because George Melillo saw a need and desire to serve pets and their parents like family. Melillo first worked at a multi-doctor practice for many years before starting his own practice in 1990. He then went on to be part of two successful startups in the pharmaceutical sector and worked at a large corporate veterinary practice before finally starting Heart + Paw in 2018.
While Melillo had prior experience with startups, it really came down to him identifying a problem and wanting to provide a solution within the veterinary industry. “The profession is plagued by burnout, compassion fatigue, debt burden and most sadly, one of the highest suicide rates in healthcare. The driving force for starting Heart + Paw was to create a place where veterinarians, licensed technicians and animal care providers can practice happily, healthily and successfully in communities for generations of pet owners,” said Melillo.
While it might not have a buzzing entrepreneurial spirit like other cities such as Austin, Melillo believes that Philadelphia has plenty going for it. “The diversity of talent, the resilience of the people and the sense of always being a bit of an underdog, are traits that I feel make Philadelphia a great place to start a business,” said Melillo.
He also highlighted that it’s an accessible and affordable city to see fast growth. Melillo’s business alone expanded from having its first hospital in June 2019 to opening three brand new centers in February and March of 2020.
In a study by Economy League on Philadelphia’s economic competitiveness, they found that despite having a low number of small and private businesses, the city has an average annual growth rate of 5.7 percent, which is more than double the national average. This means that if you’re planning on starting a small business in Philadelphia, you’re looking at a very favorable growth potential compared to other major cities.
Janet Wischnia – American Blossom Linens and Thomaston Mills
Janet Wischnia was born into the textile and manufacturing business, but she has been able to put her own mark on it, too. From the time she was five years old, she has memories of her dad and grandfather grooming her to take on the family business. Her grandfather started a retail linen company in 1931 in downtown Philadelphia. When her father and uncles took on the business, they transformed it into a wholesale distributor of textiles and later linen manufacturer.
While Wischnia has worked in the business all her life, she decided to take her career in a new direction in 2019. She stepped down as president and decided to work on a new brand, American Blossom Linens, which sells bedding made completely in the USA from 100 percent cotton grown in West Texas.
While she admits founding a startup within an already established company is a slightly different experience, her biggest challenge has been believing in herself and having to learn new things and get out of her comfort zone.
“Frankly, having a mission is so crucial because it helps you to get over the self-doubt and gets you back on track. The main thing that keeps me moving forward is focusing on our mission to create jobs in the USA and having gratitude for all those that are on the team and the customers who care so much,” said Wischnia.
She may not have had to rely as much on the startup community in Philadelphia as others, but Wischnia describes it as being active and robust. She highlighted a variety of networking connections she made in the city to help her get the new brand off the ground and seen. Wischnia met her PR firm and marketing firm all through networking and contacts in the city. “As our mission is to make products locally, I also believe in trying to use local services as well,” said Wischnia.
Startup Resources for Entrepreneurs in Philadelphia
If you’re based in Philly and want to leverage some of the exciting opportunities and networking events, these are some of the great startup resources mentioned and recommended by the experts interviewed.
Philly Startup Leaders: One of the largest and most active communities of startup entrepreneurs in Philly who run educational workshops, mentorships and networking events.
Technial.ly: A news organization that also runs events and services within the technology community and industry.
The Forum of Executive Women: A not-for-profit aimed at bringing together female leaders and professionals. They run events and have a membership program.
Dreamit Ventures: A leading venture fund focused on health tech and secure tech startups with revenue or pilots that are ready to scale.
Huge Potential for Small Businesses in Philadelphia
While the city might not have a reputation as being a business or startup hub, Philly has plenty of potential demonstrated by these three founders. The diversity of the city, huge growth potential and networking support are all reasons that Philadelphia makes a great place to start a business. The latest statistics from CBInsights showing the huge funding jump seen in the last couple of years suggests that investors are finally recognizing the startup potential in Philly, too.
If you're inspired by these entrepreneurs and want to share your story, too, reach out to Incfile. We could feature you and your company in our next story.
Jenna Scatena is a writer and content strategist with a love for stories that have never been told before. More than a decade of working with prominent magazines and brands informs her approach to impactful storytelling. Her stories have reached more than 30 million readers, won multiple awards and been anthologized in books. Jenna's work has appeared in Conde Nast Traveler, Vogue, Marie Claire, The San Francisco, BBC and The Atlantic. She's the founder of the editorial consultancy, Lede Studio.