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Epic Hack Day: an open to all code fest in the NC Triangle

Thursday, September 6th, 2012

By Joe Procopio

Joe Procopio

Joe Procopio

What do you get when you put 100 geeks in a room with computers and tell them to create whatever they want? I’d go with a Weird Science reference, but today’s geek hadn’t been born when that movie hit the theaters.

Durham startups Adzerk and Shoeboxed have joined forces with the American Underground startup hub and the Durham Chamber of Commerce to put on Epic Hack Day, a full day of no-rules creative coding with no stated goal other than to build something cool.

It’s Saturday, September 8th in the American Underground, and will run from 10:00 a.m. until early the next morning. All the essential fuel will be provided, including beer from local startup-friendly brewery Fullsteam.

This Needs to Happen

The lead organizer is Adzerk founder and CEO James Avery, who has been an entrepreneur-fixture in the booming Durham startup ecosystem over the last few years. Participating in almost every value-add event in the Triangle (and some non-value-add, I mean, the guy has a life) from Tech Jobs Under the Big Top to Southern Capitol Venture’s eSeries, Avery decided this event needed to happen, and quickly put the foundation together.

The concept of the company Hackathon is not new. You’ll find it everywhere from local startups — Automated Insights and Shoeboxed were two that got some mention — to Fortune 500 corporations looking to gain a technical and creative edge by letting their employees improvise and innovate and then rewarding the best concept.

But this is a first for the Triangle. Epic Hack Day is not limited to a single entity like a company hackathon, it’s not centralized around a specific language like a user-group hackathon, nor is the ultimate goal to create a viable company like a Startup Weekend.

“The idea is simple,” says Avery. “Let’s get 100 coders and designers together for 12 hours of work on fun and interesting projects. Think of it like a Startup Weekend but without any of the structure or pressure to ‘create a company.’”

All of the Tech, Twice the Fun

I know Avery, and I know he likes to push the edges of a concept enough to make it fun. At the aforementioned Tech Jobs under the Big Top, his recruiting video was the only other one I considered funnier that our own, and at the second version, he went with a straightforward approach that combined technology with showmanship.

He also delivered one of the best lines of advice at eSeries when he told an entrepreneur who had been banging her head against the wall trying to find affordable tech talent to get online and learn enough code to get through her prototype.

He knows why it’s fun to be a startup employee, why it’s cool to be a coder, and why it’s important to embrace technology beyond the standard development lifecycle.

For Coders By Coders

Shoeboxed is also a player in the startup ecosystem, contributing to and being a part of several of the local community-building events. Their last hackathon was a multi-company affair, and they plan on staging another in the not-too-distant future.

Make no mistake, though, this is technology-based. Everyone will be there to get their hands dirty – well, as dirty as you can get on a keyboard. There will be snacks, so there you go.

If this sounds like your kind of thing and you have Saturday free, you can register for Epic Hack Day here.  I’ll be super curious to see what comes out of this, how it can be used, and who will run with it.

Joe Procopio (@jproco) heads up product engineering for automated content startup Automated Insights, which is also StatSheet. He also founded and runs startup network ExitEvent,. You can read him at


New startup accelerator Groundwork Labs launching in Durham

Tuesday, November 15th, 2011
Joe Procopio

Joe Procopio

By Joe Procopio

It’s always good to get a second chance.

Ask anyone involved in the startup game and they’ll tell you: Part of the makeup of a great entrepreneur is the ability to deal with failure. This ability usually comes, oddly enough, with actually having failed, at least once, on the way to success. It’s a conundrum of the game.

The North Carolina Research Triangle had an accelerator, very recently, and it was successful, and it closed up shop, which caused a lot of disappointment and heartbreak within the startup community. But it’s important to note that while Groundwork Labs will fill the void left by Launchbox in the American Underground in Durham, it’s not a replacement.

It’s something new, with new players, a new mission, and a new vision.

And the fact that the RTP gets another shot with the acceleration concept, that’s, well, lucky, to say the least.

How It Works

Groundwork Labs, much like your traditional accelerator, will select promising startups for a three month session and load them up with the standard foundational elements: space, advice, connections, mentoring, and the all-important $20,000 in walking around money.

They’re starting quickly out of the gate, Spring 2012, which means you should get your application in yesterday. They expect to work with between five and seven startups per session and run at least one and hopefully two sessions per year.

I actually got wind of the Groundwork Labs news about a week ago, but I had been sworn to secrecy. I’m not sure why they were so worried. I’m not that kind of journalist. I’m the other kind. The lazy kind.

Official word broke yesterday afternoon, which happened to be just hours before the monthly ExitEvent social I host for area entrepreneurs, which happened to coincide with the TechJournal Deck Party, in Raleigh, which happened to fall on the eve of Internet Summit 2011 at the Raleigh Convention Center, resulting in a Catalina Wine Mixer of startup tech marketing investor type people in one place. So I had access to a lot of opinion. Others I got to via emails. Disclaimer: There was no free beer involved in the solicitation of opinion.

And overall the opinion is very, very hopeful.

What Do You Think?

“Love it,” says iContact’s Aaron Houghton, “Durham deserves it and many passionate entrepreneurs will benefit from it.”

“Launchbox proved that having a local incubator is important to the entrepreneurial ecosystem,” says Robbie Allen, CEO of Automated Insights. “It really helps raise the profile of all startups in the area.”

James Avery, founder of Adzerk and a very passionate voice when Launchbox closed up shop is, well, excited again. “I am thrilled to see that Durham will once again host an accelerator. I love that John Austin is involved as I think he has done a great job with Joystick so far.”

