This is everything I've written here or elsewhere over the last few years. You can search, filter by publication, or choose from some highlights below.

Teaching Becomes Chance to Learn

Taking Real Steps Towards Creating an Entrepreneurial Education


A little more than a month ago, I spoke with Ted Zoller, director of the University of North Carolina Center for Entrepreneurship, about a column I was writing about whether entrepreneurism could be taught. He followed up with an interesting proposal.

“Help me teach the Entrepreneurs Lab,” he said.

So on Feb. 4, I was faced with the daunting prospect of lecturing a room full of students.

Thankfully, it wasn't anything like that. The class wasn't even on campus, instead it was across the street at the Launch Chapel Hill accelerator, a sign that Chapel Hill's startup strategy is moving outside the university's walls and into the streets where it belongs.

“Partnering with the University on the Entrepreneurs Lab helps create a hub of entrepreneurial activity that brings together UNC faculty, start-up entrepreneurs, successful entrepreneurs and students,” said Dina Mills, program manager of Launch Chapel Hill.

This first regular session of the Lab included question-and-answer sessions with two successful entrepreneurs who have ties to the Triangle: Jed Simmons, co-founder of Next New Networks (now part of YouTube), and Amit Singh, co-founder and CEO of Spectraforce, a global IT services provider.

And some of the students at Launch Chapel Hill, including Jeff Henriod, are already founders.

In November, Henriod's startup Let's Chip In, a website and app that allow parents to raise funds for expensive baby items such as cribs, won Triangle Startup Weekend Chapel Hill and the first phase of the Carolina Challenge, which starts its elevator pitch round Tuesday night.

The program runs through the end of the semester.

Even Zoller thinks of himself less as an instructor and more of a catalyst, constantly keeping the students' ideas flowing as they discuss markets, disruption, challenges and key factors for entrepreneurial success.

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Triangle Flush With Wearables


A friend recently asked me about a device I wear around my wrist called the Jawbone UP, an activity tracker that has brushed aluminum ends and plugs into my smartphone.

Jawbone was one of the first entrants into the market of wearables, which are devices you attach to your body that can measure things like the number of steps you take and how long you sleep. These activity trackers were soon followed by other devices, such as smartwatches and eyewear devices, most notably, Google Glass.

At this month's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, there was an explosion of these wearables, among a host of other always-connected devices that can track anything you attach them to. Think home energy consumption, fuel economy, or the well-being of your dog.

The verdict is still out on the acceptance timeline of this tech, but there is ample evidence that this emerging smart device market is the next big wave in tech, with Google's recent $3.2 billion acquisition of smart home device maker Nest serving as the exclamation point.

The Triangle is already flush with a number of companies making headway into what's known as the “Internet of Things.”

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Can an Entrepreneur Be Taught?


Every startup and every entrepreneur is different. The same set of skills that might make one successful could send the other spiraling into failure. But lately, I've been wondering if entrepreneurs are born or made.

I have 9-year-old twin daughters who couldn't be more different. So life has already taught me how misguided generalizations can be.

But in about nine years, those twin daughters will be graduating from high school, and we'll have to make a decision about their post-secondary education. For the first time in as long as I can remember, maybe ever, the benefits of college may not outweigh the cost.

Like a lot of other Triangle transplants, I came here to take advantage of a huge reduction in tuition for essentially the same engineering degree. I made this move because I hypothesized then what I know now – that what I learned in college wouldn't have much of an impact on my entrepreneurial career.

Today, it's not uncommon to hear stories of six-figure debt being run up over four years of higher education with slim job prospects waiting on the other side. So while I'm saving for my kids' education, I have to wonder if it isn't a better idea just to seed-fund their first startup with that money.

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Give Back to the Next Class of Entrepreneurs

Why Triangle Entrepreneurs Can't Afford to Wait


Last month, I gave the keynote address at the “Time is Now” Young Entrepreneurs Conference in Greensboro. I didn't give a motivational speech; I basically just crammed everything I know about starting and running a company into a 20-minute talk. I then did a question-and-answer session with the audience, followed by a one-on-one at the bar across the street.

