Editor’s note: Jim R. Roberts is the founder of the Network for Entrepreneurs in Wilmington and the WALE Angel Network. Prior to becoming the Founding Executive Director of the UNCW CIE Incubator, Jim also worked for the Durham-based Innovation Center for NanoBiotech (COIN), funded by the NC Biotechnology Center. Jim also founded Entrepreneur Support Organizations in Charlotte and Asheville. Jim serves on the NC IDEA, NC TECH and CED committees. He was also an employee of the North Carolina Department of Commerce in the Department of International Trade.
Note to readers: WRAL TechWire would like to hear from you about the opinions of our contributors. Please email: [email protected]
WILMINGTON- As we prepare to attend this week’s NC IDEA Ecosystem Summit, leaders in North Carolina’s 100 counties are beginning to worry about the R-word and how they will create jobs for their citizens during tougher economic times.
At the risk of angering former Tar Heels basketball coach Roy Williams again, like his wasted time off, your untapped political capital isn’t going to take you to a higher stratum of heaven.
Last week my one-man non-profit organization supporting entrepreneurs in Wilmington hosted a FREE half-day conference on coastal life science startups. No, there wasn’t a red carpet, there wasn’t much fuzz, but there was great content and a great list of VIP contacts in the room. As a personal thank you to the external speakers, there was a small sparkling wine at the end of the event.
I’ve used my accumulated political capital from 22 years of networking across the state to make a difference in Wilmington’s underfunded life sciences ecosystem.
What’s stopping you from using that mile-high stack of personal and professional favors to help an entrepreneur in your area? If you’re wondering WHY no one is doing anything to help your region, sometimes you only have to look in the mirror to see the region is counting on YOU.
For the last 22 years I have had a theory about “leadership through attrition” that I have shared with others and has recently been validated. If you punish potential leaders for taking risks on new endeavors to make a positive impact, you end up with NO-risk leaders and a stagnant economy. That’s why I don’t count on the Good Ol’ Boy Network to further my work. Funny how much faster you can move if you don’t spend time kissing rings.
Well, entrepreneurs create jobs, not bureaucracies
What are North Carolina cities and counties doing to support entrepreneurs as job creators? Well, many of these regions rely on funding from the NC IDEA Ecosystem and Engage grants due to the lack of funding from city and county governments and stingier citizen donors. Or maybe that’s just New Hanover County, which has less than 18% of Buncombe citizens and less than 7% of Forsyth County citizens donating fewer dollars to nonprofits each year. (Seen on AssemblyNC.com)
While, as a recovering economic developer, I love good brand name job postings in North Carolina, I definitely wish our state would invest in the infrastructure of the northern state’s startup ecosystems. Sure, I’m proud that Apple picked North Carolina with incentives, but an equal amount of money in support of startups would work magic to nurture the next batch of startups to grow into unicorn billion dollar employers.
I get it. Politicians don’t like the idea of government dollars going directly to individual entrepreneurs since 70% of startups can fail in their first three to five years. They REALLY don’t want to be in the business of picking winners and losers from private companies in their regions. A lost investment would cost them votes.
But in case you notice, I didn’t say that. When the state has invested in the ecosystem organizations, these organizations create programs for entrepreneurs. The Kauffman Foundation’s legacy FasTrac program used to say that 70% of participating startups survived and thrived in structured programming beyond five years.
How did Wilmington NC develop our local economy??
No, Wilmington is still isolated from state government resources by the imaginary I-95 dividing line east of the triangle, and we haven’t had big job postings from Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, and no auto and aerospace job postings.
Yes, some of our larger companies have received “Retention Incentives” grants, which require companies to claim they are considering moving or expanding to another state to pressure local and state economic developers, provide them with jobs and grants set up for infrastructure costs.
According to a recent report in Wilmington, the majority of the Coast’s new 2,000 white-collar jobs have been created by entrepreneurs in small startups.
How has the startup ecosystem helped these entrepreneurs create new jobs?
Simple, we listen to entrepreneurs, even if we hardly know them, and we act on what they tell us they need. Entrepreneurs must act quickly to fend off competitors. We can’t wait to wait three years for the community to meet the entrepreneurs.
solutions – We have an investor prep workshop called “Tough Love” event to improve presentation skills around the value proposition. We also have an events calendar where entrepreneurs can apply and attend pitch contests or investor conferences. I have built a small network of angel investors with people who have a greater tolerance for risk and are willing to be the ‘first money’ for local startups where they can leverage this investment with other regional investor groups.
- Need an introduction to prospects?
solutions – We ran “Reverse Pitch or Aspirin” events where major employers attended an event where they outlined their top pain points. We also bought tickets for entrepreneurs to attend big events or fairs where they can meet their dream prospects.
- Do you need media coverage?
solutions – We don’t use our media contacts to promote our organization, but to tell the stories of our startups. We’ve helped our startups get regional and national media coverage to raise their profile and capture the attention of out-of-town prospects and investors.
We invited the national PBS-TV show Start Up and Atlanta’s tech startup media to the beach to tell the stories of the entrepreneurs, not the ecosystem organization.
- As a first-time founder, do you need help with difficult decisions?
solutions – A new mentor network does not have to be a formal process. I usually meet up with a new entrepreneur and ask them the “wand” of having three wishes to help them get started. They are usually asking for capital, an introduction from a local/regional prospect, or an introduction to better professional services such as an inexpensive patent attorney. Three weeks after this induction meeting with the entrepreneurs, I am asking for feedback from both sides of the inductions. Did the mentor intro take the call, were they helpful, what’s next? But I also call the referrals or mentors and ask them about the implementation of the entrepreneurs from their meeting. You learn a lot about the entrepreneur if he just looked for a handout or had the courage to implement the suggestions made during the meetings.
- Need help with the STRESS of scaling a tech business as a first-time founder?
solutions – NEW and UNCW CIE, through an NC IDEA Ecosystem grant, have partnered to work with a local Wilmington consultant on an emotional intelligence and communication program to find healthier ways of dealing with stress. The program received rave reviews.
- Need help since you’re a new entrepreneur in town?
solutions – A “kitchen cabinet” local entrepreneur. New high growth entrepreneurs aren’t really interested in meeting the mayor. They want a social network of friendly but dedicated local entrepreneurs to learn from in their new city. Not the people who just want to talk to you to sell you a new house and then disappear