John Who?

John Austin, Director of Joystick Labs, will also head the Groundwork effort. Before any of the gamers freak out, nothing is going to happen to Joystick. It will continue to operate independently, though it does get a boost in efficiency of shared resources. Joystick will get its next semester underway this summer, and the two efforts will continue to operate in leapfrog fashion.

I got a chance to sit down with John again yesterday. We hadn’t really caught up since he took the helm of Joystick right before this year’s East Coast Game Conference.

The two players in Groundwork Labs, Capitol Broadcasting  and NC IDEA  are very excited about it, according to Austin. There will be synergy between the entities with resources obviously coming from the Underground, as well as the possibility that some of the startups chosen for Groundwork will come from NC IDEA – even though there will be separation in the process, with two separate application programs, etc.

NC IDEA, the grant program that has a symbiotic relationship with VC firm Idea Fund Partners, and another organization I got to dig down into recently, is another positive. Beyond being the region’s best kept secret for early stage entrepreneurs, they’re entire mission is to aid the area in terms of building up a successful, thriving, early-stage ecosystem.

“I think this is an important piece of the puzzle for building a stronger entrepreneurial ecosystem in North Carolina,” says Lister Delgado, Founder and General Partner at Idea Fund Partners.

“It is another way to help attract entrepreneurial talent to the state, and to keep the resident talent here. Besides the money and the assistance that an accelerator can provide to the entrepreneurs participating, an accelerator is a great marketing tool for the community. That is why we are excited to be involved.”

Two Types of Investment

Austin backs this up, and notes that NC IDEA and Capitol Broadcasting, who owns and operates the American Tobacco Campus, have split the infrastructure costs from the investment in the companies. This model is much like how Joystick operates. The investors see the investment in the infrastructure of Joystick as an investment in the entrepreneurial community. Not a donation, per se, but with an expectation for a different kind of return.

This is the critical factor in the potential success of Groundwork. Capitol Broadcasting has a business interest in seeing it succeed, through the American Underground and several other initiatives they have operating in the startup ecosystem. As for NC IDEA, early-stage success here is what their mission is built upon. Groundwork is almost like an expansion of their program, a runway off of the grant money, or even just the runway when the money isn’t a critical factor.

This vested interest, skin in the game, if you will, from the funding parties, is designed to give Groundwork enough time to decide whether or not the accelerator will work. That, of course, is up to the companies selected, and in some sense the rest of here in the area already hard at work at making the region stick as an entrepreneurial hub.

So in that sense, Groundwork Labs is another good sign. Second chances are hard to come by, so you’ve got to jump on the opportunity when they do.

Zack Mansfield, VP at Square 1 Bank and manager of their startup assistance program Square Roots, sums it up nicely. “It’s exciting to see a new accelerator for a lot of reasons but the most significant is that if this region is serious about becoming a top hub for startups, we need more of just about everything – more capital, more entrepreneurs, and more people in the ecosystem supporting new ventures to help them grow.”

Joe Procopio heads up product engineering for tech media startup Automated Insights (formerly StatSheet). He also owns consulting firm Intrepid Company  and creative network Intrepid Media and runs the startup social ExitEvent. Joe can be reached via Twitter @jprocoand read at


Tech jobs under the Big Top 2: running away with the startup circus

Monday, October 17th, 2011

By Joe Procopio

Joe Procopio

Joe Procopio

Did you read the piece I wrote back in May about Tech Jobs Under the Big Top?  Click on it so I get the credit and I’ll boil it down for you here.

  1. The brainchild of former Launchbox Executive Director Chris Heivly, Big Top purported to create a job fair strictly for startups and, in doing so, turn the concept of a job fair completely on its head.
  2. Underwear joke.
  3. It succeeded, and the event drew 15 companies pitching over 85 jobs to over 250 job-seekers in an atmosphere that resembled an actual circus, down to the clowns, jugglers, and free peanuts and cotton candy.

No wait, I know I just blew your mind, so you might have missed where I said 15 companies pitched 250+ job seekers — not screened, but pitched – with each company giving a three-minute presentation on why their startup was the place you wanted to work.

We’re Changing the World Plus We Have a Ping Pong Table

I loved that concept. A lot. I was there with one of the companies doing the pitching. So I sat down with Heivly as he was gearing up for Big Top 2.0, which is taking place Thursday, October 20th at Bay 7 in the American Tobacco Campus. You can find out more at BigTop.IT or just go register at:

If you’re looking for a job and/or have ever thought about working for a startup, there is no better way to amplify your job search. Even if you’re gainfully employed, as about half of the job-seekers at Big Top are, you may want to drop by (although if you’re unprepared to be swayed by the magic and the majesty and the long hours and the low pay of Startup Nation, save the ticket for someone who needs it).

In my own view, the concept was a smash hit for a lot of reasons. As I pointed out in my last column, the Big Top event succeeded at removing the stigma of unemployment by turning the tables and having the potential employers sell themselves. Finding a job is hard enough. Finding a job at a job fair is like getting a root canal. Finding a job at a job fair during a recession is like getting a root canal from someone who works in Human Resources.

This is why Heivly had us pitch the job seekers, and I can tell you firsthand that each company got on board and produced presentations that ranged from gut-bustingly funny to eye-opening inspirational. You couldn’t help but have a smile on your face by the second or third pitch.

Do You Have Any Idea Who I Am?

BitTop event

The Big Top jobs event

But this is not the kind of endeavor you undertake a second time just because you made people feel better. Believe me, if I had a nickel for every time something I wrote made someone laugh, I’d make even less money writing than I do now.

