Downtown Wilmington

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When people talk about business opportunity in North Carolina, they’re typically referring to the strong business communities in Charlotte and the Raleigh-Durham area. But thanks to a blooming innovation ecosystem in southeastern NC, that is starting to change. 
 
Here’s a list of eight game-changer companies riding the wave out of Wilmington and into the rest of the world: 
 

Connected Investors 

Because real estate investment is naturally a network-oriented space, where buyers, sellers and investors come together to make a deal, Ross Hamilton hoped to translate this system digitally to increase the number of opportunities and connections. 

This would not only boost his own endeavors, it would also accelerate real estate investment statewide, then even nation-wide. 
 
After earning significant profit from a fix-and-flip property in 2005, Hamilton decided to launch his own website called Connected Investors, where buyers, sellers,and funders can all negotiate transactions in an online marketplace. The company specializes in residential properties, whether fix-and-flip or buy-and-hold. 

Ross Hamilton Connected Investors
Ross Hamilton founded Connected Investors in 2005 and has built it into a national platform, based in Wilmington.
Connected Investors launched at a difficult time, just three years before the housing market collapse, but the company has forged ahead and managed to exceed even Hamilton’s own predictions—he has recently received multiple buyout offers. Hamilton has also expanded to real estate crowdfunding, as his website now displays a summary of offers from each crowdfunding portal (i.e, Fundrise), saving a potential investor from hours of sifting through hundreds of individual portals. 
 
As for southeastern NC’s economic hopes, Hamilton brags that he’s more optimistic than ever, because success breeds success. He points to people like Brett Martin, CEO of CastleBranch, whose success led to his founding of tekMountain, a local technology incubator and accelerator. 
 
“So many smart and well-connected people are having the right conversations that lead to where we all want Wilmington to be—a place for young professionals to build a business and a life for themselves,” Hamilton says. “I don’t have to worry anymore about my kids growing up and carving out a career here.” 
 

Petrics, Inc. 

Imagine a pet food bowl that opens when your pet walks up to it, then closes when your pet finishes. No more of the dog eating all the cat food. 
 
Now imagine that you can program the food bowl for auto-feeding, which means breaking up fewer large meals into more small meals a day—the healthiest way for your pet to eat. It also means you don't have to worry about stopping home multiple times per day. And all of this is controlled by a wireless collar device and a mobile app. 

Petrics logo
 
When Edward Hall developed this specialized feeding system, the flagship product for Petrics, Inc., he had his mother in mind—she owns three cats and one dog (They loved to eat each other’s food and were very overweight). But soon he realized that his product could not only prevent overeating and unwanted food-sharing, it could also provide pet owners with warning signs for serious health conditions. With this early intervention system, owners have access to data about their pet’s eating behaviors, so that bad habits can be recognized and remedied immediately. 
 
Recently, Petrics, Inc. was one of five companies selected from a pool of 230 to participate in Flywheel’s New Venture Startup Challenge in Winston-Salem. Petrics was also one of six teams selected for the Startup Showcase at NC Tech Association’s annual State of Technology conference. Four of those were from Wilmington. 
 

Lookout Capital 

After helping companies like MCNC, NC IDEA and IDEA Fund Partners get off the ground in North Carolina, Merrette Moore started his own investment firm in 2010. 
 
Originally, Lookout Capital aimed to fill the gap between venture capital and private equity. Moore worked to provide growth capital for companies in any industry with between $1 million and $5 million in annual revenue: companies that had product on the ground, had sales, maybe weren’t profitable yet, but still had enough momentum to invest in. But, because Lookout Capital expanded its investor base so quickly, Moore decided to foray into the private equity world. 
 
“We went from taking less than 50% ownership in companies to taking majority ownership in companies that were worth at least $10 million,” Moore says. 

Merrette Moore Lookout Capital
Merrette Moore is founder and CEO of Lookout Capital, a private equity firm with presence in Raleigh and Wilmington.
With company headquarters in Raleigh, Moore moved to Wilmington about a year ago and, because of his background in venture capital, has since made inroads into the local entrepreneurial community. 
 
