By Joe Procopio
Sometime in May, you’re going to be walking down Main street in Downtown Durham and pass by a glass-encased habitat at the front of a well-known coffee shop where a single entrepreneur or team of entrepreneurs will be feverishly working for your enjoyment.
You may stop in for a delicious coffee, you may just watch for a few minutes while lines of code are slung at some business problem that needs fixing. But when you walk away and go about the rest of your day, you’ll be thinking, “I should have thought of that.”
You’ll be peering through the glass at The Smoffice, a so-crazy-it-has-to-work partnership between the Greater Durham Chamber of Commerce, Downtown Durham Inc., Beyu Caffe, and a host of other local sponsors.
The idea is to give a single startup six months of free space in “the worlds smallest office” in downtown Durham, driving home the point that a startup doesn’t necessarily need big or fancy or cash or backing, but simply a great idea fostered in a stimulating and supportive environment.
It’s a rather artful statement on Durham as an up-and-coming startup ecosystem.
Of course, there are other bells and whistles, but these are grass roots bells and whistles, most importantly a nearby condo for potential out-of-town candidates, and also free custom office furniture, a tablet, assistance from experts in legal, accounting, and marketing, and finally connections to over 70 of the startups in downtown Durham.
The application process starts Wednesday, 2/29 (Leap Day, just to drive the quirkiness home), and more info can be found on http://www.thesmoffice.com
I’ll wait while you turn your world back rightside up.
So Who Did Think of That?
When people ask me how Durham has come from seemingly nowhere to emerge overnight as the most hypeworthy startup hub of the east coast, I give a varying array of reasons: The establishment of the American Tobacco Complex downtown, the low cost of space, the growing number of privately run support organizations, elves, etc. But usually I include one specific thing.
Or rather dude. Adam Klein at the Durham Chamber.
Klein is one of those guys you see at all the startup-related events in the area, from the smaller, street-level meetups to the big fancy conferences. Because he’s so much better looking than me, I tend to stay away from him, but I have gotten to know him, and I’m floored by the things he’s done, and the things he didn’t do, to contribute to the growth of Durham’s startup scene.
When people think of the Durham Chamber, which admittedly isn’t very often because of the fact that 90% of what they do is support behind the curtain, they think of things like Startup Stampede, a program that put a handful of budding startups into a downtown Durham space with infrastructure and mentoring – like an accelerator, but without the cash and investment components, although said investment was in Durham itself.
How to Start a Startup Stampede: Step 1 = Don’t Start a Startup Stampede
Klein now advises other chambers and government organizations from locals to regionals to the National Chamber on how to build a localized startup culture into a Stampede. His primary advice: Don’t do it, or rather, don’t start with the event, there’s a lot of prep work to do first.
For all the out-of-the-box thinking and risk taking that produced the Stampede, it was the months behind the scenes he and others spent talking to the local startup community and the greater business community.
This meant countless meetings with individual entrepreneurs and potential entrepreneurs, selling the benefits of Durham and listening, intently, to their needs and desires. This is not easy to do, since most of those lists of needs and desires usually start, ill-advisedly so, with “a boatload of working capital,” which of course the Durham Chamber does not have or have access to.
It also meant countless meetings with Durham companies, from giant corporations like HTC to establishments you wouldn’t expect to be a part of the ecosystem at all, like downtown’s Beyu Caffe. In these sessions, he’d sell the benefits of a sprouting startup community back to them, an equally difficult proposition when you’re talking about propping up a tax/customer base known for being broke and desperately seeking “a boatload of working capital.”
And finally, it meant getting out of the way — knowing what to provide, what to support, making it happen, and then letting it grow on its own, grass-roots, live or die.
I’m Looking at You, Every Other Startup Support Group
It took ages for all that to pay off in the form of Startup Stampede, and that, along with multiple other initiatives from both the public and private sectors, a metric ton of hard work from the startups themselves, a parsec of good press, and a half-dozen elves, is how the Durham startup ecosystem sprang up from “nowhere.”
With a couple of successful Startup Stampedes under their belt, Klein and frequent collaborator Matthew Coppedge from Downtown Durham Inc. knew that they had to evolve. They realized that in order to keep up with and properly serve Durham’s fledgling startup environment, they needed something new, something unique, and something bigger.
And because the Raleigh-Durham area has a reputation for being so vanilla that you can literally flavor your coffee with a few blades of grass taken from the finely manicured lawns of Cary, they knew it should push the boundaries a bit.
So they went small.
A Tiny Window Into Durham
Klein and Coppedge know that there isn’t nearly enough attention on Durham as a startup hub, certainly within the area and definitely outside of it. So they hope that there are several marketing aspects that can be ramped up through the lifecycle of The Smoffice.
It will start with the application process, which will be worldwide and centered around the uniqueness of the space. This is not only meant to attract outside entrepreneurs to the program, but also serve as an introduction to the location and the culture, a huge and very important task in keeping the Durham startup ecosystem growing.
The marketing will continue with the live nature of The Smoffice itself, offering locals and non-locals alike a peek into how entrepreneurs can succeed in Durham, with or without a Smoffice and all the sponsors and connections, but because of a culture that promotes risk, acceptance, help, sharing, and support. At one point there was talk of a documentary, but I don’t know where that went. It’s a great idea though
Wish I’d thought of it.
Joe’s last column offered “Five Reasons why you need to be at SEVC”
Joe Procopio heads up product engineering for automated content startup Automated Insights. He also founded and runs startup network ExitEvent, consulting marketplace Intrepid Company, and the Intrepid Media writers network. You can read him at http://joeprocopio.com and follow him at http://twitter.com/jproco.