You’re welcome.

One thing Heivly pointed out that I wouldn’t have put together is that Big Top and the resultant hype also dropped the names and identities of many local, working, hiring startups into the lexicon of 250 potential employees.

A lot of feedback from the first event centered around the fact that the job seekers just didn’t know there were this many of this kind of company in the area. You may not think this possible, I sure didn’t, but those of us who are immersed in the ecosystem, especially those of us shouting from the rooftops about how awesome this ecosystem is, can easily forget that the vast number of people out there have never heard of any of us.

But most importantly, Big Top succeeded as a job fair, resulting in a vast amount of connections, many useful relationships, and of course, several filled positions.

So What’s New?

Here we are just under half-a-year later and the outlook really hasn’t changed all that much. The silver lining on the cloud is that there are still at least a dozen smart, passionate startups who need smart, passionate technologists.

This time around, Heivly tells me, there will be more focus on the networking. One easy solution is that there are three fewer companies, so they still get the three minute pitch, but it won’t take as much time.

Heivly is also sending out an email to all registrants with all 60+ jobs that the startups need filling, so both sides can get right to the point.

In an additional effort to make the discussions more efficient, Big Top 2.0 will feature 12 tables, one for each company, instead of three tables, one for each discipline (technology, marketing, general business).

You Have To Be Crazy To Work Here

Overall, Heivly admits he’s done a little better job talking about the companies. Correspondence with the registered job-seekers is about making sure that the right people are there – because these are early-stage tech companies, and the jobs are more than 50 percent software development.

Last time, he says, about 20 percent of the crowd realized they didn’t belong there. Why? They just weren’t the special kind of crazy you need to be to work at a startup. Again, it’s high risk, long hours, low pay, and so glamorous that the vast majority of people out there will never have heard of you.

But it’s the other 80 percent that the startups need to reach. As Heivly jokes, and I agree, every developer we get from IBM is a win for the ecosystem.

One thing that won’t change, thankfully and rightly so, is the tone. There will still be jugglers and acrobats and the tent and the straw and the free beer and carnival snacks. All of this lends to a very comfortable networking environment.

At some point, Heivly wants to see this expand out of software and into life science and other startup disciplines. I told him I think gaming would be huge, and he agreed. But regardless of whether we’re talking about a BigTop 3.0 for web, mobile, biotech, gaming, clean & green, or craft brewing, as long as we’re talking about the RTP startup ecosystem, we’ll reach more people who have never heard of companies like Adzerk, EvoApp, Shoeboxed, HEALTHeME, ReverbNation, Argyle Social, and so on.

Mort importantly however, the more those companies keep finding smart, passionate technologists (like you), the less we’ll need to talk about it, because it will speak for itself.

Joe Procopio heads up product engineering for tech media startup Automated Insights (formerly StatSheet). He also owns consulting firm Intrepid Company and creative network Intrepid Media and runs the startup social ExitEvent. Joe can be reached via Twitter @jproco and read at


Are we in a tech bubble? Four RTP entrepreneurs reflect national difference of opinion

Thursday, July 28th, 2011
American Underground

Artist's rendering of the American Underground space

RESEARCH TRIANGLE, NC – As new media companies roll out billion-dollar IPOs, four CEOs from the American Underground, an RTP startup hub, weigh in on whether the enthusiasm is on target or out of control.  Their differing opinions reflect the national debate. Some say yes, some say no.

Jason Massey, Sustainable Industrial Solutions:
“We are ABSOLUTELY in a new tech bubble!  Anyone that tells you different is financially benefiting from it or was not around for the last Internet bubble.

“Having been in venture capital through the last boom and bust the signs are almost identical from the last bubble.  While the funding vehicles are a little different, you still see ‘late stage’ investors clamoring to get into hot deals.

“But instead of trying to get into a rush of IPOs, investors are buying shares through secondary markets.  In the last bubble you had undergraduates running incubators.  Today, you see some undergrads doing venture capital work.

“It is not all bad.  As with the last bubble you had significant innovation survive the nuclear winter.  You will see the same in this bubble.  There will be innovation that improves quality of life.  Whether that is something like Zynga’s Farmville or Twitter it may still be a bit early to see who survives this shakeout but you are seeing the positive affects of Twitter and social networks in events like the Arab Spring.

“And while this crop of hyped companies do have impressive revenues and some profits, one thing is for certain, as second and third tier companies make their way through IPO markets and disappoint with collapsing numbers, you will see the secondary market implode, valuations will reset and lots of unsophisticated investors will lose money.  And the SEC will have failed us again.”

Keval Mehta, Jaargon Ltd:
“I don’t think that America is looking at a new ‘tech bubble.’  Tech is becoming part of our daily lives and affecting every single industry.  Tech is now more than just ‘web sites’ as it was in the last tech bubble.  Anyone with an idea, either good or bad, got funding.  Investors, entrepeneurs, and the general public are now more aware of what’s a good idea and how it can affect them in their day to day lives.

“This rationale alone will prevent another tech bubble.  Zygna in gaming and Groupon in commerce are single-handedly disrupting their individual industries with their products, and their valuation and sending a ripple affect in the tech industry.

“Their affect and valuation are allowing investors who are sitting on a lot of cash that they were unwilling to spend in the recession to now start seeking investments.  It may be starting another gold rush.  In our company we feel there is a huge void in healthcare technology.  It is one of the most untapped markets when it comes to consumer tech and healthcare.  We hope to fill in that gap with products and services that allow users to use tech to manage their healthcare.”

