North Carolina’s biggest startup advocate lives in Wilmington

Did you know the coastal city of Wilmington, N.C., has a thriving entrepreneurial community?  The team at Southern/alpha does, thanks to the town’s biggest advocate, Jim Roberts.

Perhaps Roberts knows a little something about getting to journalists, since he is a proud graduate of the University of Florida’s College of Journalism & Communications, with a degree in advertising. His frequent tweets (from @redspireusnc) to our team have allowed us to become more aware of what is, and is not, being reported from the Tarheel State. Our commitment to covering the South has been better for it; the news of the $1.9 million seed-round raise by Raleigh-based K4Connect (involving a large variety of investors) was brought to our attention by Roberts hours after their announcement.

Roberts has always liked being in the know about what’s next.  Until two weeks before the 1996 Olympics, he lived in Atlanta and worked for The Internet Store, a retail store for all things Internet including class offerings in Internet 101 and an HTML 101. He then relocated to Charlotte, where he started his very first networking organization for startups, FirstRound. With his persistent sales and networking skills, the events got sponsorships from both investors and professional accounting and law firms. FirstRound was in its first year of business, and Roberts at age 30, when he was named one of the 40 under 40 by the Charlotte Business Journal.  The year was 2000.

Then the dot com crash hit.  “After the dot com crash and 9-11, those sponsors wanted NOTHING to do with low cash startups,” recalled Roberts.  But three days after he made the decision to close down FirstRound, a call came from Asheville asking him to help start Blue Ridge Entrepreneurial Council by AdvantageWest, an economic development group serving Western North Carolina. He stayed there for five years.  (After its 21-year run, AdvantageWest is closing its operations at the end of 2015.)

Roberts then made more stops in North Carolina, once with North Carolina’s Department of Commerce in the International Trade Division. He was also recruited to work with the NC Biotech Center, specifically for its Center of Innovation for NanoBiotechnology. “In all of these stops, I have been a relentless networker and relationship builder where I have tried to deliver value to the other connections first,” said Roberts.

Then came his current stop in Wilmington, a city whose riverwalk was named “Best American Riverfront” in 2014 by USA Today.  Recruited by the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, they asked him to rebuild the Center of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, though the center came with a new building.

Roberts immediately noticed something about this town when he arrived in May 2013. “Many people in Wilmington feel a bit isolated at the coast,” said Roberts. “And Wilmington is your typical Southern coastal community that is conservative, and it can take a while to establish trusting relationships where other people will put their name on the line for you. We have people who read the tourism brochures and think it would be a great place to live. While the local economy is diversifying from tourism and the coastal real estate industry, we are just beginning to build the tech infrastructure to support the kinds of jobs that pay the great wages to afford coastal living.”

Within a year of running the CIE, a $100,000 grant from the Small Business Administration was awarded to them during a ceremony at the White House. At the time of Roberts’ departure in March 2015, the accelerator was full, with 42 companies and averaging 115 people per event with standing-room-only crowds.

His current venture is still in helping startups meet one another, but at more casual venue.  At a monthly event at the Ironclad Brewery, well over 100 people come to listen to investors and mentors while meeting potential clients and new connections to resource. “What Wilmington does have is Quality of Place,” said Roberts. “A beach and river town where people love to invite their friends to visit, our town also has a ton of retired business executives who can mentor the young startups.” His upcoming one on Oct. 20 includes a line-up of panelists from the Wireless Research Center of North Carolina, the North Carolina Military Business Center, the Blackstone Entrepreneur Network, and North Carolina Economic Development Partnership.

“I am also working on a new Angel Network called WALE to invest in the local startups that comes to my events,” said Roberts.  “The events are being formalized into a new Entrepreneur Support Organization called NEW.” Outside of the brewery events, he sits on several statewide committees, such as NC technology Association Awards committees, Council for Entrepreneurial Development (CED) selection committee for the annual Tech Venture Conference, and the NC IDEA Grant Review Committee.


