RDU Airport Sign

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Imagine, if you will, the Raleigh-Durham entrepreneurial ecosystem some 10-or-so years down the road. What does it look like?

First off, there should be at least a dozen monster exits between now and then. I, for one, would like to see Automated Insights go public. That’d be awesome. Maybe WedPics becomes the Google for weddings, or tacos, or both. Heivly, Neal and Hazeltine from The Startup Factory are lighting cigars with hundred dollar bills on stage at the ExitEvent MegaSocial, which is like Disrupt but isn’t all corporate and has free beer. And the yeti from SnapYeti hits the road to promote the second sequel in the movie trilogy, having taken the place of Spongebob in the hearts of children around the globe.

Something crazy like that. 

Now ask yourself this: Are you leading this third decade of the startup revolution in this region?

Because you should be.

If you go back 10 years from today, the leaders of the nascent startup scene in the Triangle weren’t the same people who have their foot on the gas pedal today. Very few of the companies we think about when we think about startup here had been formed or were even ideas prior to 2010. 

Hell, a bunch of the players didn’t even live here in 2005. A couple hadn’t graduated from high school yet.

I consider myself lucky to have been in startup here for a long time. The changes just in those years have been exponential. A lot of people got out when it sucked, and that was fine, because the region got the talent it needed to convert a city known primarily and only for “quality of life” or “nice weather” to a startup hotspot.

The region is going to need new talent to shepherd it into the 2020s, and that talent is going to come from the pool of hundreds of early stage startups populating the dark halls of American Underground and the much brighter halls of Main and AU Raleigh and HQ Raleigh as well as garages and guest bedrooms across the area and even the dank and grey cubicles of our IBMs and other tech behemoths.

My point is, it’s not me who is going to found the next ExitEvent. Sure, that needs to keep growing and maturing, along with the TSFs and NC IDEAs and Groundworks, HQs and so on, but the next ExitEvent, the next American Underground, the next whatever it is that the next wave of entrepreneurs will need to get from point B to point C, that’s going to come from out of left field.

And, hey, you’re in left field. 

I didn’t have a huge mind-blowing exit under my belt when I started ExitEvent. I own one car (well, two with the wife), my home is modest and I don’t belong to any club or society. I’m still rocking the Xbox 360. 

But I’ve done pretty good for myself. I didn’t need a stamp of Valley-level validation before I got out and started talking about startup like I meant it. And when I go back and look on it, I didn’t need to jump through a bunch of hoops before I started my most recent company, or for that matter my first company. I just went out and did it. 

That same kind of motivation is going to create the next most helpful thing for this startup environment. It’s not going to come from government—believe me. It’s not going to be a plucky and brilliant Chamber of Commerce. We got lucky with that. It’s not going to be a non-profit or a slice off of some foundation or corporation or some program that someone invents in another city and brings here.

It’s going to come from you. And no one is going to see it coming.

Along those same lines, it’s not going to be a meetup or a Social—that’s been done. And if you remember back some three years ago, once ExitEvent got traction, there were about a dozen of those kinds of things that popped up overnight. They’re gone. It’s probably not going to be a media source. Laura and ExitEvent have got a solid handle on that. 

Furthermore, the time isn’t right for those things anymore. The region has matured. And so have the needs of the startup community.

But it still has needs.

It could be new VC funds, or new angel funds, or a new set of angels. Maybe that South-by-Southeast thing will finally come together. Whatever it is, it may not make a big noise, especially at first, but it could gain momentum. That’s how we got the direct flight to San Francisco, and now we have two.

But one thing is for sure. Before it happens, we need the next generation of startup leaders to self-identify and try all kinds of stuff. ExitEvent was also not my first-and-only attempt at creating more cohesion here. I tried all kinds of stupid crap, and none of it worked until I got the idea for free beer and a database.

What’s going to spark you to lead for the next 10 years?