What Charlotte startups actually need from Charlotte

What Charlotte startups actually need from Charlotte
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Answer: Customers.

I run a startup. Our first customer, OrthoCarolina changed the entire trajectory of our business.

It wasn’t an incubator that changed our trajectory. It wasn’t advice. It wasn’t a business plan competition. It wasn’t grant money. It wasn’t winning an award.

It was a paying customer.

I quit my job on Wednesday and had a sales meeting with the VP of Marketing from OrthoCarolina, Blair Primis, on Thursday. We met at a quiet table on the second floor of Duckworth’s Uptown where I talked him through a five-page powerpoint on this new brand called Axios Charlotte or Charlotte Espresso or Charlotte Memo (I don’t think I had chosen the name at that time).

I pitched Blair a launch sponsorship that would run for more than 6 months and how the sponsorship could connect the OrthoCarolina brand to the next generation of Charlotte.

On the last page of the powerpoint was a the cost of the launch sponsorship.

Blair asked me, “How did you come up with that price?”

I responded, “Well, I could walk you through my CPM calculations, but the truth is that this sponsorship revenue combined with my personal savings is the amount of money I need to build the right foundation for a local media company. You’ll get much more value than that.”

He took a sip of his drink and said, “We’re in. Here’s why – OrthoCarolina invests in people. It’s important for us to invest a portion of our marketing dollars in proven leaders who we believe can build our brand and become strong partners.”

While driving home down Morehead that evening, I called my wife, who had just put our 4-month-old son to sleep, and told her the news. I choked up.

OrthoCarolina’s investment paid off – their launch partnership allowed them to reach over 1 million different people over the next nine months.

A paying customer gave us the opportunity to build a real business. We didn’t have to raise outside money. We’re profitable with a diversified revenue mix. We now employ six full-time people.

How can we help Charlotte startups acquire paying Charlotte customers?

I wish there were more energy devoted to this question. 

How do we create a city where a Fortune 100 company can be a paying customer of a Charlotte startup with <$250k revenue?

Whose job is it?

Is it a job for the city of Charlotte? They don’t seem ready for it. Is it a job for the Charlotte Chamber? They seem more corporate. Is it a job for large corporations to seek out partnerships with Charlotte startups? Maybe. Is it a job for a community leader like Dan Roselli? He’s got a business to run, but he’s certainly doing this. Is it a job for successful entrepreneurs like Ric Elias? He’s also a little busy running one of the fastest growing companies in the world. Is it the job for startups to figure it out? Of course, but we can and should help them.

Building a startup does not make you special. It’s hard and you will likely fail. Startups are not the ultimate career path and working for one doesn’t make you cooler than your buddy that works for a large corporation. Nothing is owed to startups.

Here are a few examples of ideas our city could implement to connect large Charlotte businesses to Charlotte startups

Executive & Founder Speed Dating – Key decision makers at Fortune 500 companies spend 5 minutes with startup founders/leaders. The Charlotte Chamber is in the perfect position to do something like this and I wish they would (even if the startups aren’t members).

Open Challenge – Call for solutions from a large corporation to local startups. A company like Duke Energy could post a challenge to Charlotte startups on how to communicate energy solutions. Visa did this recently. Finalists could have face-to-face meetings with Duke Energy decision makers.

Corporate Point Person – A single individual responsible for screening all local pitches from Charlotte startups. For example, if you have an idea for Snyder’s Lance, how do you even talk to them? Sales is hard (as it should be), but it’s exhausting for startups to try and navigate large corporations.

These are just three ideas, but you get the point.

Honestly, I’m just exhausted and disenfranchised by all the startup talk and misallocation of resources in our city.

Charlotte is really good at startup stuff that doesn’t matter – awards, competitions, meetups and advice.

Charlotte is really bad at the startup stuff that does matter – connecting high potential young startups to paying customers.

Just a single “yes” from OrthoCarolina, an established Charlotte business, changed the trajectory of our media startup. I wish I heard more stories like this from fellow Charlotte founders. Hopefully, I won’t have to wait too long.

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