There are numerous ways entrepreneurs get inspired to start a company. In the case of Carter Ellis, it was through taking a risk, finding a leader who both mentored and gave him the freedom to experiment, and being a sponge to learn all he could from the experience.
It’s been slightly over a year since Loading Dock Raleigh, a coworking space for nonprofits, small teams and consumer product startups, emerged from a retrofitted Winn-Dixie warehouse minutes from downtown Raleigh.
From the beginning, Loading Dock Raleigh founder Phillip Freeman envisioned the space as a home for his all-natural insect repellent brand Murphy’s Naturals, but he also wanted to surround himself with other consumer product brands. He formed a vision for a coworking space built on community-minded and social-good principles.
Freeman took on Ellis (pictured top) on as a founding team member early in the planning stages, and from there Ellis was responsible for building an engaged community around and inside of the space. He embodied his job title, “Community Manager.”
The 10,000 square foot space is home to service-oriented companies like marketing agency Chair 8 Media, consultancy ImagineX Consulting and coaching/training provider People Launching. Several tech startups are also based at Loading Dock, including restaurant discovery and review app Cureat, geolocational photo-sharing app Everview and automated ticket-pricing software SeatScouts. The building also houses groups like the North Carolina Craft Brewers Guild and nonprofits like the North Carolina Victim Assistance Network, EducationNC, the Jamie Kirk Hahn Foundation and Activate Good.
After Loading Dock opened in summer 2016, it quickly experienced demand for more space for consumer product and ecommerce companies to set up shop. Loading Dock responded by breaking ground on an expansion earlier this year, aimed to double the space with new offices, conference rooms, a classroom and even a “commerce hub” for consumer brands to store inventory, stage product photo shoots, and pack and ship products.
Ellis has been hard at work on the expansion for months, but now that the project is almost finished, he feels confident to hand it off to the Loading Dock team and pursue a year-long calling to start a new journey away from the Triangle. He’s moving back to his hometown of Chattanooga to start a furniture brand he hopes will serve lower income communities in the city.
In his farewell letter to colleagues and friends, Ellis wrote:
“In Chattanooga, due largely to systemic injustice, that looks like the rural and inner-city poor, people transitioning out of prison, and new immigrants. I am deeply committed to a vision of community in which all people can come together around the same table and contribute to the community potluck. For me, that means you have not only an awesome table at which to host others, but also a job that allows you to give and offer life to the community.”
The idea of “community” is exactly what motivates this move, and it’s exactly what Ellis is most proud of in his tenure at Loading Dock. As community manager, he has built programs including omelet breakfasts on the first of every month, regular happy hours, and three community parties every year in which Loading Dock team partners with nonprofits operating in the space.
This was an intentional way Loading Dock could stand out, he reflects. He sees these community development activities as genuinely reflective of the “no bullshit programming” mentality contrary to common networking events with often pointless nametags and superficial conversation.
Ellis’ final Omelette Friday was last week, in which he cooked 40 plates for the Loading Dock community. Now, he’s preparing for his last day October 27. But before he heads out of town, I caught up with him to reflect on his time at Loading Dock and plans for the future.
Our conversation is paraphrased below.
How did you get started at Loading Dock? What has been your role?
I met Phillip when I was an economics student at NC State. We were introduced by Elizabeth Benefield, the social entrepreneurship program manager for the university’s Institute for Nonprofits. The idea was really just a concept at the time, but we kept talking and planning, and I got onboard to launch Loading Dock right after I graduated.
The first months we spent building out the space and getting things set up. We took nine months to finally open, so we did a bunch of community involvement to get started in the beginning. We were focused on doing good work and doing it together, regardless of any type of industry. We were bringing people together to create serendipity and opportunity.
What has been the rewards?
We hit 100 members this past April, then we took an investor equity group for the expansion also that month. It was fun to be involved in that process and have free reign of the project and the programming involved with it.
In coming up with the original mission for the project, we didn’t write a plan on paper for a while. We wanted to do good work, and we felt we could do that by building the spaces to get stuff done and finding people to do it with. That’s always been our story: having the space to get it done. That’s always the end goal.
We had a really high demand for office space; we only had six when we opened so we knew from the beginning we needed more space for people to work. We also had a high demand for classroom space and we wanted to offer that to current members as well.
This expansion added a bit more square footage than we’d originally intended. We took an extra 200 square feet; that’s 30% more.
What are your proudest accomplishments at Loading Dock?
I’m really excited to have built something that brings good work and hand it off with everything running and good to go. The other part is that we raised a good chunk of change in this expansion and that was fun—we built connections naturally to get some investors onboard.
Really, the biggest thing I’m proud of is that we have a cool culture at work. That was pretty intentional. The majority of our programming is around the idea “how do we build a community where people can work together and be encouraged about what they’re doing?” It’s all about creating serendipity—that’s the most fun thing to do.
What are some of the milestones of the Loading Dock community you’ve noticed? (Specifically with the growth of the companies and entrepreneurs based there.)
Since we’re not specifically a startup, we’re really big on being incredibly inclusive. The founder has an interesting background from being in the military to the private sector and then to the startup community—the full gamut.
We’re open to everyone—we’ve had a couple of people start their own gigs and that’s been cool to see. I think the startups we do have are just getting going—Cureat is expanding and scaling, and Murphy’s is definitely taking off right now which is really, really cool.
Tell me about your next steps. What motivated your decision to move back to Chattanooga and launch your furniture brand?
This decision has been on the back-burner for about a year now. I started building furniture because I wanted to have a table in my house so I could bring a family over for dinner.
From there, I fell in love with building stuff. I built another table for my parents and then a table built to put in my Subaru and drive across the country. I like taking things apart and putting them back together to make a solid piece of furniture.
The idea for the move is also community-motivated. I met Phillip and helped build Loading Dock around social entrepreneurship—how to use business to solve problems rather than with a traditional nonprofit model. I definitely want to do that for a furniture business: build tables in a way that we can take them apart and ship them with an e-commerce platform.
The second part is jobs: I want to have this brand bend hiring practices in a way that makes starting and maintaining employment so much easier.
I’m in total idea state right now, but I want to be in Chattanooga with my family. Once I get settled there, I can pull together the mission and values and structures of what I want to do, and eventually build my own shop and hire people.
Is there anything you want to add about your experience?
I’ve learned a ton of things about giving away money when it works. One of the main ways we’re kind of living out the B Corp model is that Phillip commits to giving away a percent of gross revenue. Even though it hurts sometimes, it’s still awesome.
I’ve had a blast. I’m super thankful for the opportunity I’ve had and how much I’ve learned. I’m thankful for Phillip taking a chance on me.