So, I’m from Ohio. Cincinnati actually. And it won’t take longer than 10 minutes of conversation for me to relate a business, person, landmark, food or product back to my hometown in some way, much to the dismay of my Floridian husband.
I introduce myself this way because it’s taken some time for me to feel love for the Triangle like I feel for home. But when Adam Klein called me six weeks ago and offered me an opportunity that would connect me even more to this place, something hit me.
I actually like it here. And Adam’s pitch got me excited.
In the 15 months since Raleigh became home, so many cool things had happened. And I’m not just referring to my newfound love for collard greens.
Because startups have been my thing, I’d learned of companies and people doing groundbreaking things, WedPics with wedding photography, Republic Wireless with cell phones, Automated Insights with machine learning, UNC and Duke researchers with HIV prevention.
HUB Raleigh opened, got a new name and soon, will double in size downtown. ChannelAdvisor went public and Digitalsmiths sold. Citrix Sharefile grew by dozens of new employees and changed the downtown Raleigh cityscape with its soon-to-open new building.
American Underground expanded, twice. And its partnership with Google for Entrepreneurs earned the region national prestige. I got to demo Google Glass in Durham before most of the rest of the world.
There were first-time events like Paradoxos that drew crowds across state lines. And Research Triangle Park got us all hoping for more collaboration between the most innovative corporations and startups around (and I secretly hope the redevelopment makes it easier to figure out which building is which).
But part of my excitement was also around the ways the Triangle startup community hasn’t yet arrived. Its greatest challenges and biggest opportunities would inspire the work of ExitEvent in the months and years to come.
So that leads me to the point of this first column. After a year of observing, comparing and learning to appreciate BBQ as much as chili seasoned with cinnamon (a Cincinnati staple), I feel somewhat equipped to call out the bests and not yets of the Triangle entrepreneurial community.
And to fill any gaps in my thinking, I’ve talked with a handful of local entrepreneurs and VCs over the last month to get their take on the state of startups here.
So here goes:
It’s entrepreneur-led. Sure, it might sound good when Congress members show up to meet the people building companies at the new 1776 co-working space in Washington D.C., or for the Mayor of San Francisco to incubate startups at City Hall. But the most by-in from entrepreneurs comes when others like them inspire it. I’m thinking of Zappos’s Tony Hsieh, who is reinventing Las Vegas for early-stage businesses and their families, Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert who is buying up buildings and investing in startups in Detroit and Rackspace founder Graham Weston, who is An entrepreneur-driven event in Nebraska, Big Omaha, draws Silicon Valley and New York big wigs to the Midwest. Here, it’s evident in the growth of co-working spaces and accelerators, the attendance at Triangle Entrepreneur Week, ExitEvent’s Socials and RTP’s 180 events and in the ways seasoned entrepreneurs help less-seasoned ones.
People want to be here. Maybe it’s the beaches and mountains nearby, the cost of living, the universities or weather. Regardless, people are moving here. And some of them have the talent and skill for startups. Chris Heivly of The Startup Factory told me he’d met with at least a dozen executive-level individuals in the last three months with plans to move to the area and work in a startup. Companies here have little trouble finding smart and trainable students and qualified technology talent. Yet, there’s not so much competition (Like in the Valley, NYC or Boston) that they can’t keep their best people around.
The region is more mature; there have been successes. Forget the bubble era, this region has five and 10-year-old companies that are profitable and thriving, and their executives are willing to lend their knowledge and experience to newbies. They also often invest in younger companies or start new ones after they successfully exit. This is different from the nascent startup communities of Nashville, Washington D.C., Las Vegas, Miami. There’s a whole tier of businesses that could follow the path of iContact, Sharefile, ChannelAdvisor or Digitalsmiths in coming years.
The Not Yets
Diversity. Yes, this is a problem everywhere but I’ve yet to see any real focus on improving it here. In fact, I’ve heard some horror stories about the ways women founders have been treated in this community. And I’ve met few non-white startup founders or executives. A few of us females working in startups have committed to meeting regularly to help each other and build camaraderie, but I hope there will be more efforts to educate female and minority groups and students about entrepreneurship, and to support and promote their ventures.
College students, campuses excited about startups. This isn’t a knock on the universities here in town. They all have programs to help their students learn entrepreneurship. But a small percentage of each university’s population is actually forgoing traditional routes like grad school, corporate finance or marketing to work for startups or start their own companies. John Austin at Groundwork Labs told me about the summer program he holds for promising student teams—putting the winners of local business plan competitions in the room with Groundwork’s portfolio companies to see what it’s really like to build a company. More students need to live the life. And universities need to find new ways of spinning out research and inventions into actual companies (vs. just licensing to major corporations). Most professors don’t want to start companies, so how can the region match entrepreneurs with the most promising commercial opportunities?
Corporate involvement, investment and acquisition. Where are the Red Hats and SASs and Crees and IBMs in the startup community? And I’m not talking about sponsoring big events like the Internet Summit or organizations like CED. Executives at these companies need to be engaged in the startup community, piloting new products, serving as mentors, vetting companies for acquisition, making introductions to their customers. Every startup needs customers and partnerships to succeed, and it’s silly if they can’t find corporate champions in their own back yard.
Capital. Yes, I know this is obvious. And pretty much every part of the country besides Silicon Valley would use this as an excuse. But there are some real things we can do locally to attract more investment. In Cincinnati, a public-private venture capital firm formed a network of several dozen high-net-worth individuals who’d never invested in startups before. A lot of those connections came through corporate involvement in the community. And there are a lot of wealthy people here that might just need to be introduced to the entrepreneurs in town. Finally, entrepreneurs need to have a national view on raising capital, doing what it takes to get introductions to VCs outside the region. Leave town sometimes, build your network nationally. Then come back and build your company here.
You might disagree with me on these, and I welcome that. Please email me and tell me what I have wrong or what I’m missing. I know there are plenty of stories left to tell about this region, and I hope to carry on Joe Procopio’s mission to make ExitEvent the place to share them.
My goal for ExitEvent is to be a forum for debate, discussion, investigation and celebration. And I hope, through storytelling, we can help entrepreneurs build bigger, better companies that create jobs and impact both the region and the world.
To help me out on this mission or to share a story, suggest a topic or write a column, please email me at [email protected]