James Avery, Adzerk:
“The companies going public today have significant revenue and growth – something that didn’t exist in the last bubble.  Zynga is bringing in around $1 billion a year in revenue. Groupon brought in $645 million in the first quarter of 2011 (although they still lost money). Even Pandora, which went public recently, is close to hitting $100 million a year in revenue.

“We will know we have hit a bubble when the companies getting huge valuations aren’t generating meaningful revenue.  When you look back at the big busts in 2000, WebVan went public at a $6 billion valuation and they had under $4 million in revenue ALL TIME before their IPO. revenue only hit $5 million in the quarter before they went public. People started claiming it was a bubble when Google went public at such a high valuation – but I think with a time machine any one of us would go back and buy their stock at the IPO price.”

Nick Jordan, Smashing Boxes:
“In short, I believe we have a flawed system.  on the one hand, you have companies like Amazon and Google, where the majority of their current market value was created after their IPOs.  That means that the founders and investors who took all of the risk made less off the entire deal than your everyday stock investor or mutual fund.

“On the other hand, with these hyper inflated valuations, you have a lot of VCs who need to make a certain return on their investment, so they pump up prospectuses and pass off the risk to these same mutual funds and average Joe investors.  Neither is ideal.”

One thing we have heard repeatedly at Tech Media digital conferences is that while there may be valuation boom for Internet firms on the West Coast, that is not true in the Northeast or Southeast.

See also: Infographic: Tech boom or bubble? You decide

Adzerk’s No-BS Approach Results in $650K

Monday, July 18th, 2011


Joe Procopio

Joe Procopio

Adzerk Founder and CEO James Avery is the kind of guy you just sort of immediately feel a kinship with. It’s not because he’s filthy rich, although he is, or because he’s quick to give you a sticker, he’s got tons of them, it’s the fact that he’s a straight talker who always happens to know exactly what he’s talking about.

Example: At the recent Tech Jobs Under the Big Top job fair, when a dozen RTP startups got up on stage to present to roughly 250 job seekers, Avery showed a minute or two of the Startup Guys video, which then faded to black with the caption:

“Not all startups are full of ****.”

What Did He Just Say?

Huge laugh from the crowd, but this is exactly what Avery is about. It’s a joke, right? Or is it? I dig that. Plus he hired someone from that event, so obviously at least one other person dug it as well.

I feel a kinship with Avery because we took a similar path. We both got out of the corporate technology world and started one-person consulting practices that grew over time into larger and more successful consulting practices. Neither of us were ultimately happy, no wait, neither of us were fulfilled. Something was missing.

It was the startup thing.

So while I started shifting the focus of my practice to the startup world, Avery went out and started another company.

Enter Adzerk

More specifically, he bought an ad network in 2007 which was bare bones, and he replaced it and built on top of it. In the beginning, he was only using it for himself, but then he started another vertical ad network and modified the software to run both of them, The Lounge and Ruby Row.

When he tried to start a third ad network, he realized that the software itself was a more compelling play than creating and running ad networks.

Now, there’s a long history of companies in the ad-tech industry trying to run networks and sell software at the same time, and usually the software part ends up becoming the ugly stepchild. You just can’t do both and have both be successful. So in December 2010, he sold off one of the ad networks and focused on the stepchild.

The RTP Startup Playbook

An office in American Underground came first. And when the Underground announced via Twitter that Adzerk was moving in, Avery got a tweet asking if he was hiring.

Now he had space, an engineer, and a little bit of runway. So when he saw how much of an impact those dollars made, he knew he needed more.

He ran the gamut of the RTP support structure, including the aforementioned job fair, the CED Venture Conference (although he knew everyone there), TechMedia’s Internet Summit (where he met the guys from Argyle, Spring Metrics, and JobKatch), Launch Durham (although he launched at Calacanis’ LAUNCH Conference), and even though he was too far along for Startup Stampede or Launchbox, he eventually hired three former Launchboxers.

Elevator Pitch

Most every ad server has two fundamental problems. It’s likely built on 90s technology and it’s probably run by a big media company.

Adzerk is independent and based on current generation technology. And they innovate. Right now they have what Avery calls an “incrementally better ad server.” It’s faster, the ads get served asynchronously, stats are real time, all cloud based, scales quickly.

Some publishers care a lot about this, others don’t. So Adzerk has carved out a market where those features are differentiators. But Avery knows that having an “incrementally better” mousetrap is not enough.

So Adzerk is going after bigger game. They’re bucking the traditional model – enterprise software, contracts, etc. Thus, the pitch becomes “let’s change the way ad-serving works.”

Good pitch!

Eight months go by. $650K seed round.

This is where the story gets a little funny, because out of that $650K Avery finished raising this month, exactly $25,000, or just a little under 4%, came from in-state.

Avery says he was naïve as every other first-time fundraiser, figuring he’d go to the people he knew, find the right ones at the right time, and get just what he needed to get to the next level. It took about a month before he realized he needed to talk to anyone and everyone who would pick up the phone. So he did.

That says two things. But neither of them is a soap-boxy “Local investors need to invest in more local companies!”

Santa Claus. What?

I’ve got a great analogy for this. This is like asking Santa Claus to quit bringing a bunch of presents every Christmas and instead just show up with one present on the 25th of each month.

I know. That one came to me in a traffic jam.

The frustrating thing about the RTP investment region is that we’ve got a bunch of investors and a bunch of startups but 95% of the time the goals of one do not match the intentions of the other, and vice versa.

