Postcard From Wilmington: Startups Making Waves At The Beach

An original painting from the artist Nugget commissioned for the PBS show "Start Up" that highlighted the Wilmington startup scene.

As Techstars co-founder Brad Feld says in his book, Startup Communities, the entrepreneurs must lead the ecosystem, in what he calls the Boulder Thesis. Boulder has recently been named the best city in America for entrepreneurs—and Boulder is the same size as Wilmington.

2021 has been a fascinating year for the Wilmington entrepreneur ecosystem. An exited serial entrepreneur changed his focus to a new gang-related beer venture with a helpful distribution partner, UNCW graduates returned to the coast with new startup ideas and new entrepreneurs from other states saw Wilmington as nurturing soil for their seed of a startup.

Wilmington will always be the wild-child sibling of the more corporate and formal Triangle and Charlotte business markets. Wilmington is beginning to emerge from the shadows thanks in part to an aggressive media campaign to make some noise OUTSIDE of North Carolina to raise the business profile of the region.

Yes, Wilmington/Wrightsville Beach may be nationally ranked for tourism destinations with an updated modern riverfront, a new outdoor music amphitheater and the attraction of the warmth of the beach paired with a cold adult beverage, but we still have some work to do for our business reputation—even within our own state government.

Scale Requires Awareness Outside of the Region

It is not enough to be the best startup in your own city. Startups need to sell products and raise capital outside of the immediate region to really scale to grow and hire at a competitive level for the best talent. Local companies like nCino, UnTappd, PlayerSpace and even EasyVote Solutions have proven this in Wilmington.

But how can bootstrapped startups raise their profile when they have extremely limited marketing budgets? To help, I aimed to get additional business related media coverage for Wilmington startups.

In 2020, I reached out to Atlanta-based Hypepotamus for a potential story on the growing Wilmington ecosystem with the spotlight on the entrepreneurs. I saw the startup news site had done a feature on the growing tech scene in Chattanooga, so why not Wilmington? After the editor position changed a few times, the new editor agreed to visit in January 2021. Not only did she write three articles, she made Wilmington the focus of the whole newsletter sent out to all of the subscribers.

As of today, this is still the site’s most-read article of 2021 and yes, our companies who were featured in the articles, found some value and were contacted by the readers.

Why Stop At Regional Media?

One morning pre-pandemic in January 2020, I saw a show on PBS called “Start Up”. At the end of the episode, the show’s big friendly host, Gary Bredow, said, “If you would like to nominate a company to be on the show, find the application on our web site.” So I filled out the application and I nominated our whole city as the startup. After two years of persistence, the show agreed to visit and film in Wilmington.

A panel discussion at a viewing party of the PBS show.

If I had to guess, most of the applications for the show come from the individual entrepreneurs themselves. But as one of the local ecosystem leaders, I sent a list of 30-40 startups. While my organization typically works with scaling startups in tech and life sciences, the show made it clear that tech is difficult to show on television with geeks pounding away code on laptops. The producers of the show not only filmed in Wilmington but spent seven days filming five of the season’s 13 episodes. The TV show also filmed additional episodes in Charleston and Savannah along the southern coast.

The show producers prefer to show consumer product companies or social impact companies. They loved the Tru Colors Brewing story and the mission of Bitty and Beau’s, a coffee shop that employs people with Down Syndrome. Two of the owners’ children have Down Syndrome and work in the shop. Bitty and Beau’s now have more than a dozen locations from Boston to Texas. I was there when Gary bought a #NotBroken T-shirt.

Sea Love Sea Salt saw an 8x multiple increase in online sales in the first month after the nationwide show, with orders all the way from California. Genesis Block has been contacted by leaders from other states who were inspired by the content of the show of how to help Black and minority founders with Main Street businesses. We are still waiting on the End of Days Distillery episode. In true entrepreneurial form, they contacted the show directly when news broke of the show planning to film in Wilmington. The End of Days Distillery is located in a VERY unique building.

(I want to thank NC IDEA for the Engage Grant that allowed me the time to pursue these media opportunities to promote the Wilmington ecosystem.)

International Attention

I understand that national and international rankings of the innovation ecosystem are old news to the Triangle and Charlotte. Sure, the creation of the Research Triangle Park has benefitted the Triangle since its creation in the 1950’s when IBM and GlaxoSmithKline expanded to the Park with incentives such as lower tax rates and an endless supply of university talent.

When Startup Genome added Wilmington to the headline of top global ecosystems, that got some attention in North Carolina. Wilmington was ranked No. 91 in 2020 in the Emerging Ecosystem category. nCino and UnTappd had great years with big exits for investors in 2020, but what was next and would the international ranking just be a “one-hit wonder”?

I was pleasantly surprised when we did not drop off the rankings in 2021, but we moved UP ten spots in the global rankings to No. 81. And again, the third-highest-ranked ecosystem in North Carolina and the third-smallest U.S. city in this global ranking.

Local R-E-S-P-E-C-T

Wilmington struggles with our relationship with the State of North Carolina. The terms “isolated and forgotten” were very common when I arrived in Wilmington in 2013. After experiencing this isolation and the Libertarian politics of the coast, I created the motto, “Wilmington is North Carolina South.” The annual Garden Party under the Airlie Oak Tree serves more bourbon than the Kentucky Derby and with all of the hats but none of the horses. [Editor’s Note: the “more bourbon” claim is hyperbole. We think.]

The audience at an investor event.

Sure, we get jealous of the constant barrage of sexy tech brands that keep announcing huge amounts of high-paying jobs in the Triangle. In 2021, the Network for Entrepreneurs in Wilmington (NEW) had a goal to have a measurable impact/legacy that the locals would understand more than entrepreneurship. Something big that others in more traditional economic development could not deny.

With a good lead in hand and some persistence, NEW enlisted help from the Wilmington Chamber and local real estate legend John Hinnant, Wilmington had our own jobs announcement recently in a magical seven-day stretch of economic development success. A local tech expert, William Mansfield, had become the remote Chief Technology Officer of a growing Brooklyn, N.Y.-based marketing research company and he convinced the company to expand to Wilmington even without county and state incentives.

The company, called SUZY, announced 40 new tech jobs at $120,000 per job and an expansion into downtown real estate. To add a drop of sex appeal, NBA All-Star and future Hall of Famer Kevin Durant is an angel investor in Suzy.

What’s Next?

In 2022, Wilmington will continue our journey on the Coastal Corridor to invite our Triangle friends to spend more time at their beach houses during the week as the remote work trend is benefiting our region. We hope to create enough momentum in our ecosystem that the entrepreneurs will make the beach house a more permanent residence and they can bring their talented employees to enjoy the growing beer, foodie and mural arts scene.

About Jim Roberts 3 Articles
Jim R. Roberts has been working for 20 years in North Carolina with entrepreneur support organizations in Charlotte, Asheville, Durham and Wilmington. Jim is the founder of the Network for Entrepreneurs in Wilmington (NEW), WALE Angel Network and Rojo Octo Ecosystem Consulting. Jim also works with the SEEN Network at UNC Pembroke. Follow Jim on Twitter – @redspireusnc or @91omgbiz