I didn't get paid. I didn't get free drinks. There was no press coverage. Speaking at the event in no way furthered my career. I did it because the kid organizing the event has the same kinds of ideas about creating a startup culture in Greensboro that Durham had five years ago. I even told a colleague that night how much the conference reminded me of where Durham was way back then.

It was about having a great idea and a ton of energy and not knowing what to do next. That's the kind of thing I can help with.

While the event didn't help my career in a direct way, there are benefits in helping others succeed that should be recognized by anyone who's been lucky enough to find success. And having already found success shouldn't be a gating factor to giving back.

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Hire Right From the Start


On Nov. 12, I spoke on a panel titled “People, Partners and Culture” at the Startup Summit at the Raleigh Convention Center.

For an hour, my fellow panelists – Leela Srinivasan from LinkedIn, Delisa Alexander from Red Hat and Amit Jain, founder of Prysm – and I talked about hiring and creating company culture at a startup.

Automated Insights is the 10th startup I have either worked for or founded. In the beginning, there were just two of us – the founder and me – building our automated content engine and producing thousands of articles for millions of readers.

We spent about two months of long, consecutive days working closely together.

Had we not fit perfectly together, not only in terms of our individual skills but also our personalities and motivations, we would have failed. There was simply no one else to pick up the ball if we dropped it.

I've found this to be true at every startup I've been associated with. The core team – those first few hires – is more critical to the success of the company than any other component. They're more important than the idea, the business model, even investment.

And it's not simply about hiring the smartest or most talented people you can find.

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November Events Celebrate Startups


Startup-event organizers in the Triangle are getting more creative with their scheduling, and November will mark the third time this year that two or more events will come together to celebrate entrepreneurship.

In June, Durham accelerator The Startup Factory brought in more than a dozen sponsors and turned its bi-annual Pitch Day into Paradoxos, a two-day startup festival complete with music, speaking events and a party that spilled out into the downtown Durham streets.

In September, Raleigh's M.A.I.N event, a month-long series of 11 events held downtown, included Triangle Entrepreneurship Week and the CED Tech Venture Conference.

And in November, The Startup Factory's fall “Showcase” and Startup Summit mini conference, which is part of Internet Summit, will bring entrepreneurs, potential entrepreneurs and investors to downtown Raleigh.

On the morning of Nov. 12, The Startup Factory's Showcase, held at Fletcher Theater at the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, will feature its fall 2013 graduating class of six startups. The event will also include speaker Bob Young, founder of Lulu and Red Hat.

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New Law Means Startups Must Verify Investors


On Sept. 23, it became legal for startups to tell the general public that they're raising money, thanks to the Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act, a 2012 law that aims to increase job creation and economic growth.

Putting the word out can now be done via social media, blogs, the press and even banner ads.

This is not crowd funding.

Investors in these startups still need to be accredited – but this new law makes it much easier to let investors know that you're in the market for capital.

However, general solicitation can also make the fundraising process much more tricky.

New investors will come out of the woodwork, and they'll have to be accredited, meaning they'll have to reveal their financial information to either the entrepreneur or some third party.

The main stumbling block? Rich people don't like letting other people know how rich they are.

“The primary challenge will be the new rules and regulations for signing up investors, angels in particular,” said Lister Delgado, managing partner at IDEA Fund Partners, a Durham-based venture capital firm. “Startups now have the burden of having to make sure their investors are accredited. This is easy to do with institutions, but much harder to do with individuals and angel groups. They will have to disclose personal financial information so the entrepreneurs can certify that they are dealing with accredited investors.”

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Startups Need Mix of Marketing


Q: What's the No. 1 priority for a startup? Customers.

Q: What's the most universal way to attract new customers? Advertising.

Q: Should startups advertise? Probably not.

These three questions represent the thorniest conundrum that entrepreneurs face in customer acquisition. Most startups usually have at least an idea, if not a working prototype or even a completed product. They know their product solves a problem that exists in the marketplace, and they know they can solve it cost-effectively.

The catch is no one else knows about it.

But spending money on ads is not the answer for any startup or small business, at least not at first. Marketing is more than advertising. It's a process. It has rules and steps, and those steps have an order.

