Editor’s Note: Jim R. Roberts is the Founder of the Network for Entrepreneurs in Wilmington and the WALE Angel Network. Prior to being the Founding Executive Director of the UNCW CIE incubator, Jim also worked for the Durham based Center of Innovation for NanoBiotech (COIN), funded by the NC Biotechnology Center. Jim also started Entrepreneur Support Organizations in Charlotte and Asheville. Jim serves on committees for NC IDEA, NC TECH, and CED. He was also an employee of the North Carolina Department of Commerce in the International Trade Division.
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WILMINGTON – As we prepare to participate in the NC IDEA Ecosystem Summit this week, the leaders from the 100 counties of North Carolina are beginning to get anxious about the R word and how they will create jobs for their citizens in tougher economic times.
At the risk of upsetting former Tar Heels basketball coach Roy Williams again, like his unused timeouts, your unused political capital will not get you into a higher layer of heaven.
Last week in Wilmington, my one man non-profit entrepreneur support organization held a FREE half day conference on Life Sciences startups at the coast. No, there was not a red carpet, there was not much fluff, but there was great content and a great list of VIP contacts in the room. There was a little bubbly at the end of the event as a personal thank you gift to the out of town speakers.
I used my collection of political capital from 22 years of networking across the state to make something happen for the underfunded Life Sciences ecosystem of Wilmington.
What is preventing you from using that mile high stack of personal and professional favors to help an entrepreneur in your region? Again, when you wonder WHY doesn’t somebody do something to help your region, sometimes you just need to look in the mirror to realize the region is counting on YOU.
For the last 22 years, I have had a theory that I have shared with others about “Leadership through Attrition” which was recently confirmed. If you penalize potential leaders when they take risks on new efforts to make a positive impact, you end up with leaders who take NO risks and a stagnant economy. This is why I don’t count on the “Good Ol’ Boy network” to move my work forward. Funny how much faster you can move when you don’t spend time kissing rings.
Well, entrepreneurs create jobs not bureaucracies
What are cities and counties doing in North Carolina to support the entrepreneurs as job creators? Well, many of these regions are counting on funding from the NC IDEA Ecosystem and Engage grants because of stingy funding from city and county governments and stingier citizen donors. Or maybe that is just New Hanover County who donate fewer dollars per year to non – profits, less than 18% of Buncombe and less than 7% of Forsyth County citizen donors. (Seen in AssemblyNC.com)
While I love good brand name jobs announcements in North Carolina as a recovering economic developer, I sure wish our state would invest in the infrastructure of the startup ecosystems of the North State. Sure I am proud Apple chose North Carolina with incentives but an equal amount of money to support startups would have a magical impact to nurture the next set of startups to grow into unicorn Billion dollar employers.
I get it. Politicians don’t love the idea of state dollars going directly into individual entrepreneurs given that 70% of startups can fail in the first three to five years. They REALLY don’t want to be in the business of choosing winners and losers of the private companies in their regions. A losing investment would cost them votes.
But if you notice, that is not what I said. If there was an investment from the state into the ecosystem organizations, these organizations create programming for entrepreneurs. The old FasTrac program from the Kauffman Foundation used to say 70% of the participating startups in structured programming survived and thrived beyond five years.
How has Wilmington NC evolved our regional economy?
No, Wilmington is still isolated from state government resources by the imaginary I-95 divider east of the Triangle and we have not had the big job announcements of Apple, Microsoft, Facebook and not getting the auto and aerospace job announcements.
Yes, some of our bigger companies have received “Retention Incentives” grants where companies have to claim they are considering moving or expanding to a different state to get leverage to pressure local and state economic developers to give them jobs and building infrastructure cost incentive grants.
According to a recent report in Wilmington, the majority of the new 2,000 white collar jobs at the coast were created by entrepreneurs in small startups.
How has the startup ecosystem helped these entrepreneurs create new jobs?
Easy, we listen to the entrepreneurs even if we barely know them and we act on what they tell us they need. Entrepreneurs need action with speed as they hold off competitors. We can’t wait three years as the community gets to know the entrepreneurs.
- Need capital ?
Solutions – We have an Investor Preparation Workshop called our Tough Love event to improve presentation skills around value proposition. We also have an events calendar where entrepreneurs can apply and participate in Pitch Contests or investor conferences. I created a small angel investor network with people who have more risk tolerance and are willing to be the “First money” into local startups where they can leverage that investment with other regional investor groups.
- Need an introduction to prospects?
Solutions – We have held “Reverse Pitch or Aspirin” events where large employers present at an event where they describe the biggest pain points. We have also purchased tickets for entrepreneurs to attend large events or trade shows where they could meet their dream prospects.
- Need some media coverage?
Solutions – We use our media contacts not to promote our organization but to tell the stories of our startups. We have helped our startups get regional and national media coverage to raise their profile to get the attention of out of town prospects and investors.
We invited the national PBS TV show called “Start Up” and the Atlanta tech startup media to the beach to tell the stories of the entrepreneurs, not the ecosystem organization.
- Need help making tough decisions as a first time founder?
Solutions – A new Mentor network does not have to be a formal process. I usually meet with a new entrepreneur and ask them about the “Magic Wand” if they could have three wishes of help with their startup. They usually ask for capital, an intro to a local / regional prospect or an intro to better professional service providers like a low cost patent lawyer. Three weeks after this intro meeting with the entrepreneurs, I ask for feedback from both sides of the introductions. Did the mentor intro take the call, were they helpful, what is next? But I also call the referrals or mentors and I ask them about the follow through of the entrepreneurs from their meeting. You learn a lot about the entrepreneur if they were just looking for a handout or did they have the grit to follow through on suggestions made during the meetings.
- Need help with the STRESS of scaling a tech company as a first-time founder?
Solutions – NEW and UNCW CIE partnered on a NC IDEA Ecosystem grant to work with a local Wilmington consultant on an emotional intelligence and communications program to find healthier ways to deal with stress. The program received rave reviews.
- Need help as you are a new entrepreneur in town?
Solutions – A “Kitchen Cabinet” of local entrepreneurs. New high growth entrepreneurs are not really interested in meeting the Mayor. They want a social network of friendly but driven local entrepreneurs that they can learn from in their new town. Not the people who only want to talk to them to try to sell them a new house and then disappear