It was just a little over a year ago when I was yelling at Raleigh to figure out what kind of startup hub it wanted to be. What had taken place up to that point was a lot of noise, a little traction, and too many comparisons to what was going on in Durham.
After an article I wrote calling for an end to Raleigh vs. Durham and a renewed focus on Raleigh vs. Raleigh, I got invited to a lot of meetings. These were reassuring, in terms of what was to come – although, even as recently as last May, nothing firm was in place.
How things have changed.
Although it may seem like it, the two recent announcements of startup spaces in downtown Raleigh – American Underground’s third location at 213 Fayetteville Street and HQ Raleigh’s move and expansion into the warehouse district – did not come about overnight. A lot of thought went into what were first-and-foremost huge business decisions.
Those decisions were also made with the entire Triangle in mind, long before whispers about the need to combine forces became a chorus. And a year later, it seems like – finally – everyone is on board.
Payoff: It’s not about Raleigh or Durham anymore. It’s about the Triangle.
A Hub in Raleigh
A handful of those initial “What is Raleigh?” conversations were with Brooks Bell, a longtime Raleigh entrepreneur who was putting the final touches on HUB Raleigh, which would eventually become HQ Raleigh.
Brooks was and continues to be a huge proponent of the Triangle as a top-5 startup hub. It’s obvious when you talk to her, and the mission isn’t just about the physical space. From the beginning, she’s had community, recognition, and awareness of the region in mind. And she hasn’t just been thinking about it, she’s been acting.
Brooks, along with her husband, Jess Lipson, founder of Sharefile (now part of Citrix), seeded a good chunk of the $350,000 investment to get HQ Raleigh off the ground. They also spent a lot of time and sweat equity forging partnerships and bringing attention to what was a fledgling downtown Raleigh startup scene.
Said Brooks at the unveiling of HUB Raleigh last August:
“Venture capitalists in California, they don’t really look at the Triangle as a hotbed of entrepreneurial activity. There’s not a lot of buzz. We have all the elements that we need for this area to be a hotbed, but we haven’t connected.”
And it wasn’t just the connections within the urban centers of Raleigh or Durham that needed fixing. If anything, those were the easy fixes. It was the connections between the cities that were the larger and more pressing issue.
So in addition to physical space, HQ Raleigh began offering programs for entrepreneurs throughout the Triangle, including education, office hours, and events. These community memberships remain a big part of HQ Raleigh, and startups as far away as Chapel Hill have signed up to be a part of that resource funnel.
An Evolution in Durham
Around the same time HQ Raleigh was spinning up, American Underground hired Adam Klein away from the Durham Chamber to be their Chief Strategy Officer. In July of 2012, he and I talked about how his philosophy at the Chamber would translate into the private sector.
We also talked about expansion – specifically, how American Underground was evolving from a single, localized Durham effort to a regional play. Plans were already underway for new locations, and Adam was envisioning eventually housing what seemed like too many startups at a point in time that was a long way off.
“We need to set a goal, something like 200 startups in downtown Durham by 2015. We’ve got 80 downtown today, but a number like 200 gets the conversation going at a national level.”
That’s what he said in November at the announcement of Underground @Main, the new space on Main Street in Durham that officially opened last month. He also spoke of programming to attract an even bigger audience at an even earlier stage.
With Underground @Raleigh this fall, they’ll add the concept of the regional desk, an additional level of membership that allows members to use facilities at any of the three locations on an irregular basis. The Underground has also hosted everything from Startup Bus to their own Hackathons this year.
I’ve founded or worked for 10 startups over my career – in Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill. I live in Chapel Hill, work in Durham, and usually make at least half-a-dozen business-related trips to Raleigh each month. Three years ago, my largest client was in downtown Raleigh, requiring me to be there at least four days a week. Before that, I lived inside the beltline and worked at a startup in Chapel Hill.
For the record – East in the morning and West in the evening is the lighter traffic hassle.
My point is, to me, it’s been “the Triangle” for years. And it isn’t just my view. As Adam pointed out the last time we talked:
“It was eye-opening when I was in Doha for the Smoffice competition. The Triangle was the known brand, and it carries weight – on an international scale. If we’re going to be serious about moving this ecosystem forward and become a top tier place for startups, it’s got to be a Triangle initiative, to give startups a broader and deeper access to the resources in both cities.“
We’ve come a long, long way in a year, and these two new startup spaces in downtown Raleigh are a big indicator of that progress.
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 http://joeprocopio.com