“The secret to marketing success as a young company isn't one great idea,” said Jake Finkelstein, founder of the Durham data-driven marketing agency Method Savvy. “Rather, it's consistency in doing the fundamentals.”

Finkelstein helps startups market their products and services via digital media and focuses on measuring the impact of that marketing on his clients' bottom line.

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Startups Get Their Start at Other Startups


Where is the Triangle getting its next great startup founders?

“Recently they've been coming from Bronto and iContact,” joked Aaron Houghton, an entrepreneur who co-founded Durham startups iContact, an email marketing services provider, and BoostSuite, a small-business website optimization firm.

He's got a point.

Houghton and Joe Colopy, co-founder and CEO of cloud-based marketing company Bronto Software in Durham, said the phenomenon of founders coming directly out of existing startups is necessary and good for the area's startup environment.

Since I got into startups many years ago, I've gone between working at other people's startups and founding my own. It's been a great career move.

I started out working for other people's startups, where I learned everything from having a customer-first mindset to how to exit without destroying the company.

I started my first serious company on the side, then another, and another, and I'm now working at Automated Insights, a Durham automated content services company, having paused my most recent startup to do so.

In each case, I brought what I learned from other people's places to my own, and brought my experiences from my own startups to my other jobs.

It's not uncommon for the best and brightest talent at a startup to eventually leave and start their own company. Their entrepreneurial drive and independent spirit is probably what led them to join a startup in the first place.

And the knowledge they get on the job is invaluable.

“I worked for a little over a year at Red Hat before leaving to work on the beginnings of Bronto,” Colopy said. “I knew that I was going to start my own tech startup, but I went to Red Hat in order to see the inner-workings of how a successful software company ran.”

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Resources Lost As Interns Depart


Starting next week, Automated Insights, the Durham automated content services startup where I work, will begin to shed its army of seven summer interns.

They'll go back to less important things, like their educations, and we'll continue to crank out products for some of the world's largest companies.

But suddenly, we will be down almost 20 percent of our workforce.

The company is losing valuable resources as those interns – our best class ever-walk out the door. This summer, we continued our trend of handing over ever-increasing responsibilities to these kids, and they handled it well.

I worked exactly one summer internship in my college career, and was mortified to discover I would essentially be staying out of everyone's way. Within a week, I started a research project, and three weeks later I delivered a report with 17 ways that company could run leaner and grow faster.

In return, I was patted on the back and given a few condescending smiles.

The next summer, I started my own company.

At a startup, an internship is rarely about fetching office supplies and answering phones. Interns get real-world experience, mostly because, well, startups need all-hands-on-deck and more to survive.

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Secure a Customer, Then Start Up


At what point should a startup land that first customer?

With about half of the companies I've started, I've had at least one paying customer on board before the incorporation paperwork was filed.

This happens when I'm already familiar with the customer and I'm already solving a problem they have. If the problem is universal and the solution is robust, then I form the company around the solution.

This is an ideal startup scenario. If the initial client is already there, additional customers can be identified based on the template of the existing customer. Furthermore, the sales pitch gets much easier, as there is now a real-world example to point to.

But this is usually a process reserved for service startups or low-margin product startups.

At my product-based startup, Automated Insights, we create human-sounding narrative content from big data, something that can't be done quickly, and we had zero customers at the beginning.

At first, it was difficult for potential customers to wrap their brains around the automated content idea. It hadn't been done before, and we had nothing to point to other than mockups.

In September 2012, after a few minor customer wins, we launched our product with Yahoo Fantasy Football. Our technology wrote millions of fantasy matchup recaps, all in the span of about two hours, every week of the NFL season.

We no longer had to explain what we did and potential customers' concerns vanished.

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Get Your Startup Listed, Noticed


No matter how fantastically disruptive your startup's product or service happens to be, no one will use it, let alone invest in it, if they don't know it exists.

Discoverability, the process of getting your company into the minds of potential customers and investors, is a problem not just for early-stage startups, but all startups.

Here are seven places to consider listing your startup.

AngelList: If you're raising money at any level, whether now or down the road, you should create an AngelList profile. Started as a digital way to democratize capital investment, AngelList is allegedly pushing to facilitate more investment activity outside of Silicon Valley. Durham payments startup Spreedly was part of that push, and recently closed a $300,000 seed round in 10 days from an introduction they got via AngelList.

