Chris is one of the nation’s leading experts on launching startups and has been dubbed the “Startup Whisperer.” He co-founded MapQuest, is an angel investor, ran a corporate venture fund and two micro venture funds (directed over $75M) and is currently the VP Innovation with Techstars. With Dave Neal, he launched and ran the Durham-based accelerator The Startup Factory from 2012-’17. Chris recently published his first book about starting anything called Build The Fort, and is currently working on two more books in a Build The Fort series.
1. What is in your pockets?
My key ring with house and car keys and my office fob, and then my phone actually has my wallet. My phone cover has a debit card, a credit card, my license, and if I’m lucky, probably five bucks in it.
2. What exciting thing has happened recently for you or your organization?
I’ve been working for the last few years on how to take the successes that I’ve had in helping to build this Raleigh-Durham startup ecosystem and thinking about how to bring those to other places in the world and combining that with some super-smart people including Brad Feld—a founding partner of the Foundry Group and author of Startup Communities—and the Techstars folks.
It’s really exciting to see how I take the things I’ve learned and experienced and combine it with some others and create a business out of that. It is kind of an advisory and consultant business, and to be able to apply that in places like Buffalo, New York; Taipei, Taiwan; and Turin, Italy—that’s exciting. It is also really exciting to bring some of those observations and experiences back here to Raleigh-Durham.
Myself and a couple others are working hard standing up a Startup Week, originally planned for this April here in Durham, that we hope will get 300 to 400 entrepreneurs and founders and enthusiasts to come together. We want to give back to the area and have a free event. The event is now paused but is ready to kick back in once things free up. The pent-up demand is still there and the outstanding speaker lineup will not fade away.
I also see lots of opportunity to redefine how a global advisory/consulting services business operates in virtual mode. What is happening is obviously unfortunate but these changes offer an opportunity for business. That excites me today.
3. What is your favorite coffee spot?
I’ve never had a cup of coffee in my life so when I go to coffee shops, I do them not for the coffee but for the meeting place. My favorite one would be Beyu Caffé because it’s three blocks away from my house. In the early days, when we go back 8-10 years and this whole Durham startup scene was pretty nascent, that was one of the only places in town. It became ground zero to some of us.
4. What keeps you up at night?
I’ve given a lot of my heart and soul to this startup community here in Raleigh-Durham. I think we’ve had a lot of really great acceleration for a number of years, but I’m worried about keeping the momentum. I’m worried about filling the top of funnel. Do we have the same amount of new entrepreneurs starting companies, or are they increasing? I don’t know that answer anymore. I sometimes question whether we’re back-filling the number of new entrepreneurs that we had been maybe 5-8 years ago. So that’s kind of Part One.
Part Two is, are we serving entrepreneurs and helping founders and their CEOs—if they’re different people—scale their companies effectively? The area has had a couple of nice exits. I’m not one of these guys who completely says we have to have a unicorn per se, but I know that I’d like to see more companies scaling effectively. I think as we mature as an ecosystem, those are challenges. So that makes me toss and turn every so often.
5. What is your favorite restaurant or happy hour?
I’ve never met a happy hour I didn’t love, so I love them all equally. It used to be Tyler’s in American Tobacco. I’ve moved it to 21C just for proximity, but it feels a little fufu so I think come summer I need to move it to Bull McCabe’s. I don’t drive anywhere anymore. I live in American Tobacco, so anything I do has to be within walking distance. It’s just not worth me getting in a car to do it.
6. What is next for you or your organization?
I see a chance to reinvest in some things that got put on the back burner including writing two books to be out by Q1 of 2021. They are in the Build The Fort series mode and will address startup communities and late-In-life founders. That has been ramped up lately and it feels good to write more.
With the current crisis, we are moving our Demo Days and all of our mentoring to video, which actually increases the opportunity for mentorship from individuals who were previously bound by travel requirements. We are re-thinking how this works and how to maintain or increase connectivity and the richness of those connections.