When Avery and I discussed this, the lament wasn’t “Man, it would be cool if the local VCs would start investing their big bucks in early stage companies,” it was more like “Man, it would be cool if we had some apparatus here by which several early-stage companies could raise $100K on a standard term sheet.”

That’s the first thing. The second thing is a lot more hopeful.

Startup Investing Enters the 2000s

Adzerk’s path to funding is not unique. There have been a number of investments here lately that have involved money from the west coast, New York, pretty much everywhere, and it’s getting easier. During his fundraise, Avery left the area twice, and one of those trips was to shake hands with the lead before they signed the term sheet.

It’s a good tale, a no-BS founder product company with customers and revenue operates within a robustly-evolving support system to land seed-stage money and swing for the fences

Rinse and repeat, people.

Joe Procopio heads up product engineering for sports media startup StatSheet . He also owns consulting firm Intrepid Company ( and creative network Intrepid Media and runs the startup social ExitEvent ( Joe can be reached via Twitter @jproco and read at


Tech Jobs Under the Big Top: Hot Dogs, Beer, Jugglers, Jobs

Thursday, May 26th, 2011

By Joe Procopio

Joe Procopio

Joe Procopio

Last night, a guy apologized to me for being between jobs.

It wasn’t the first time, far from it, but having spent the last too many years of my career either working at, working with, or starting a startup, I’ve been “between jobs.” I’ve had all the wrong factors conspire to bring about the worst news at the worst time and been left to ponder what the frivolity I was supposed to do next. Yeah, I’ve been there.

But dude, don’t ever apologize for being unemployed, especially in this economy and especially when you’re taking a chance on doing something potentially extraordinary.

Between a Job and a Hard Place

The reason I bring up the apology is to highlight the way Chris Heivly turned the notion of a job fair on its head on Tuesday night at the aptly-named Tech Jobs Under the Big Top event in Bay 7.

The atmosphere was exactly what you’d imagine at an event with such a preposterous name, down to the straw and peanut shells on the floor. There were hot dogs to eat, beer and soda to drink, popcorn and cotton candy, jugglers, stilt-walkers, and red-and-white fabric draped in such a way as to recall a giant tent.

Big Top IT crowd

Big Top IT crowd

It was well done and charmingly cool — an atmosphere dutifully and subtly created to derail any sort of awkwardness on the part of the job-seeker.

But then you have to remember the context.

Life In and Out of the Cube

I’ve also worked on the corporate side. And I didn’t hate it. I’ve never been one of those punks with a chip on my shoulder trying to stick it to the man by starting my own company. Clarification: I am that kind of punk, but not about work or money. I have three kids and common sense. I’ll stick it to the man by listening to loud hard rock like every other suburb kid my age.

But again, I understand how that environment can elicit an apologetic response when one is forcibly removed from it.

Turns out, the guy had spent 20+ years at what had been a solid corporation, made it through more than a few waves of cutbacks and reductions-in-force, until finally his turn came and with little more than a thanks-for-everything, he was set out to begin his new, unsolicited journey.

In the startup world. This happens all the time. Basically you get up and bust your butt every day to make sure it doesn’t happen by the time you go back to bed.

You get used to that.

So Where Do You See Us In Five Years?

Heivly also turned the tables on the process. The companies involved were all startups at various stages, and they had to pay to be a part of it and they had to bring real, full-time jobs to the table. In all, 15 startups with 85+ open positions participated.

The startups also had to pitch to the job-seekers, rather than the other way around.

Full disclosure: I was there for StatSheet, a Durham-based sports media startup. And we kicked off a series of three-minute on-stage pitches to the job-seekers, telling them who we were, what we did, what the day-to-day was like, and what we were looking for. Ours included a video, as about half of the rest did. Others brought slides. All were compelling.

James Avery from pre-funded ad-delivery product company Adzerk used the Startup Guys viral video and a swear to get a huge and poignant laugh. On the other end of the spectrum, handset-maker HTC (I know, right?) had a top-quality video presentation that underlined their… bigness.

Doug Kaufman from deeper-than-analytics company SpringMetrics used subliminal messages to get the point across. Tobi Walter from financial-organizer Shoeboxed went for the brass ring with a live video feed. And energy device-maker PlotWatt took advantage of the three minutes to make a serious and very provocative pitch.

All Your Networking In One Place

If anything could have been different, we wished for more time for general networking with the job seekers to introduce ourselves in such a relaxed atmosphere, which is probably the best way to make some of those initial fit determinations. As a rule though, we were told (and they were told) to hold off on the serious networking until the end of the pitches, as a matter of respect and to make it fair.

But there was another, maybe unexpected reason to hold off. As everyone filed in at the beginning of the evening, I noticed a general stiffness among the crowd – lots of arms crossed, lots of blank stares. And again, I get it. There were 250 people registered for the event, and another 250 on a wait list. There was a line outside the door.

This was serious business, even if it was presented as exactly the opposite.

Vertical Circus Tents

Big Top presentationWhen the presentations were finished and everyone had eaten and (hopefully) had a beer to get the rest of that edge off, the startup folks were sent off to three tents – one for general business roles, one for sales and marketing roles, and one for technology roles.

We then talked one-on-one with whomever walked up and we answered any and every question they had about the company, the position, the day-to-day, anything we didn’t make crystal in a goofy 90-second video.

This was also very helpful, in terms of linking up with the people with the right skills who now had an inkling of whether there was a fit on their side. I stopped counting at 20 people, most of whom I wanted to talk to again.

But Did It Work?

I think I just answered that.

My colleagues also got a stack of resumes, business cards, and follow-up emails. Having since spoken to a few of the other startups involved, that success seems to have happened across the board.