“As an Angel investor,” said Aaron Houghton, co-founder of BoostSuite, a Durham web marketing company. “I get (AngelList's) weekly emails showing me top activity among startups that meet my filters, which is very cool. I check out every company in every email.”

CrunchBase: Started by TechCrunch, this global directory of startups, entrepreneurs, investors and deals launched a venture program last month with over 100 venture firms, angel groups and incubators.

But beware.

“I have received somewhat spammy emails from people finding us there,” said Adam Covati, CEO of Argyle Social, a Durham marketing software company.

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Startups converge at Paradoxos


Here's a warning to Triangle-area entrepreneurs who started a startup before starting a startup was cool.

As the Triangle's startup scene continues to evolve, convergence is going to become the norm. Events are going to get bigger, flashier and louder. Entrepreneurs are going to walk into rooms and see a lot of people they don't recognize.

Those events with the greatest value will remain standing, get bigger and bring more still-desperately needed eyes and attention to the Triangle's startup ecosystem.

Paradoxos, a two-day festival in downtown Durham that starts Thursday, is one of those events. It has the intent to harness “the power of ideas, collaboration, and what's to come.”

It's the largest merger of local startuptopia since this past fall when ExitEvent, Startup Summit, Internet Summit with its mini-music-fest IS Rocks – headlined by a Connells reunion – all happened the same week.

Paradoxos was spearheaded by startup hub American Underground, accelerator Triangle Startup Factory, CED, Downtown Durham Inc., creative shop Paragraph Project, PrettyFab PR and the Durham Chamber.

The idea was to integrate the entrepreneurial community with other known regional industries.

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Smoffice, Durham, Klein Win Big


Thanks to its startup community, Durham is a world champion.

In April, the Durham Chamber of Commerce took the prize for the Most Unconventional Economic Development Project award at the World Chambers Congress in Doha, Qatar.

The win was for the Smoffice (World's Smallest Office), a six-month experiment in 2012 that gave a startup – the Makery – office space in the front of downtown Durham's Beyu Caffé. The deal included a free downtown condo, technology, mentoring and other resources in return for a very public incubation.

This is not some trivial award. In 16 years of the international competition, no U.S. community had ever won. And of the more than 70 communities competing this year, Durham was the only U.S. finalist.

“We were the only Americans out of 2,200 attendees,” said Adam Klein, chief strategist at American Underground, Durham working spaces where entrepreneurs learn from and brainstorm with one another. “We were underdogs. Most Chambers around the world act more like Commerce departments, they have huge budgets and are nationalized.”

Klein and I first discussed the Smoffice in its idea stage in early 2012.

As a publicity stunt, it was spot-on. As an incubator, the Smoffice was a big risk.

It was a very public attempt in a crowded field that, at the time, included accelerators Launchbox/Triangle Startup Factory, Groundwork Labs, Joystick Labs, Startup Stampede (Klein's other brainchild), and others.

The question now becomes, will there be a Smoffice II, or something like it?

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Hiring top talent is hard for startups


I don't have to tell you that hiring is hard. But hiring for a startup is near impossible.

When a startup reaches a level where more output is required than the founders can handle, it's time to find employees who will invest physically, mentally and emotionally in the company. These employees, however, aren't in it just for the good of the business. They want a salary, benefits, paid time off and free sodas in return.

Beyond startups with ample revenue or a large institutional investment, recruiting top talent is a challenge. Here's why.

Startups don't have human resource departments: Finding, vetting and securing top-level talent is a full-time job. For most startups, talent acquisition is usually left to the founders and management team.

“We continue to grow at more than 100 percent per year,” said Jake Finkelstein, founder and CEO of Method Savvy, a Durham marketing firm. “This has forced me, as a founder, to find an ever-improving balance between recruiting great team members and running other aspects of the business. It's a great problem to have, but we can only screw up our success by hiring the wrong people.”

There's no room for error: A successful startup's staff must consist of at least 90 percent A-level talent. A company's early days are the most fragile, and too many B-level employees mean the startup won't survive.

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