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Drawing up their business was harder than they thought

Four years ago, Erick Cleckner was sitting next to his friend, Dave Chenell, in a class at Syracuse University. But they weren't exactly paying attention.

"[We were] just drawing in our notebooks instead of taking notes," remembers Cleckner. "And we were arguing about whose drawing would win a fight."

Their debate about whose character would triumph didn't end when class was dismissed. Cleckner and Chenell started working on a digital battlefield where their sketches could actually engage in battle.

Wakeup call

That summer, Cleckner, Chenell and a third friend, Sam Skelton, enrolled in a student business accelerator program called the Student Sandbox to try and jumpstart GraFighters.

This time they took the teachings from mentors and advisors seriously. But creating their own business startup was harder than they thought.

"It’s funny because when we first started we thought we were going to launch in six months and then it took three years," says Chenell. "It was a wakeup call to how hard it really is to start businesses. The whole process just takes a lot longer than you think it will."

The site is now up and running with about 20,000 users.

The premise is pretty simple: You take a picture of a doodle and upload it to the GraFighters site. After spending a few minutes telling the game where your character's arms and legs are, the computer animates it and determines its attributes, like strength and intelligence, based on the drawing.

Then it's time to take on other characters in the GraFighters universe. Fights take about 20 seconds and your creation earns points if it wins.

Father Christmas

But launching a site doesn't mean the hard part is over, especially for a startup. Constantly raising money is just one of many challenges.

GraFighters tried to initially raise cash through the online donation site KickStarter, but they fell a little short. That is, until they 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,’" says Chenell. "We thought 'This isn’t real. This is spam. What is this?'"

But the gift was real. Father Christmas cut the team a check for $200,000. Still, that cash infusion only lasted so long.

"Then it was reality and we actually had to raise money and find people and pitch," Chenell says. "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 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. "You think you're going to take the world over, but the majority of startup experiences aren't like that."

Startup America is a foundation-backed group that helps cultivate entrepreneurship across the country.

Half of all startups don't last five years, according to Harris.

"There’s a point that happens where sort of the reality of the work that’s involved sets in," she says.

The best way for startups to push through slumps, recommends Harris, is for companies to surround themselves with other startups.

"So that they have people who have more experience than them that know what they should and shouldn’t be doing to grow their business," says Harris.

The GraFighters team is now doing just that. Their office in the Tech Garden incubator is not only down the hall from BrandYourself, a startup and fellow accelerator program participant, but several of the guys are housemates.

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

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