So, what are the challenges for the North Carolina cities that are not recognized in ‘the triangle’?

“As Durham, and to a lesser part Raleigh, strive economically due to thirty years of investment into the entrepreneur ecosystem, the light turns on about the possibilities for smaller cities in North Carolina. These cities are frustrated that their college graduates and tech talent move away to bigger cities with better tech startup opportunities,” said Roberts. “But Wilmington has worked hard and seen results with showcase startups likeNextGlass and nCino that have made national news. These young companies have raised serious capital and have the ability to pay great wages.” NCino is a spinout startup of Live Oak Bank, which recently had an IPO on NASDAQ. NextGlass was the number #1 new app in the Apple App Store on launch day and has won multiple pitch contests and regional tech awards.

As Roberts sends us another invite to the October gathering, he also gives several tips for what other cities could replicate to help grow the infrastructure for startups.

  1. On first meeting of new entrepreneur, simply ask them what are the three things they need to make some progress. Capital is always the answer, of course. And others are sometimes a new IP lawyer or an introduction to a potential partner or client. 50% of the time, we never hear from those entrepreneurs again. (They are not entrepreneurs.) The rest? You will hear either positive or negative things from the people you referred them to, and the others will be grateful and hungry for more. I work often work with the hungry ones to improve their presentation skills and work on weaknesses in the plan.
  1. Gauge industry pain points. One of the best things we do is an annual Aspirin event where we bring in five of the largest employers and ask them to stand on stage and explain five of their biggest pain points they need help with. If the big companies each explain the five things they need a solution for, that is 25 new opportunities with the decision maker on stage. Many startups create solutions looking for problems. This event changes that perspective.
  1. Cities need to focus on SBIR (Small Business and Innovation Research) grants. The largest budgets in the federal government are required to set aside a small percentage of huge budgets to put out Requests for Proposals (RFP) for areas where they need help. These grants from from $250,000 to millions of dollars of non-dilutive equity that don’t take a piece of your company and they serve as validation of your product and company for potential investors.The state of North Carolina has a full time expert on SBIR grants to help companies successfully apply and pursue these grant opportunities. And the state of NC actually matches the dollar value of phase 1 SBIR grants.
  1. Give actual criticism. In the startup phase the entrepreneurs are either surrounded by yes people , supportive and loving family members or sometimes overly cocky and confident .So we invite out-of-town experienced business people to see 7-10 local business presentations. It is crucial that they are from out of town, for what we call our “Tough Love” event or “Uncle Curmudgeon” event. In a small city of 125,000, it is difficult to give tough criticism as you will see these startups around town and you want to avoid that awkward encounter at a bar or church. It is even worth it to pay these people for the day if they want to charge you.The upside? If the meeting goes well , the out of towners will open doors in their city for the startups to make new contacts with new investors or new prospects / clients.
  1. Have a kitchen cabinet of young business people that can relate to a young new startup that is considering relocating to your city. Imagine you are contacted by a young person who could be the next Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg. These young entrepreneurs won’t relate to the Mayor, the Chamber of Commerce executive director, or the Chancellor. These entrepreneurs want to meet other startups to know they won’t be the only game in town, as well as potential investors and a local tech organization to see the talent level—and some nightlife.
  1. Celebrate all wins. This really is not much different than recruiting if you were a major college sports team. It gets much easier to attract startups if you can focus on the ones you have and helping them win. If your startups raise some money – celebrate it! Make some noise. But you want them to win by helping them grow, get acquired or the potential IPO where real wealth is generated. Then those entrepreneurs can become serial entrepreneurs, become angel investors and donors to bigger community goals. But don’t wait until they succeed to help them and have your hand out only after the big win. Help them get to the win!

As I write the story of this fervent believer in connections, relationships, and persistence, a pinging sound of an inbox is heard.  It’s an email from Jim Roberts, letting us know about four other startups from the Coastal Corridor that are gaining momentum.