Why Tech Shouldn't Be the Only Startup Game in Town - 1

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When I first decided to take ExitEvent seriously as a startup resource, the first person I called was Erik Myers who, in full disclosure, is a long-time friend of mine who happened to be gaining a ton of quiet traction getting Mystery Brewing out of his kitchen.

Erik, whom I've written about a couple times, is a former techie who had a greater passion for brewing beer, but also retained an entrepreneur's business acumen and lean startup drive. When I told him my idea for ExitEvent—which at that point was essentially getting all the smart entrepreneurs into the same room once a month and just letting them do their own thing—I honestly expected some pragmatism.

But he was all in. Not because of me (trust me on that one), but because he thought it was a good idea. He probably would have reached out to the local entrepreneurs and investors on his own at some point.

The Quest for Relevance

Last week, Bill Bing wrote this quality piece calling for the startup communities across the Triangle to start working together more closely. And while my view may not be as dour as his on the subject, he makes an extremely valid point towards the end:

"For all the progress that North Carolina has made, the fact remains we are still borderline irrelevant outside of the Southeast from an investor perspective."

Yeah. Ask any founder at one of our high-tech-high-growth startups. We're doing really good, wonderfully good, extremely satisfactory. But we could be doing better.

Now, ask any brewing startup founder, gaming startup founder, or retail startup founder the same question. Unless they're wearing carolina-blue-colored glasses or just aren't far enough along for it to matter, you'll likely get the same answer.

North Carolina is killing it in beer, was and might still be one of the top game development centers in the nation, and has a growing number of startups playing in non-software-as-a-non-service.

But outside of the area, unless you're one of those people who doggedly follows those "Top 10 Places for [Insert Demo Here] to [Insert Dream Here]" listicles, very few know about it.

Bing then goes on to present what he (rightly) sees as one of the reasons we can't get past the traction ceiling as a region.

"We have a bunch of great groups, but no one wants to share information, best practices, resources, contacts, demo days, and so forth."

That's when it hit me. We're seeing a growing bond between the aforementioned verticals in our startup environment. But we could be doing more.

And to me, that's just as important as all three metros working together, if not more so.

South By SouthWhat?

Consider this bright spot. Over the last four years, most of our local startup events have been fueled by local craft brew. As this relationship has expanded, where we are today is that more than one of the new breweries that have sprung up over the last two years have local angel investors on board.

Seeing that relationship between tech and beer blossom, it sort of baffles me that every and any startup event in the region doesn't fold in breweries, food and drink startups, gaming, and retail -- at a minimum.

And vice-versa.

The Triangle is just now on a cusp where if we host a big startup thing (Paradoxos), a big beer event (pick one), a big gaming event (ECGC), a big whatever, we'll get a couple thousand people through the gate, some local press, and usually many happy returns from an event that is well done and presents the best of what we have to offer in that particular vertical.

To locals.

That said, Autumn is upon us, and with it (invariably) comes the talk of starting the Triangle's very own version of South by Southwest. This is usually tied to Hopscotch, the Triangle's own version of... well... the original South by Southwest.

But that analogy only sounds right because SXSW was a music festival first, and the addition of the digital track was happenstance, not a natural outgrowth. Believe me, I know. I've been in bands here most of my life and I dabbled in the South-by-Triangle talk early on in ExitEvent's life.

Music and tech go hand-in-hand in Austin (to an extent). They do no such thing here.

But you know what does go hand-in-hand with tech here? Well, that's something else I learned in the three years trying to wrangle these groups together.

Go With What You Know

Obviously, Beer. And this shouldn't be downplayed. The community that the brewery vertical has fostered here is top-notch, and almost makes the startup community look downright apathetic.

Furthermore, when ExitEvent reached out to Mystery, Fortnight, Lone Rider, Crank Arm, Top of the Hill, Fullsteam, they were welcoming, helpful, and eager to participate.

If you're putting together a "How to do Startup" program, get Erik or Lone Rider's Sumit to come and talk. High capital expenditures, big barriers to entry, tons of competition -- these folks solve these problems before they pour their first pint.

Food and Drink. For the first few ExitEvent Startup Socials, I tried hard and repeatedly to get food trucks to show up. The trend was just underway at the time and it seemed like food trucks lined up neatly, just like the brewers.

This didn't work. For various reasons.

But there are a ton of restaurants springing up in downtown Durham and downtown Raleigh, where the startup communities have gelled. There are also startups like Mati Energy, and founder Tatiana Birgisson has probably elevator-pitched more times than she can recount. Just like a high tech startup founder.

Gaming truly stumps me. I've been to every East Coast Game Conference, I know a handful of small shop founders, and I've written about local gaming a dozen times or so. I haven't cracked the puzzle of getting the gamers more involved at startup events and vice versa. I don't know if it's about the fragmentation of the industry or just an independent streak. Maybe it's like biotech, where those folks really don't see the need to interact with other verticals.

Anyway, I used to see a number of homegrown independent gaming startup events and I don't any more. Maybe someone can fill me in, because I feel like the region is missing out here.

On the other side, I think Retail is on the upswing. Think hardware like GoPro or even local mainstays Thundershirt. There were early initiatives, like Adam Klein's Bull City Startup Stampede when he was at the Durham Chamber, and REDii, Raleigh's fashion incubator (which it seems has died out).

But like those initiatives, most of the retail startup community is tied to the traditional Chamber of Commerce programs. And while I'm a fan of Chambers, I've always tried to at least classify retail startups that come into ExitEvent for a merge into the high-tech-high-growth population.

The time is right for that, just as it is for any of the other three verticals to participate in one giant customer-and-revenue-focused Triangle startup community. There's a lot to be learned, a lot of connections to be made, and a lot more bang for the buck when these ecosystems come together.

And that's not even considering the universities, the aforementioned biotech and healthcare, the service industries, ed-tech, even bitcoin. The question is -- as it always is and always has been during the three years I've been asking it -- How?

We're still a ways off from a South by Triangle, but if we continue reaching out from one niche to the other, whether that's a few retail demo tables at a tech startup conference, high-tech startup founders speaking at Chamber events, or Mati right there next to whatever big energy drink sponsor winds up at ECGC, then that's a start.