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Successful, Young And - Gone?


February 12, 2008

We keep hearing how young people can't get out of Connecticut fast enough, but Chris Colamussi and Anoop Frank showed me just what's at stake here.

I ran into the two young men Colamussi is 27 and Frank is 30 at the Obama rally in Hartford. They could be the poster boys for a Connecticut future in which, as author and columnist Thomas Friedman reminds us, the world is flat.

Energetic, creative and committed to their successful software company, autofunds.com, Colamussi and Frank could stay here and build their business.

But as they consider the best location for their business, they might leave.

This wouldn't be surprising, given the estimates that this state is going to be one giant assisted-living facility by 2030.

Technically, their business is based on Long Island, but they spend most of their time here, farming out work to India when they are not signing up auto dealers to use their software.

In just a few years, these Worcester Polytechnic Institute graduates have taken Frank's idea, comprehensive software that helps car dealers run all aspects of their businesses, and created a company with 600 clients in 16 states.

No doubt there will be other ideas and new markets for them as they grow.

Autofunds.com is the kind of 2008 business you expect to emerge from Silicon Valley or along Route 128 outside of Boston. Except that it's right here, nestled away in the sprawl around the Buckland Hills mall. Bright guys with technical and business savvy, using credit cards and loans from family as financing, they've spun an inspiration into a successful, promising company.

They like it here, sort of. It's a great place for their business to grow. They're finding lots of customers. It's close to New York and Boston. It's also boring.

"We are trying to figure out whether we should stay here," said Frank, who is from India and here on a visa.

But this where it gets complicated, because for these guys the Olive Garden does not make for a night out. They tell me that they can't find the cool neighborhoods, with shops and restaurants and twentysomethings, where they could hang out and maybe actually meet other people who have big ideas and ambition.

With all these colleges UConn, UofH, Trinity, Central Colamussi and Frank asked me, where are the young people? I could only tell them about West Hartford Center, where there are lots of cautious 40- and 50-year-old guys with wives, kids and mortgages.

"We need people who are willing to take a risk, to take a gamble," Frank responded.

They want to buy property but in New York there are state government incentives that will reward them if they invest. And then there is the traffic and lack of mass transportation.

"Another thing that puts me off is I-95. It could be 3 o'clock in the morning and you are just sitting in traffic," Frank told me when we met to talk the other day.

It's no secret that we aren't doing enough to make Connecticut more attractive to young people, that our top elected leaders still don't grasp how serious a problem this is.

Still, I told Frank and Colamussi that there are people who understand their issues, who want more incentives for developers to create housing and affordable office space in cities, who want to create neighborhoods around train stations and expand mass transit. There are business leaders, like the executive at Aetna I talked with, who told me that keeping young men and women here should be one of our biggest priorities.

"We are like old people in an old mansion," said Matthew Nemerson, president of the Connecticut Technology Council. "We [should] be out there financing companies that would otherwise be in Cambridge. We have to treat the potential high-growth companies, even if they only are two people, like they are gold."

Frank and Colamussi, who might already have struck gold, will face a decision someday soon.

"I keep thinking," Frank said before we parted and he left for a meeting in San Francisco, "is it Long Island or is it Connecticut?"

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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