So in the end it was an interesting experiment but one definitely built on more than a wild hypothesis. It speaks to the very nature of the startup world itself. Do things differently, disrupt, stand out, and at the end of the day you should have something very valuable.

Chris wrapped up by asking people to complete a survey, and that the results might determine whether or not there should be another one. I don’t think he needed the survey. It’s anecdotal, of course, but as things were winding down, I spotted the apology guy leaving Bay 7, smiling, and telling his buddy, “This was the most fun job fair I’ve ever been to.”

When have you ever heard that?

Joe Procopio heads up product engineering for sports media startup StatSheet. He also owns consulting firm Intrepid Company and creative network Intrepid Media and runs the startup social ExitEvent.  Joe can be reached via Twitter @jproco or via

CED Venture 2011: Mission Accomplished. Now What?

Friday, April 29th, 2011

By Joe Procopio

Joe Procopio

Joe Procopio

Congratulations Research Triangle Park area of North Carolina! You’ve done it. You’re now an entrepreneurial hub rivaling that of any city in the nation, attracting talent and investment from all over the country while cranking out exit after ridiculously-valuated exit. You’ve got your heart in Downtown Durham, your brains in the Universities, your backbone in the infrastructure, a calcium-fortified support system, and a very big mouth of a media touting every kid who walks out of UNC or IBM and purports to start the next next next Twitter.

None of what you just read is true.

But it could be. It’s truish.

What If It Were True?

That’s a damn good question. And it’s what I had on my mind while walking the wide-aisled halls of the Raleigh Convention Center for this Year’s CED Venture. This year, the conference returned to Raleigh (good move) from Pinehurst (too far to commute and everything closes at 9:00 p.m.), and took on a new look to match CED’s recent re-imagining in September.

Like Tron.

This is also a good thing. The move into the American Underground along with fellow anchors Launchbox and Joystick meant there was a lot of new energy. There were hordes of entrepreneurs walking the halls when they weren’t manning demo booths.

Companies as young as Argyle, Adzerk, DejaMi, CityPockets, Jaargon, Appuware (which had been live for 12 hours) were all showing off. And when they weren’t, they were mingling, and when they weren’t, they were drinking.

I’m for that.

Four out of Four

Over the last 58 days, I’ve been to four major events involving startups from or related to the RTP, each completely different and each totally valuable.

In early March, there was the Southeast Venture Conference in Atlanta. Yes, this wasn’t in RTP, but that only goes to show you the regional strength we’ve created. In late March, Startup Madness provided a look at some of the earlier stage companies making their mark in the Triangle.

A few weeks back, the newly-expanded East Coast Game Conference highlighted the sheer awesomeness (is there a better word for a video game conference? I think not) of the local gaming ecosystem. And my tour was capped with CED Venture, which did a fine job of proving that after 28 years, it could still run with the youngsters (so to speak). I know this because it’s what I do every day.

Ouch. My back.

So I’m calling it. RTP, and Durham especially, has made its mark, established itself, slapped on a new coat of paint and done some amazing things to get that spark going that’s been eluding this area for years.

Now What?

Let’s imagine that we’ve taken that next step, and the RTP has moved beyond New York and Boston and is rivaling the Valley for the best talent, the most activity, prominent deal flow, and copious successful exits.

What would that next conference look like?

I walked around CED Venture and asked this question, and the answers from the attendees not only proved out my theory that we’re on the right track, but also confirmed some of the advancements we’ve made in the conferences themselves from slight innovations, tweaks in each.

In all of this pestering, there was one question asked of me, and that question kind of brought it all together. A particularly insightful out-of-town investor, while going over the pros and cons of the companies gathered in the demo room, asked me if there was another wave or two of upcoming entrepreneurs beyond these. Without hesitation, my answer was “Hell yeah.”

Then I thought about these four events, and figured out how to bring it all together.

The Lite Ticket

At these conferences, every once in a while I have a booth or I’m doing a pitch  or I’m helping a company demo, but mostly I’m a stalkerpreneur, walking around the conference, sitting in on sessions, trying to learn and network. Stealing stressballs.

And the thing about the RTP entrepreneurs is they’re getting younger, they’re starting sooner, they’re more agile, lean and, well, hungry.

This year’s East Coast Game Conference had three levels of admission, including a $99 rate that got you in the Convention Center and some of the sessions. No frills, no free lunch, no fancy bag. I know these things need to make money, but your everyday unfunded entrepreneur has moxie, has get-up-and-go, has drive, and has passion.

You know what they don’t have?

Straight cash homey.

What the lite ticket does though is it fuels that next group, gets them involved, on the radar, and sets them up for bigger things. Almost every company from Startup Madness, including this year’s winner Rippple, had a presence at CED Venture. Beautiful. With a lite ticket, that math gets exponential.

The Pitch Thing

I’m starting to turn against the elevator-pitch-as-entertainment concept. Don’t get me wrong, I do believe everyone needs to get their story out, but it has to be handled with care. Having done it, I can tell you it’s hard enough condensing your life’s work and all your hopes and dreams down into two minutes. It’s harder still to do that on a stage trying to figure out which folks in the audience are taking notes and which ones are tweeting about where the happy hour might be.

For the record, I do both.

One of the highlights from CED Venture was the use of panels to showcase some of the startup talent, sometimes side-by-side with the investors. Sure, we need to hear about the state of the industry and trends and opportunities from the expert side, but putting the founders on a panel is a great way to get their story outside of the canned two-minute spiel.

