Boone NC Mountains

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Here’s a place you don’t often hear associated with startup activity—Watauga County. 

It’s an area snuggled within North Carolina’s Appalachian Mountains that visitors and locals often say is charmingly stuck in the 1970s' hippie years. Alongside its main highway salutes the Watauga County welcome sign. And if you travel this route often, you'll likely notice the “Certified Entrepreneurial Community” label attached to it. That’s a token from 2007, when Advantage West Economic Development Group designated the county a certified area for entrepreneurial activity

Much of Watauga’s creative and innovative energy stems from its own Appalachian State University in Boone. Virtually all of local industry there is homegrown and driven by ASU’s growth. Joseph Furman, director of Watauga County’s Office of Economic Development, says graduates often remain in the area and start their own businesses. 

Many local startup and business founders work with ASU’s Transportation Insight Center for Entrepreneurship, a space where students, faculty, staff and community members can explore entrepreneurship as a viable path for their future. The center’s staff helps them delve deeper into an idea and do research and crunch numbers to determine if there’s a market and viable business model. After this, entrepreneurs can use the center’s office space and other on-campus facilities while center staff connect them with professional services, funding and mentors. 
 
Erich Schlenker, managing director of the center, says, “It’s easy to be excited about ideas and opportunities, but the difference between having success and not having it is being willing to start.”

Among successful businesses out of the center is Corner Tailors, a custom-made clothing company selling affordable, made-to-measurement suits. ASU student Merrick Marquie, a triple major in economics, marketing and management, came up with this idea while abroad in China in 2014 on a business study fellowship. He forgot to pack his business suit, which required he turn to a tailor on the streets of Shanghai. Upon returning home, he realized custom-tailored suits overseas were cheap and thought maybe he could provide the same service to fellow students needing an affordable suit for things like job interviews. 

He has since graduated from ASU but is working as an entrepreneur-in-residence at the Center for Entrepreneurship while he expands the business.

BootstrAPPs store at App State.
Credit: BootstrAPPs
Another startup born at the center is BootstrAPPs, a quirky retail concept led by an executive board, 20 student volunteers and 23 student vendors. With a name that creatively combines the business term "bootstrapps" and ASU's nickname, the business has been more than just word play since its start in 2011. It's a retail store, located in ASU's bookstore, for students to sell their own products (like T-shirts with positive messages and handmade jewelry) and learn what the life of an entrepreneur is really like. 
 
"The premise behind BootstrAPPs is 'student brands, student run, student store,'" Emily Haas, BootstrAPPs manager and senior at ASU, says. 
 
Haas adds that vendors receive 80 percent of their sales, which allows them to reinvest the money into their brands. 
 
"The goal is for them to be able to continue their business when they graduate or take the skills they've learned and translate it into a job or work environment," Haas says.

Credit: Freedom Fish Farm
Paul Heckert is another ASU student making his mark as an entrepreneur, but in a different way. He designed the Freedom Fish Farms program with the help of ASU’s biology department to introduce and manage community fish farms on the perimeter of Lake Peligre in Haiti. The fish are used to feed local families and sold to Port-au-Prince fish markets, helping to spur the local economy. 

Corner Tailors, BootstrAPPs and Freedom Fish Farms are just a few businesses the center has helped since 2007. Schlenker says the center’s staff is working with 120 active projects this school year, as of Feb. 5.

Many of the businesses are still in the planning stages. ASU communication journalism major Hunter Greer, for example, founded the clothing brand Pissed Off Kids during January’s nasty snowstorm. 
 
The brand’s products consist of high-quality, garment-dyed T-shirts with embroidered decoration to ensure “a lasting design that stands the test of time while the shirt itself fades as the wearer breaks it in,” Greer says. 

Pissed Off Kids tshirts
Credit: Pissed Off Kids
Greer is aided by a friend he grew up with—a promoter working for musicians and different talent in Los Angeles. He has high hopes of getting the t-shirts in the hands of some well-known artists and models. 
 
“I fully expect Pissed Off Kids to take off and be a strongly desired label in streetwear culture and the high-fashion industry,” Greer says. “There’s a pissed off kid in all of us, why hide it?” 
 
Though Boone is becoming a place for students interested in starting their own businesses, the area has a tradition of local business enterprise outside of ASU too. An example is the quick growth of local food businesses. Boone placed fifth in the 2013 Nielsen-generated Restaurant Growth Index, skyrocketing from its 37th ranking the previous year. 
 
So what can we make of all the startup energy racing around in Boone? 

According to census data, Watauga County’s population has increased every year since 2004, tracking nicely with its small business network. Though it is not for certain whether these two stats are connected, Wataugans can be sure of one thing—as Furman notes, supporting small businesses is a good strategy.