Last night, I had an awesome time mingling with tons of startup people at the debut of American Underground @ Main, a startup hub at 201 West Main Street in downtown Durham. The new space is a two-story spin-off of the extremely successful Underground @ American Tobacco, and it will expand the endeavor by up to 50 startup spaces with more room for co-working.

Amenities abound. There are slick office spaces from very small to quite substantial, with conference rooms, private rooms, social and common areas, a slide, video games, just about everything a growing startup needs.

But in order for me to explain why the American Underground @ Main is so critical to the Triangle Startup Community, I need to spend a little time talking about what a startup community is.

A Collection of Resources

A Startup Community is really nothing more that a collection of resources, and those resources, for the most part, can be broken down into people, places, and information.

• The people are entrepreneurs, investors, customers, supporters, mentors, service providers, and, to a lesser extent, press, politicians, students, and so on.
• The places can be digital or physical, and they can be permanent, like a startup hub, or temporary, like a recurring event.
• The information can be a network or database, educational material, even news and communication.

Yes, this is the cold-hard-steel definition of a Startup Community, but it’s something that needs to be understood. All the love, kind words, and retweets in the world aren’t going to get you that first customer.

Each of the pieces in those above lists already have some form of individual community around them, like an atmosphere around a planet. But it’s when those individual communities cross one another, like a Venn diagram, that the strength of that combined community grows exponentially and pays dividends to everyone involved.

And it isn’t some new-agey, it-takes-a-startup-village magic that gets those dividends paid. Example: If my kitchen sink pipe breaks and I can get to my neighbor (people) who knows a good plumber (information) and I can call that plumber’s business (place), then I have a very good chance of getting that pipe fixed. And if all those pieces are already pre-connected, then I can get it fixed before my kitchen floods.

Startup Community. QED.

I’m an entrepreneur, and I have been for 90% of my career. For the last three years, I’ve been trying to change the game in big data at VC-backed Automated Insights in Durham.

For two of those years, I’ve been trying to wrangle all of these individual communities into one (digital) place at It’s got a massive network and database of people, ways to connect and communicate, tons of resource information, and I do a monthly event.

There’s one thing I can’t do.

Physical space.

And it’s critical.

The Power of Proximity

It’s arguable that the initial launch of Underground @ American Tobacco in 2010 sparked the massive growth in startup activity in Durham over the last three years. In fact, if you argued against that point, you’d probably lose.

Yes, there were already startups here (including a very early Automated Insights), and yes, there were successful startups here, but wrangling a number of them into one physical place made a noise that was heard from much farther away than the loose borders of the Triangle.

Furthermore, ask any tenant of the Underground @American Tobacco, and almost to an entrepreneur, they’ll tell you that the biggest benefit of being in that space is all the other startups in that space.

In other words, when this Venn diagram of individuals is in the same place, overlapping like crazy, all the time, those dividends are part of your workday. Every day. It’s like your having a neighbor who’s a plumber who works out of her house and is home all the time – just shout out the kitchen window and get her attention.

The Top of the Funnel

When American Underground Chief Strategist Adam Klein first told me about Underground @Main last summer, and gave me more detail back in November, I was skeptical of the numbers. I wondered if we had enough critical mass of startups in Durham to support such an endeavor.

By opening day, Main already had 40 startups in residence. Most of them, like TSF graduate/NC IDEA winner/customer-having Archive Social, mini-console game developer Splitmo, and mobile/location app PopUp are early/seed-stage companies that are about a two years old or less.

They were all smiles last night.

These are the exact type of companies Klein was targeting with Main, and since there are over 100 of those seed-stagers in Durham alone, and another 100 within quick relocation distance of downtown (thanks, ExitEvent for the quick data check), the numbers should bear out Main’s existence.

To put it in baseball terms (as the campus is also home to the Durham Bulls) American Tobacco Historic houses the major leaguers, the growth-stagers like Bronto and Appia, while the Underground has the Triple-A minors (earlier growth-stagers), and Main is, for lack of a better term, the rookie leagues.

But a lavish version of the rookie leagues.

Now, any startup, at any stage, from anywhere, should be taking a good look at the Triangle region, as there is a place for them, with full amenities, in a startup hub that’s vibrant and growing.

That Last Big Piece

The fact that American Underground is stepping up on this big a scale and taking that kind of risk on a physical space play puts the Triangle on a much more advanced trajectory as a startup community.

Could American Underground @ Main have been built by the local entrepreneurs? Maybe, but not on this scale, and not at this pace. It also frees up the entrepreneurs to do what they need to do, which is build awesome companies.

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