“We deal a lot with family-owned companies,” Moore says. “The reason buying companies is a good idea right now is that baby boomers are retiring. For many owners, the only way to exit is to sell their company, and that’s a macro trend we’re trying to take advantage of right now.” 
 
After only a short time in Wilmington, Moore’s professional experience tells him he’s in the right place. 
 
“A lot of people look at Raleigh like it’s the Holy Grail. But Wilmington has a pretty good chance to be successful on its own terms,” he says. 
 

Long Business Advisors 

As Wilmington continues to grow, it’s vital to have mentors in place to help individual companies scale. And that’s what Ellen Long, COO of Long Business Advisors, and her father Randy do. Their company ensures business owners get the maximum value when exiting or transitioning to other family members. While in an initial startup phase, general legal counsel may suffice, but once companies hit around the $2 million in sales threshold, more complexity and expertise is needed. 
 
“Sometimes we find businesses that will employ a real estate lawyer for advice in a completely different field,” Ellen Long says. “We vet professionals for these businesses to make sure they’re getting the best possible counsel.” 

Ellen Long Long Business Advisors
Ellen Long is COO of Long Business Advisors, a business consulting practice based in Wilmington.
Dealing mostly with office mergers and acquisitions, Long Business Advisors has seen a dramatic shift in Wilmington clientele over the past five years. 

“We dealt initially with blue collar business owners,” Long says. “Now we’re seeing so many 30- to 40-year-old software company CEOs. It’s incredible.” 

Long also admits that, if you spend enough time around her and her father, they’ll probably convince you to start your own business.
 
“The world has the idea that the pie is only so big, that there’s only so much to go around. Let’s make the pie bigger,” she says. 
 

ServiceWhale 

For big ticket services like roofing and HVAC replacement, ServiceWhale offers a single marketplace that streamlines what was once a months-long negotiation process into just a few minutes. No more inviting over five different contractors to bid. No more sales pitches and perplexing estimates. 

“What we noticed was that really standard information goes into generating quotes for any of these services,” says Aaron Rovner, VP of business development and marketing. 

ServiceWhale Aaron Rovner
Aaron Rovner is vice president of business development and marketing at ServiceWhale. Credit: ServiceWhale
Here’s how it works. First, let’s say you’re interested in replacing a roof. On ServiceWhale’s website, you enter your zip code, the type of service you’re requesting and what date you’d like to have it finished by. 
 
After entering specifics about your house dimensions and construction (don’t worry, there are visuals to help you along the way), you’re immediately given access to standard quotes from all participating contractors in your area. Even better, each quote offers two versions—the full amount and the financed amount (for projects costing $1000+), along with a complete itemization of parts and service costs down to the penny. All of this is available with zero-risk, no-money-down booking. 
 
ServiceWhale also offers a white label version of the software that contractors can license from the company to quote projects from their own websites in a non-competitive model. 
 
Regardless, none of your information is shared with the network of contractors, as a ServiceWhale concierge calls you up and acts as an intermediary. You are, however, welcome to contact any contractor on your own, and the website offers a ranked-up-to-the-minute business profile for each contractor.  
“Negotiation is built into the model,” Rovner says. “We’re just expediting the existing process, because the existing process works.” 
 
ServiceWhale handles the New York City, Boston, Washington D.C. and Philadelphia areas today, but it’s got much bigger plans. 
 
“We’ve only been operating for about a year, and we just expanded our contractor network by 35% in the past two months,” Rovner says. “It’s not unrealistic to say we’ll be operating nearly nationwide within a year.” 
 

SISDigital 

Founded by Ty Downing in 2005, SISDigital is a full-service digital advertising agency that also offers training courses and eLearning modules for businesses. The company’s primary focus is providing customized strategies that encompass social media, web design, branding and advertising, while remaining easily adaptable to the constant shifts in today’s marketing trends. 
 
