Navigating the Tech Startup Seas: Takeaways from the Duke Entrepreneurship and VC Conference

Starting a company is hard. Starting a tech company is even harder. And don’t even think about starting a tech company in the Triangle.

I get that. Really, I do. I’m not one to underplay the risks and the long hours and the not being in Silicon Valley, but I’m also a believer in the democratization that technology brings to startups. Having done this here for longer that I care to admit, I can state emphatically that it’s never been easier to start a tech company, provided you know what you’re getting into.

Last week, I had the pleasure of sitting on a panel called Succeeding as a Tech Startup in a Sea of Constant Change at the 2013 Duke Entrepreneurship and VC Conference at the Fuqua School of Business.

The panel was moderated by Jesko von Windhelm, who is himself an entrepreneur as well as a Professor at Duke. My panel-mates were fellow Triangle-based entrepreneur Anil Chawla, founder and CEO of Archive Social, and venture capitalists Jay Jamison, a partner at Menlo Park-based BlueRun Ventures, and Farouk Ladha, Founder and Managing Partner of San Francisco’s Four Rivers Group.

The focus of panel was to provide insights for MBA students and newly minted entrepreneurs to make the technical journey easier – or at least to get it started. Here are the highlights:

Trends in Technology

This is the always tricky 3D-printing and lasers and ball bearings question. There’s sort of two answers to this. Ladha half-joked that if you’re waiting for someone to tell you what those are, especially VCs, you’re probably too late.

I believe we’re really only scratching the surface of some of the existing technologies. For instance, social networking has been around in one form or another as long as the Internet, but it took MySpace and Friendster and then eventually Facebook to mine its potential. For what that’s worth.

There are technologies today that haven’t Facebooked. First is the overhyped but still quite underutilized cloud. There’s so much unexplored potential in putting both storage and processing power online – where are all the Internet noise reduction solutions?

Location and personalization are also two big areas of opportunity – and coincidentally the areas that Yahoo’s Marissa Meyer is staking her reputation and likely her career on. We haven’t gotten much farther than check-ins and the occasional “Hey – your friends are here too,” or “There are delicious burritos here.”

There’s got to be more than that.

The real answer however is: Who knows? But I will tell you this. There is someone out there working right now on bringing the latest and greatest technological advancements into the mainstream. That kind of thing is at the very core of being an entrepreneur.

So in that sense, Ladha was totally spot on.

What Should Students Do to Prepare for an Entrepreneurial Career?

Chawla admitted that before he founded Archive Social, which provides a legally compliant archival and storage solution for a company’s social media, had no idea what it would take to start a business or how the regulatory world worked. But he had the entrepreneurial mindset. He saw the problem, he knew the solution, and his years neck-deep in technology at IBM allowed him to believe he could make it happen. He learned the rest while he did it.

Farouk agreed. “Immerse yourself deeply in the problem, then put forth your domain expertise to help solve the problem,” he said.

Jamison added that you should spend the time to make sure that you’re going to be passionate about what you’re getting into for ten to fifteen years – whether that’s the kind of company you want to start or whether you want to start a company at all. Those that don’t have that passion tend to get weeded out quickly during the lean times.

I added three things:

1) Start a company. The barriers to entry are low enough now that you don’t have to do this full time. There are even university-based programs like Duke’s InCube and UNC’s Carolina Challenge to guide you along the way.

2) Work for a startup. Startups are in the position now to take on interns, even paid internships. It’s not as glamorous as your normal MBA internship, but a lot of times we hire these interns when they graduate.

3) Learn to code. If there’s one lament I hear over and over from entrepreneurs who can’t get past the idea stage, it’s that they can’t find a technical co-founder or a way to build their product that doesn’t require some kind of funding. There are so many options to help you learn to code these days, first and foremost Code Academy. Get yourself to the point where you can build a demo or even a beta. You might even become a technical founder.

West Coast VC Dominance

In Q2 2012, $5.9 billion was raised by the venture community,80 percent went to five firms on the West Coast.


That wasn’t so much a question as a painful reminder. And oddly, the two entrepreneurs on the panel were local and the two VCs were from the west coast.

It got uncomfortable.

Not really – but the VCs believe that the lack of funding here isn’t because there’s necessarily nothing here, but that the aspirations of the startups here aren’t right for VC. In other words, not all companies require VC, some require other types of capital.

Yeah, I’ve heard this argument before, admittedly not quite put that way, but I still don’t agree.

It’s not that I think the west coast VC community or any VC community for that matter is ignoring the Triangle, I know for a fact they aren’t, and that was reiterated on the panel. Look at it this way – how many companies here have created a product with hundreds or thousands or millions of recurring revenue generating customers that can’t – as hard as they may try – attract VC funding?


Yes, there is more funding available than there are good ideas. I agree. And yes, great entrepreneurs always get funded. I agree. But I think the issue lies somewhere in between.

What is disappointing, and this is exactly how I responded, is that there are great, home-run-swinging entrepreneurs here – and it’s not just here but in a lot of places like Raleigh/Durham. And if they can’t raise money here, they move, and the talent drain is what’s been keeping Raleigh/Durham from reaching its entrepreneurial potential over the last 20 years. We graduate brilliant minds, and they jet.

They’re starting to trickle back, by the way, but if we can’t generate some big exits in the near term, they won’t stay, and the drain begins all over again.

I’m not saying I have a solution. I’m just saying that Raleigh/Durham still has this sort of vanilla, safe, swing down the third-base-line reputation, despite the progress we’ve made in the last three years. If we’re going to lose it and get some of these Series As to Series B, then we’ve got to change that perception from the inside out.

Editor’s note: Joe Procopio is a serial entrepreneur, writer, and speaker. He is VP of Product at Automated Insights and the founder of startup network and news resource ExitEvent. Follow him at @jproco or read him at