Crossover Hit

But my answer to the out-of-town investor came from this concept: There was a just-as-large contingent of talent exuding a just-as-fever-pitched intensity at the very same location a few weeks back during the East Coast Game Conference.

In my blog, lamented the fact that there weren’t enough of us startup hacks at that conference, and the reverse is also true, but not to such a degree. I also noted that the camaraderie that exists in the gaming industry is top-notch, and that we could learn even more from them about helping each other and boosting the local image.

Talk about a best-kept secret. RTP is probably number two in the country in gaming. Who knew?

OK yeah, you probably knew.

Again, having Joystick as a co-anchor in the Underground with Launchbox and CED is a very good idea, and there were some gaming companies stalkerpreneuring and even demoing at Venture. Plus the first keynote at CED Venture was the incredible (I’m an unabashed fan) Dr. Michael Capps from Epic.

The first thing he said was there would be no talk of debt-to-equity ratios or anything of that nature because that wasn’t his area of expertise. He then proceeded to hold everyone’s attention for the next 60 minutes talking about video games, mistakes, and alternative ways of creating a multi-million dollar company.

In my mind, this is where that next wave is coming from, something I alluded to the first time I wrote about the inaugural Game Conference two years ago. That one also had Michael Capps as the keynote. I know. I just blew your mind.

So if CED Venture taught me anything, it was that the area has done the up-and-comer thing. We’ve started playing like we’re number two, even though we aren’t. Yet. And that’s the exact right move.

Joe Procopio heads up product engineering for sports media startup StatSheet . He also owns startup consulting firm Intrepid Company (and creative network Intrepid Media ( Did you see where he hinted that he was the big mouth of media? Kind of pathetic, no? Joe can be reached via Twitter @jproco.


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Pongageddon: The RTP startup ecosystem goes rogue

Monday, March 21st, 2011

By Joe Procopio

Joe Procopio

Joe Procopio

This year’s Final Four was as heated and satisfying as all the hype built it up to be. And when it was over, cheers erupted not only for the champion, but for the three other finalists as well. In the true spirit of competition, backs were patted, hands were shook, and only a small fraction grumbled about the seeding and the venue selection.

I know what you’re thinking. And while my StatSheet robot-enabled picks are currently crushing brackets throughout the country in my own “Bringing Down the House” moment (I’m thinking Ben Mezrich, David Fincher, and Bradley Cooper), what I’m talking about today, a full two weeks before the end of the NCAA Tournament, is Pongageddon.

Pong I

Late last year, the crew at StatSheet hosted a day of pizza, soda, T-shirts, and ping-pong to celebrate… something. And that’s the point. It wasn’t an award or a demo, there were no high-profile speakers (we tried to get Bob Young, but apparently in Canada they play ping-pong outdoors on ice with regulation mittens and it’s called Ice Mittens). There were no slide decks, no sponsors or booths.

It was just a way for friends and friends of friends to get together, blow off a little steam, and possibly win a trophy with a Buick on top that said “2nd Place” by beating everyone in the room, bracket style, at ping-pong.

That feat was accomplished by iContact and Preation’s Aaron Houghton who, while seeming very nonchalant in a dress shirt and khakis, trumped everyone with his own equipment bag, gold-plated paddle, and grizzled old coach who stood in the corner and glared at everyone, occasionally shooting Aaron a nod when it was time to take out someone’s knee.

Kidding, the paddle wasn’t gold plated.

But as Aaron’s name was duct-taped to the bottom of the Buick trophy, it was obvious that this would not be the only instance of this event.

Pong II

So this past Friday, just because, StatSheet opened the doors again. No Eventbrite, not a lot of promotion, just email to everyone anyone knew plus some light Twittering and Facebooking.

This time, building-mates and fellow startuppers NetSertive played co-hosts, offering up a second table, a refrigerator full of beer, and a break room full of food, essentially doubling down on the entire experience.

Around 50 hardworking entrepreneurs showed up, as well as a few investors and advisors. Pleasantries were exchanged and then the mayhem got underway.

The brackets included representatives from StatSheet and NetSertive and also, let’s go alphabetical:

Adzerk, Appia, Argyle Social, DejaMi, DigitalSmiths, HireNetworks, Intersouth, Loyalese, Idea Fund Partners, Plotwatt, Preation, Robinson Bradshaw & Hinton, Southern Capitol, Square One Bank, and WeGeo – and I’m sure I’m leaving more than one out, this is just all I could remember off of the top of my head.

Play By (Mobile/Web/Social) Play

Needless to say, the competition on the table matched the nature of the players. Whether the talent level was lacking (names withheld), passable (I lost a nail biter to Square 1’s Zack Mansfield after being up 9-7 in the final game), or Gumpesque, everyone brought their A game.

The Final Four matchups were ridiculous to watch, and before long almost everyone had turned away from the basketball games being projected onto one wall and took a spot around the table.

The first best-of-three, 21-point match featured StatSheet’s own Ganesh Karthik Bonala against Argyle’s Danny Olinsky. While Ganesh handily took the first game, Danny fought hard and picked up the last two for the win.

The second semifinal was brutal. Appia CTO Slawek Pruchnik and defending champion Aaron Houghton put on was can only be described as a violent forehand smash clinic that injured more than one bystander. I’ve never seen two people sweat harder playing a sport that you usually play in street clothes (you know, bowling, darts, poker).

But that’s the nature of this crowd.

In the end, Argyle’s Olinsky finessed a visually spent Pruchnik for the Buick trophy.

