Highlights From Day One Of Inaugural Raleigh-Durham Startup Week

Former Transloc CEO and current Vertroos Health CEO Doug Kaufman chats with Julie Gates, Transloc's Director of Communications, in the panel "Founder to CEO: Grow Up or Get Left Behind" at American Underground on Tuesday.

Yesterday marked the first day of the inaugural Raleigh-Durham Startup Week, a weeklong festival celebrating tech entrepreneurship in downtown Durham. 

The day included a workshop from NC IDEA’s former senior director John Austin on “How to Take an Idea and Find Out Who Your Customers Are;” panel discussions on building dev teams in startups and improving diversity in your startup; and a fireside chat with former Transloc CEO Doug Kaufman on how to transition from founder to CEO. And those were just a few of the events offered in multiple locations before the day concluded with a Happy Hour at American Underground.

Startup Week was originally set to debut in spring 2020 but was pushed back two years because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Things were finally in motion yesterday and will continue through this Friday. Thursday’s events will be capped by GrepBeat’s Happy Hour sponsored by Davis Moore at Bull McCabe’s in Durham; you can register here.

At one of the first events of the week, Austin took time out of his recent NC IDEA retirement to guide early founders on how to have conversations with potential customers.

He said founders with the highest correlation of success are those who understand their customers’ problems well, and a major way to get there is by being an excellent listener. You want to dig into the problem they are facing without coming across as pitching your idea, he said. The “why” of the problem is especially integral.

“The ‘why’ is not only going to lead you down to understanding better the problem,” Austin said. “If you get the why right and you hear the same why six or eight or 10 times, you now have a marketing message.”

Near the end of the session, attendees had the chance to practice their own conversations with customers, which are vital in determining product-market fit. Ultimately, many startups fail because the product-market fit isn’t right.

In another panel at American Underground, Raleigh-based The Diversity Movement’s Head of Product and Partnerships Kurt Merriweather led a discussion with serial entrepreneur Vickie Gibbs, who previously served as the executive director for UNC’s Entrepreneurship Center, as well as CureMint CEO Brandon McCarty.

Merriweather acknowledged that many startups feel they do not have the time to make diversity and inclusion as big of a focus as they’d like.

John Austin—who recently retired as NC IDEA’s Senior Director—led one of the first sessions at the inaugural Raleigh-Durham Startup Week in Durham on Tuesday.

“Time is your enemy, and you’re trying to do so many different things,” Merriweather said. “And as you’re trying to do so many different things, one of the challenges is, how do I find space to focus on diversity, equity and inclusion?”

Even within large organizations, many companies are not necessarily living up to promises they made in the wake of the death of George Floyd, but Gibbs and McCarty recommended startups think of DEI in the same way they would prioritize any other part of creating a good business because at the end of the day, it is part of having a successful company.

“If you actually want to do something about it, you do it,” McCarty said. He added that once he accepted how CureMint was failing with DEI, he had to stop making excuses about being a startup and begin standardizing DEI metrics: “It’s just like anything else in business.”

Gibbs highlighted the importance of building DEI into your startup early on so that you can grow a healthy culture.

“It’s just good business, and it’s the right thing to do,” Gibbs said. “If you build it in when you’re 20 people and you’re establishing your policies and you’re establishing your culture, that’s when it can really take root in the right way to grow organically.”

Ultimately, in the current talent market, the pipeline development for building diversity into your company has to be a long-term commitment, Gibbs said. Think about DEI as an investment in the future of your company, she said.

Tuesday’s panel on Diversity in Startups included (from left) CureMint CEO Brandon McCarty; Kurt Merriweather, the Head of Product and Partnerships at The Diversity Movement; and serial entrepreneur Vickie Gibbs.

At one of the last panels of the day, former Transloc CEO and current Vertroos Health founder and CEO Doug Kaufman shared his insight on how to successfully transform from a company founder to a company CEO at the right time. He said if you fail to do this, you will be left behind.

He compared the two roles to those within an orchestra. At first, a founder is one of the musicians, part of the group making the music. But when you fully become a CEO, you must become the conductor. Instead of one of the musicians, you are now leading the people making the music rather than leading it yourself.

Startup founders are notorious for their egos—and they have to have strong egos because from Day One, all they hear is no, no, no, Kaufman said. But what makes a good visionary founder can make for a bad professional CEO.

A professional CEO has to get out of the weeds and learn to delegate. In turn, they need to be constantly thinking about the next year to 18 months, Kaufman added.

“Companies evolve,” Kaufman said. “I think the company as it exists on Day One is not the same as the way it looks a year later.  The reality is that it’s like a relationship where if the two people are not growing and evolving in similar fashion, that’s not going to work out very well.”

The next two days of Raleigh Durham Startup Week include open investor office hours; a keynote speaker event tonight with The Pinkubator CEO Cindy Eckert, Revolution Partners’ David Hall and Spiffy CEO Scot Wingo at the Carolina Theater; a discussion on “Is Bootstrapping Your Startup Still An Option?” (with GrepBeat’s very own Godfather and Bronto Co-Founder Joe Colopy); and so much more. Look here for the full lineup.

And be sure to register for and attend GrepBeat’s Happy Hour at Bull McCabe’s this Thursday at 5 p.m. after the sessions conclude for the day.

About Suzanne Blake 308 Articles
Suzanne profiles startups and innovation for GrepBeat. Before working at GrepBeat, Suzanne attended UNC Chapel Hill, obtaining a degree in journalism and political science. Previously, she wrote for CNBC, QSR Magazine, FSR Magazine and The Daily Tar Heel.