Downing stresses the importance of video in social media marketing for 2016. 
 
“Whether it’s third-party apps, live feeds of Facebook and Periscope, it’s not just about using them—it’s about measuring them,” Downing says. “We’re very metric-oriented. If it’s not serving a purpose for what your company’s end goal is, then why do it?” 

Ty Downing SISDigital
Ty Downing is founder and CEO of SISDigital, a full service digital agency in Wilmington, NC.
Downing also points to virtual reality as another incredible game-changer, as the company is currently in talks with an NBA team to provide a two-phase experience for fans. 
 
“Phase one: we offer a 3D tour of the arena to give visuals of where people can sit and to help sell box seats, visit player locker rooms, along with the stadium as a whole, “ Downing says. “Phase two: we integrate fan experience of an actual live game.” 
 
After 10 years of operation, SISDigital has scaled from servicing mom-and-pops to medium-sized and enterprise businesses, including two Fortune 200 companies, as well as the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, one of the largest nonprofit cancer research and treatment associations in America. 

SISDigital also serves as one of tekMountain’s mentors, offering guidance and advice for Wilmington startups as they continue to scale. Though these young businesses may not yet be the size of SISDigital’s usual clientele, this mentorship introduces them to the necessary social media presence, competition research and business optimization that continual success and growth will require. 
 

Local Market Launch 

For most small businesses, serious growth happens first in their hometown, and Local Market Launch was founded to help speed up that process. Started in Santa Barbara, CA in 2012, the company specializes in boosting the presence of businesses across digital channels like yellow page services, review monitoring (Yelp, Trip Advisor, Facebook, etc.), maps and GPS systems, and any other mobile app or local directory site. 
 
Local Market Launch works both with digital marketing and advertising companies, and businesses that do their own outreach and advertising in-house, all through a customized platform called LaunchPad. 

Brooke Henderson Local Market Launch
Brooke Henderson is vice president of sales and marketing at Local Market Launch's East Coast office in Wilmington.
Brooke Henderson, executive vice president of sales and marketing, has only been with the company since September 2015, and she’s already seen tremendous growth. Just over two months ago, Local Market Launch opened its east coast office here in Wilmington. 
 
“I originally joined the company to do business development and sales,” Henderson says, “but the demand was there, and we had to grow the company quickly. So here we are now on the other side of the U.S.” 
 
Henderson is also excited about the tech talent coming out of local schools like UNCW and Cape Fear Community College
 
“Most of our employees are from the University of California-Santa Barbara,” Henderson says. “And hopefully we can continue that trend here in Wilmington.” 
 

DesignLoud 

“When I first started, it was off a whim,” DesignLoud founder Derek Schmidt says. “I was a one-man freelance show until I asked where I wanted to take this.” 
 
And thus, Schmidt’s digital agency has in five years gone from servicing local startups to dealing with small- to medium-sized businesses that run multiple locations and have significant shareholders within their companies. 
 
Offering such services as web design, graphic design, digital marketing, web development, photography and videography, copywriting, mobile apps and website training, DesignLoud delivers on its promise with a six-point process. 
 
“Discover. Define. Design. Deploy. Develop. Then, we can finally market,” Schmidt says. 

Derek Schmidt DesignLoud Agency
Derek Schmidt is president and founder of the Wilmington digital agency DesignLoud.
Having such a blueprint is vital, Schmidt believes, because otherwise the end goals of a client may not be properly articulated. The more clarity of vision between agency and client, the more efficient and successful the process. 
 
And his strategy has paid off. 
 
“After January 2011, because of the nation’s slow economic recovery, the company where I worked full-time was cutting back everyone’s hours,” Schmidt says. “I asked to be laid off so I could fully focus on DesignLoud. Each year since then, we’ve doubled or tripled our revenue.” 
 

Onward and upward

As southeastern NC continues to innovate and provide key baseline services to help startups scale their businesses, it’s only a matter of time until Wilmington gets recognized as an up-and-coming U.S. tech hub.