Names Dropped, Column Almost Over

While this was an awesome event to host and even more fun to write about (let’s face it, entrepreneurism is really mostly a lot of boring hard work), my point is that this is more of what we need as we boldly move forward. Non-sponsored, topic-free, open-invite events like this foster a huge amount of community, which is exactly why StatSheet CEO Robbie Allen set it up in the first place.

It’s something I tried to create with ExitEvent while we were still trying to figure out what ExitEvent was. A lot of the people who were at Pongageddon were at the first ExitEvent meetup, and we didn’t do much more than drink a few beers and chat about what was going on in our world.

Now I know that that’s what it could and should have been. It’s not that we’re any less open and sharing than any other regional startup ecosystem, this is just the result of the fragmentation that we all know exists. I know I want to undo that, I know I’m inspired by what I saw, and I know I’m not alone.

There are other events that fit this mold. Deck Party (full disclosure, the brainchild of this very online property) is already another great example of a party just for the party’s sake, even though it looks more like a networking event until you actually attend.

The point is there’s something valuable here and these folks have tapped into it nicely. If we can keep the fun factor at the level where people will attend, the value will take care of itself.

So as Danny Olinsky’s name was duct-taped to the Buick trophy, it was obvious that this would not only not be the last instance of this event, but it would likely no longer be the only event of its kind.

Joe Procopio heads up product engineering for sports media startup StatSheet .  He also owns startup consulting firm Intrepid Company and creative network Intrepid Media . Next outing won’t be so personal, he’s got a Xoom coming. Joe can be reached via Twitter:

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Five new startups locate at Durham’s American Underground

Tuesday, December 14th, 2010
American Underground

Artist's rendering of the American Underground space

DURHAM, NC – Two months after opening its doors as a new hub for entrepreneurs and start-ups, the Underground — located at the American Tobacco Campus – welcomes five new companies: Acorn Innovestments,  Adzerk, Jaargon Ltd., Preation and Two Toasters.

The American Underground is providing the type of space many early stage companies always wished existed in the Research Triangle Park. It has restaurants and other amenities within walking distance and an atmosphere that promotes interaction.

“We want to be in what we believe will be the hotbed for a new wave of  entrepreneurs and startups in the Triangle area,” said Rachit Shukla of the eight-person Two Toasters.

Aaron Houghton of Preation echoed the point, “There are 50 software start-ups in walking distance of the American Underground.  We want to be part of the Durham start-up scene.”

After ramping up in what might be record time, the Underground is now stocked with a slate of diverse and dynamic organizations, many with backing  from seasoned entrepreneurs like Houghton (co-founder of iContact).

“Being close to other start-ups and organizations supporting start-ups is incredibly valuable,” said Adzerk’s James Avery. “It gives us a chance to learn from each other and someone to enjoy a late night beer with before going back to work.”

The new team joins the Underground’s original line-up of Launchbox Digital, Joystick Labs and CED (Council for Entrepreneurial Development).

“Being close to Duke University and the airport makes the Underground great  for connections and travel,” said Keval Mehta of Jaargon Ltd, the company behind, among other ventures, GoToAid.  “The setup of the conference rooms and class rooms, and having other entrepreneurs to confer and network with is the best.”

The fast start took even the Underground’s founders by surprise.  “Yes,  Durham is a hive of entrepreneurs, and, yes, those entrepreneurs need a  stimulating, central place to work and make connections,” said Michael Goodmon, vice president of real estate for Capitol Broadcasting Company,which owns American Tobacco.  “We suspected there’d be interest, but it’s been exciting to see it come to life so fast.  And there’s still more ahead.”

But being a small start-up in Durham can have its drawbacks.  At Acorn Innovestments, one of the key players cottons to Duke while the other Walter Devins of Devins Law Firm — lines up with UNC-Chapel Hill.

Acorn’s Mike Noël said , “During certain local collegiate sporting events, the atmosphere within the partnership is at times a bit tense.”

The Underground’s new neighbors are chasing the following missions, in their own words:

Acorn Innovestments, Mike Noël : “Acorn Innovestments focuses it’s investments on start-ups and early stage companies with special attention to advanced materials, manufacturing, and environmental technology, in addition to other investments in which Acorn can contribute strong strategic value-add.  In 2011, we will grow our networks in the Triangle and state-wide start-up community, while being an integral part of its growth and promotion.”

Adzerk, James Avery: “Adzerk is building a next generation ad server, our goal is to make the bannerads and other advertisements you see on the web more effective, faster, and less intrusive.  In 2011, we are going to be launching our product to the public (we are currently in privatebeta). We will also be hiring our first full-time employees.”

Jaargon Ltd, Keval Mehta: “Jaargon Ltd is becoming a leader in delivering health care information  conveniently and on demand through mobile devices.  Our first project,  GotoAID, is the premiere first aid resource on the internet and on  mobile devices.  Our focus is on ‘Mobilizing Healthcare’ by taking the medical “jargon” out of health care and bringing it to a level a non-health care professional can understand.  We believe that by providing these tools we can empower people to take responsibility for their own health.”

Preation, Aaron Houghton:
“Preation helps small businesses acquire new customers from the search engines and social networks.  In 2011, we are launching version 2.0 of our Eden Platform product and will be hiring more software developers and user interface designers.”

Two Toasters, Rachit Shukla: “Two Toasters is a mobile agency; we focus on strategy, design and development of iPhone and Android applications. We are the mobile team behind a lot of successful venture-backed startups.  In 2011, we will hire exceptional individuals who understand that mobile is the future of computing, achieve national recognition as mobile experts and have fun  growing the business we started from scratch.”