Editor’s note: ‘Charlotte Beat’ is a regular feature on Wednesdays.For the last two years, and as recently as this past summer, there were three groups serving the needs of Charlotte’s high tech entrepreneurs and their emerging high growth companies. Now there’s just one — the Metrolina Entrepreneurial Council (MEC), originally founded in 1987 to encourage and support entrepreneurism.
Firstround.org, founded in 2000 by Jim Roberts, folded in September when he left the city for a new job in Asheville. And in October, Charlotte Convergence, a networking group also founded in 2000, merged with MEC.
“The entrepreneur community needs to speak with one voice advocating for itself, and it needs one clearinghouse,” Ashe Lockhart, a member of the MEC board who chairs the group’s programming committee, tells Local Tech Wire. “We had three groups catering to the same customers. They didn’t really compete with each other, as they had different, complementing offerings. But there was a lot of overlap.”
“With everything under one umbrella, we can better coordinate resources and offer stronger programming to our constituents,” adds Lockhart, a tech attorney with Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice. “It’s good for businesspeople to know there is one definite source to go to for entrepreneurs.”
Winn Maddrey, a founding board member of Convergence, concurs. “In tough economic times, it makes sense to have one entity, and it’ll be more likely to succeed.”
Maddrey, along with Convergence founder Scott Mehler, now both sit on the MEC board. Maddrey, with the public affairs/PR firm Capital Strategies, was already an MEC member.
As in any successful merger, the needs of the two groups converged. Earlier this year, MEC was looking to expand in order to reach a critical mass that would create a stronger, more visible presence for emerging growth companies in Charlotte. After talks with the Ben Craig Center, an incubator affiliated with UNC Charlotte, didn’t pan out, the group approached Convergence.
Convergence, as things would have it, was at a philosophical crossroads, Maddrey says. The group did have an organized board, but kept the group’s focus and maintenance needs as simple as possible.
Convergence’s only purpose was networking, and the group held a get-together at the Southend Brewery the second Tuesday of every month. There was no program or formal membership, and no RSVPs were required. There was no traditional mailing list with names and snail mail addresses, just e-mail addresses. More than 250 people showed up at the first events, and the e-mail list had swelled to about 900 addresses. Although begun as an effort for all entrepreneurs, it had evolved into a group with a high tech focus.
“We liked the beauty of keeping it simple,” Maddrey says. “But to give the group longevity, we knew we needed to expand our efforts. We discussed expanding geographically by having events throughout the city, adding content by offering programs, formalizing membership and stretching beyond technology. “
Convergence had its last event in May, and the new organization had its first joint event on Nov. 12, Convergence’s traditional networking night. About 150 showed up, which Lockhart says was about what it was during tech’s heyday.
The merged organization will offer both formal programs and networking opportunities on separate nights and in different locations. The monthly networking sessions will be held the fourth Tuesday each month at Southend Brewery. The formal meeting, with a program, will be held the second Tuesday of the month at the Big Chill.
“We’ve combined simplicity and content by offering them at two separate times,” Maddrey says. “We’ve made sure that the Convergence concept is broad enough to survive and have added value for folk.”
MEC, with about 450 members this summer, has heavily recruited Convergence members. In October, Convergence members were offered a combined membership and admission to MEC’s annual Capital Access Conference at a heavily discounted fee. Discounts on memberships — usually $195 annually — are continuing through the end of the year.
MEC executive director Lori Antoniak didn’t have exact figures on new members, but points out, “We are certainly seeing new memberships from the merger.”
Because of the lack of a formal membership list from Convergence, Maddrey says it’s difficult to know what kind of overlap there is among membership. Convergence members who don’t join will continue to receive e-mails from MEC. They may attend meetings for $25.
Lockhart admits that Convergence members did not pay any fees, so that may be a detriment to their involvement in MEC. But he thinks they get a good bang for the buck. “For one thing, we offer a lot more than networking,” he says. “Plus they get a free subscription to The Business Journal. There are other tangible benefits as well – the monthly meetings are free to members, and we feed them really well.”
Strengthening program offering
While the merger is giving the new MEC an established networking venue, the group is also focusing on beefing up its program offerings. Lockhart says his committee has developed a formal curriculum for programs, and there will be two to three programs devoted to each of the following topics — sales and business development, human resources and building a management team, and capital and finance.
“This approach gives people a sequential course offering,” Lockhart says.
The HR curriculum will get kicked off at MEC’s Jan. 14 meeting when Doug Lebda, founder and CEO of LendingTree, will speak on how to identify talent and build a management team.
MEC will continue to hold its three annual programs — the Trailblazer Award presentations in February, the Future Tech Conference, showcasing the latest tech, in the spring, and the Capital Access Conference in the fall. Lockhart says a new program offering will be introduced this summer.
Comments Maddrey, “We’ll continue to focus on the critical components of what entrepreneurs need. And that includes not just founders, but managers. What it takes to start a company is different from what it takes to grow a company.”