Before accelerators were a thing in the Triangle, there was the Startup Stampede.
Playing on the Bull City branding back in 2011, that program helped kick off the tech startup movement that in 2015 earned Durham the title “Startup Capital of the South” from CNBC.
But now a new industry is ready to run—consumer products.
The success of Kickstarter combined with a growing number of physical product companies in American Underground (ExitEvent’s parent company), across North Carolina and beyond, prompted the Stampede’s original instigator, Adam Klein, to bring it back to life with new focus.
Unlike today’s tech startup community, product companies don’t have an ecosystem of support.
“Networking with and finding the right distributor, or digital marketing or branding expert, or a person to do logistics and fulfillment—those are nebulous for first-time consumer product entrepreneurs or inventors,” says Klein, American Underground’s Chief Strategist. “We want to organize how that comes together so the companies have a stronger start and more success.”
If successful, there could be a dramatic effect on the local economy. Retail companies create a whole spectrum of jobs—from engineering, manufacturing and logistics to branding, design and marketing to customer service and sales—as well as generate significant tax income to the state. They also showcase a region’s culture and offer a tangible way to show the impact of entrepreneurship.
Klein believes more consumer product companies can inspire young people to become entrepreneurs.
“When a young person tours our space, they can latch on to Runaway Clothing, Mati Energy drinks or Nugget couches because they understand what the products are,” Klein says. “They understand what entrepreneurship could look like for them.”
Klein launched the Stampede when he worked for the Durham Chamber of Commerce (more on that in the video above). With permission from the Chamber to pull the Stampede inside AU’s walls, and $85,000 from NC IDEA’s new Ecosystem Partnership Grant program, the effort begins next spring.
The first class of startups will be selected in January—a key criteria is a successful crowdfunding campaign. According to Klein, companies that raised their first dollars on Kickstarter or Indiegogo have some market validation from the customers who either paid for the product up front or pledged support for it to be created.
There’s also significant deal flow among successful campaigns. There have been more than 5,700 Kickstarter campaigns in North Carolina, nearly 1,800 of which met their funding goals. To help generate early interest, the Stampede will hold a consumer product meetup later this month at the West End Wine Bar.
Up to eight companies will be chosen to go through the eight-week program next March and April. They’ll do brand strategy exercises, meet with photographers and designers to build their online storefronts, work through logistics and distribution strategy, set digital and email marketing plans, complete development of their websites, practice their pitches and more. At a launch party the final week, each company will unveil an online storefront and begin making sales.
Helping along the way will be mentors like Ben Feldman, who helped build Thundershirt to a national brand and private equity target, Justin Winter, a Diamond Candles founder who is now building a tech startup to help B2C startups manage customer service issues, and Tatiana Birgisson, who’s had a quick education in e-commerce and traditional retail sales since launching Mati Energy in 2012.
On the marketing side, there’s PR and marketing strategist Esther Campi, Written Word Media founder and digital strategist Ricci Wolman and Rachel Weeks Walter, who previously led marketing and branding efforts at Republic Wireless, bandwidth.com and The Redwoods Group.
The goals for the program are both specific for the companies and broad for North Carolina. American Underground believes most of the participants will launch an online storefront at the end of the program. They’ll create 25 new jobs over the following year. And they’ll help build a brand for North Carolina as a place to launch and grow new consumer product businesses.