Editor’s note: The American Tobacco Historic District celebrates its 10th anniversary on Sunday with a “block party.” And an increasingly important part of the project is the American Underground, which is home to a growing number of startups. WRAL TechWire asked Insider Joe Procopio to write about American Tobacco’s influence on Durham and the regional entrepreneurial community. He reflects on that impact on him and his own startup, ExitEvent.
DURHAM, N.C. – There’s a very good, very simple reason why I merged ExitEvent into American Underground
Back in the spring of 2013, I took a long, hard look at ExitEvent and my continuing involvement with it. By that point, ExitEvent had evolved from a hobby into a startup – mainly because I don’t have hobbies. I do startups. That’s my fun. Go ahead and mock.
Over the two years prior to that spring, ExitEvent had gone from an idea to a meetup to a full-blown startup network, resource, and news source, with thousands of entrepreneur members, daily content hitting crazy pageview numbers, and serious revenue, all in the few hours of any spare time I had in a given a week.
And therein lay the pain. I already had a job, a really good job at Automated Insights, where we were getting ready to embark on our strategic Series B raise.
Don’t get me wrong. I meant for ExitEvent to happen, with passion and a vengeance. I meant for it to grow as fast as it did the way it did. I just didn’t exactly think it through.
I loved the cause of building stronger startup environments. I loved slashing away at columns in 15-minute bursts and just going with what spilled out, as long as it was honest. I especially loved getting to know more and more founders, investors, and all types of people who loved startups, from Durham to New York to Silicon Valley, and in places in between where I didn’t even know they had startups.
By the spring of 2013, the chorus of voices calling on me to do more with ExitEvent was growing stronger and, eventually, it felt like my duty to pass it on.
But like any entrepreneur, I was having a huge problem letting my baby go. This wasn’t just about a product or a service or an app, this was a startup about making better startups. It kind of folded everything I loved into one hastily-chosen brand name.
If I was going to give it up, I was going to make damn sure whoever I gave it to was going to see it as a mission, not just a brand.
There were already two big players who had inquired a few times about acquiring ExitEvent. One of these two was absolutely wrong for it, and never really entered the picture. There were two more companies who were at the top of my short list of people who I would like to see acquire ExitEvent.
One of those was American Underground.
I had seen up close the impact that the American Tobacco Campus had on downtown Durham, a place I had nearly forgotten about, even though I lived about 15 minutes away. I was especially excited about what ATC was doing for startups.
Before I joined Automated Insights, two of my consulting clients moved to a newly opened American Tobacco Campus. It was also the daily home to several friends and acquaintances. There used to be a running joke that I maintained a cot somewhere under Bay 7 for how often I was there. I’m also a huge Bulls fan.
I was there when they broke ground on American Underground. I hung out at Launchbox/Triangle Startup Factory/Startup Factory, and Joystick Labs. I had drinks with several of the founders that joined the Underground, including old friends like Aaron Houghton and new ones like James Avery.
I had gotten to know Adam Klein through the Durham Chamber and through Startup Stampede. Every time I wrote about something he was involved with, we’d spend a ton of additional time talking about the startup scene here, and I realized we shared a lot of the same philosophies, ideas, and concerns.
When Klein went to American Underground in July of 2012, I knew that was a perfect fit, and I got the first inkling that American Underground wasn’t going to be just a place for fledgling startups to sit, but was becoming its own ecosystem. Klein was already talking about programming, events, and long-term growth and sustainability.
In fact, somewhere in the article I wrote about his hiring, I noted that American Underground was becoming “just like ExitEvent, but with millions of more dollars.”
That tossed-out joke would become somewhat prophetic.
By the time American Underground announced their expansion to Main Street in November of 2012, they had already started, under Klein’s leadership, to formulate the programming, the events, and a vision for what kind of ecosystem the Underground would be.
The ExitEvent Startup Social at American Underground at Main in December 2013 would be the high water mark for the year for attendance. By a lot.
I had known Michael Goodmon for a while when we decided to get together to have a conversation about the Triangle startup scene in late spring 2013. I had already done all of my soul-searching and most of my due diligence for the ExitEvent sale, but hadn’t yet decided if selling was the right way to go.
What started as a deep dive into the local startup community with Goodmon turned into a deep dive into the ExitEvent website, database, and philosophy. And unlike some of the other conversations I had been through, it wasn’t just about unique visitors and ad revenue. It was mostly about how to use ExitEvent to make local startups better startups, by offering more features and integrating them tightly into a more connected startup community.
It was a refreshing conversation, to say the least.
Plans were already underway for American Underground at Raleigh at that time, so we talked about a Triangle-wide hub-and-spoke presence for AU, and how neatly ExitEvent would fit as the digital backbone of that presence. The more we talked, the more it seemed like a no-brainer.
The acquisition was announced in February of 2014, and a few weeks later the ExitEvent Statup Social was the first public event held in AU Raleigh.
With each new week of content, each new regular and contributing writer, each check of the startup database, each wall-to-wall-packed Startup Social, it’s evident that this startup about startups has taken on a life of its own. It’s not only going exactly the way I wanted it to, it’s getting there quicker than I thought.
It’s a long-term plan. It’s that sustainability that Klein was talking about back in 2012.
That’s exactly why I chose American Underground.
I realize that American Underground is only part of the American Tobacco campus, and so do they. In a nice full-circle move, Automated Insights took residence in Diamond View 1 back in April of this year, so I no longer need my cot under Bay 7. It’s been replaced by my own chair on the terrace, right above the FOX 50 sign overlooking left-center field — so I can cheer on my Bulls any time I want.
More startups are joining us soon. More non-startups are starting to call ATC home. New restaurants are springing up. Events are happening all the time.
American Tobacco, like the Underground it houses, isn’t about giving workers a place to sit. It’s about revitalization, a new way of doing things, fresh ideas, and putting smart and innovative people all in the same place.
To paraphrase what I said in 2012, it’s the same vision I have, what just about every entrepreneur has. We do what we do to have a better, more fulfilling life, more satisfying life.
And just like ExitEvent, that’s what American Tobacco has been about for the last 10 years and will continue to be about for the next 10.
It’s a long-term plan.
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