Eight hours In North Carolina’s coastal city
Wilmington reminds me of Durham five years ago. It’s an exciting time to be there.
Last Wednesday, I was invited to speak at an entrepreneur event in downtown Wilmington hosted by Jim Roberts, the former director of the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at UNC Wilmington who is now leading the charge on a couple of angel networks. Jim is also a serial connector, and set me up with meetings throughout the day.
I learned a lot of things. One thing I learned is that there are eight brewpubs in Wilmington—a few of them have been around for a while like Front Street, but most are brand new, like Ironclad, where the event would be taking place later that evening.
If you don’t see the correlation between momentum in the local craft brew scene and momentum in the local startup community, you’re not paying attention. This is something I recognized immediately in Durham in 2011, which is why there was originally a “Beer” section in ExitEvent.
In fact, I think the startup community could take a lesson or two from the craft brew community. There’s a tightness and helpfulness there that we need to emulate. Of course, how you can you not be happy and helpful when you’re around beer all day, am I right? I get half a pint in me and I’m all “All right, let’s MAKE something!”
In all seriousness, the components are starting to come together in Wilmington beyond the rise of craft breweries. There’s leadership starting to gel in the form of these 10 companies highlighted in ExitEvent just two weeks ago (and I’m sure there are at least two or three more who feel slighted, that’s a good thing). There’s money coming in from within and outside the city limits to get ideas off the ground. There’s a vibrant and growing downtown that has always served a mix of commerce and tourism, but is now settling into a more DIY-oriented commerce vibe.
And probably most importantly, the entrepreneurs in Wilmington are starting to come together and cement the foundation of their own startup community.
That’s mostly what I talked about in my half-prepared/half-off-the-cuff remarks Wednesday. I opened with the well-worn message that a strong, supportive startup community should be built by entrepreneurs, led by entrepreneurs and open to anyone who wants to be an entrepreneur or help an entrepreneur. You can’t wait for a class of serial entrepreneurs with multiple multi-million-dollar exits to start dropping knowledge. It’s got to come from the people on hand, led by the folks building the companies, and it’s a long haul.
I also talked about the fact that it all comes down to education. Better founders make better startups. That’s a theme I’ve been banging on for a little over a year now, but it’s more than lip-service. I truly believe you can’t start seed funding until you’ve got founders who can take a company from idea to customers to investment through growth to exit. That education needs to start before the first beta, carry through all the way to exit, and come from whatever sources are nearby and available.
This means peers, whether they’re in the startup realm or outside, and it means back and forth, question and answer, founders helping founders, entrepreneurs and independents helping entrepreneurs and independents.
The startup challenges, hurdles and issues that Wilmington faces are not too different than the ones we face in Durham. In fact, they’re not too different than the ones they face in Charlotte or Asheville or Greensboro. Sure, the specifics may be slightly different, but the core—the roots of those issues—are all the same. When you’re this far from the West Coast, the proximity between Durham and Wilmington is negligible.
In Durham, we’re on year five of a 20-year haul. Even with all the noise and hype we’ve created since 2011 (well deserved noise and hype, I might add), even with the exits and acquisitions and eight-figure VC rounds and major customer partnerships and profile raises, we’re only about 25% of the way there.
This is Year One in Wilmington. Those in the middle of the struggle might protest—They’ll tell me it’s really Year Two or Year Four or Year 10. I counter that with my experience in the Triangle—we probably re-lived Year One a dozen times, Groundhog Day-style. In fact, some years we went back to Year Zero. I know. I lived it.
The questions coming from about 100 Wilmington entrepreneurs were better than I imagined. These are sharp people, entrepreneurs who are past the “leap stage” and now into the execution and growth stage. More than one person had a product on hand, either on their phone or in their pocket or somewhere close by. It wasn’t just about ideas. It was about execution.
What encourages me almost as much is all the people I didn’t meet. Look, I learned pretty quickly putting ExitEvent together that we were getting maybe 5-10% of the intended audience at the monthly Startup Socials. Building a startup community is, by its nature, a viral process—you pull in people you know who pull in people they know and so on. It’s hard to reach people who are working in a vacuum, mainly because they don’t know they’re in a vacuum. They’re too busy trying to change the world or sell their first product.
Thus, I know that if there were 100 people in the room on Wednesday, there are hundreds more in Wilmington who didn’t even know the event was going on (and a few more who knew and didn’t care, that happens too).
So I’ll close this article with the advice I used to close my remarks.
Do more of these events and meetups that are by-entrepreneurs-for-entrepreneurs. Do them with 100 people or a dozen or three. Do them often. Communicate, reach out to other entrepreneurs, build a network, educate, advise, help others solve problems. Trust me, you’re going to get a ton back in return. But it has to start with YOU, the entrepreneur. No one else is going to be able to do it.