Tag Archives: Roanoke

WDBJ7 Murders

“It is not thought that the life of darkness is sunk in misery and lost as if in sorrowing. There is no sorrowing. For sorrow is a thing that is swallowed up in death, and death and dying are the very life of the darkness.” – Jacob Boehme

There are no comforting words.

Please remember to be kind today.

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Human Venture Capital

[Note: I teased this post awhile ago and said I needed to research appropriate links to insert. Well, that never happened. This draft has been waiting for publishing for more than 2 weeks. I’m going with it.]

I’ve been mulling a concept I call Human Venture Capital. A quick googilation shows many others have come up with this “unique” phrasing, but it seems generally to be applied to corporate headhunting. As in, “We’re venture capitalists who happen to invest in people!”

Clever.

But I have a different formulation in mind.

What got me thinking about this was this article that ran in the Roanoke Times. It made a painfully obvious point: we don’t have enough venture capital here in the Valley to spread around as start-up money. That means all the resources that have been devoted, in a top-down fashion, from regional partnerships and local heavyweights to attract and retain IT talent and companies has and will be largely wasted, at least insofar as it is intended to build a local tech economy. They are destined to fail because they do not adequately address basic realities of human existence, e.g. needing money to eat, yet lacking that money, from the period of idea generation until a demonstration of minimum viability attracts the notice of potential investors.

Local groups and partnerships, whether you are talking about 460Angels or Innovation Network, that want to invest in the growth of our local economy do so in the most traditional and least effective way, by seeking to partner with smart and promising businesses.

But “start-up culture” is most fundamentally about a time pre-incorporation. In other words, start-up culture qua culture is about people, and the ideas in the heads of those people, NOT businesses.   It is about, like, a vibe, man.

This is important for Roanoke because, unlike New York or San Francisco, or Austin or DC, it just does not often happen that a logical, thoughtful decision is made to base or grow an IT business here. Again, for extremely obvious reasons: a talent deficit and a lack of capital at the early seed stage.

This may sound a bit circular, and it is, but I think we can get clarity with a concrete example.

If you have a bright and ambitious entrepreneur coming through Virginia Tech, and he wants to start a tech company, what are his options? He can stay in Blacksburg and try to make a go of it, or he can take his idea to the Other Valley. Our local bigwigs want him to stay, keeping his big brain and his youth in our slow, graying area – obviously. But consider his obstacles: he needs help and he needs money.

Here is where you need to actually consider the nitty gritty details, and why it is unrealistic to expect start-up successes without first inculcating a supportive start-up culture:

Let’s assume he has graduated. He now has to pay rent, pay student loans, buy food. He has bills. We’ll be generous in this example and assume his parents are helping him out with those basics.

Ok, he still needs computer crap, servers and whatnot, and office space. Let’s assume here servers are cheap and office space is fairly affordable (Blacksburg does have TechPad, etc.). So far so good.

Then he needs help, employees. Apart from just the bare minimum in terms of being able to pay their own bills, the average employee wants to make a decent living, especially an employee who has the ever-so-in-demand skills needed by a tech startup. But, again, we’re going to give our example man every advantage in this scenario and say that the employees, in addition to being skilled, are also his friends, believing in his vision and willing to work for free.

Take a minute to consider the example so far: a skilled team of professionals without bills willing to work for free. Oh, and they need to maintain this for one year to 18 months.

Does this sound like a common scenario?

And yet, this is the sort of thing that that the aforementioned regional heavyweights are looking for, “young” companies with “scaleable” ideas. In other words, the end product you’d see from a dedicated team after more than a year of hard work.

PLUS!, this team still has to be in Blacksburg, Virginia, at the end of that year, because if they have decamped to NoVA or San Fran, they sure as hell aren’t coming back. (And yet, this is actually the least far-fetched part of the dream scenario, because the cost of living here is really attractive, and if you have the drive and ambition, a year in Blacksburg is probably the same cost as two months in the Bay Area.)

Still, I can’t totally condemn the 460Angels’ and Innovation Networks out there, because this scenario does play out with enough regularity to inspire optimism. In fact, from a purely investment standpoint, this might actually be a strategy preferable to the one faced by VCs in the Other Valley, because if you can step in and invest in a group of guys who have toiled away in obscurity for a year in Blacksburg, for free, then you know you are dealing with a truly dedicated team. However, as the backbone of an economic development strategy for an entire region aspiring to tech relevance, this is pure nonsense…we’re talking about a handful of people. Like, literally 20-30 guys per year come out of Virginia Tech and attempt to start IT businesses, and few of those are going to last a year. Does the Roanoke-Blacksburg-NRV need or deserve the Innovation Network, Third Security, the Virginia Tech Corporate Research initiatives, etcetera etcetera, for TWENTY or THIRTY unpaid jobs per year?

Wait wait wait! No, of course I don’t want to see these resources vanish! I just want to see them doing a better job at, you know, start-up-y things.

Which brings me back to my notion of Human Venture Capital and our example man. What if, instead of waiting to lavish a couple of million dollars on that one Mr. Example who happens to make it a year, we helped a few guys – and gals; let’s not be sexist, y’all – actually make a go of it that first year? Instead of waiting to invest in the companies, we make an upfront investment in the people?

“Pray tell, kind sir, how do we do this?” Easier than you think, and WAAAAAY cheaper than two million bucks: you buy a house or two near TechPad in Blacksburg and CoLab in Roanoke, and you let tech entrepreneurs have a year rent-free. Done.

And I truly do mean it as being just that simple. It would be nice if there was an additional stipend for food, but not necessary…it’s just that start-ups take so much time that it would be nice if we could spare these entrepreneurs the necessity of getting a part time job, but, eh.

And think of the chasm between the risks taken on by the investors in these two scenarios: you invest in a start-up that fails, you get nothing; you invest in a “hostel,” well, either way, you own a house. And the difference in strategy: a huge outlay of cash as a bet on highly leveraged returns, versus a sensible real estate investment for $10,000.

And when I say “you” I mean YOU. You can be a venture capitalist in our burgeoning tech scene. And given the community-focused effort involved, you can do so as a B corp and get tax advantages. Dope.

I’m not saying anything, I’m just sayin’.

But what I’m saying is this: we need to start smaller, but casting a wider net. Worst case scenario, we have more young people stick around town for a year after graduation without accomplishing much. That doesn’t sound too awful, does it?

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Filed under Start-up culture

On the Occassion of Your Birthday

Happy first birthday, We Evolve Us! A birthday is as much a celebration of the year gone by as it is anticipatory of the new year ahead, so let’s cast our misty eyes back upon the time that was. 

First though, let me splain to y’all just what the hell We Evolve Us is, because I know good and damn well you don’t have a clue.

We Evolve Us is an INCREDIBLY ambitious start-up. In Roanoke. That’s right. Not Blacksburg. It is actually headquartered within city limits of Big Lick.

And when I say it is ambitious, man…wow. Imagine if Facebook and Kiva had a baby that grew up to found Habitat for Humanity. Right??? Ambitious.

“Will it work?” you ask. Wrong question, dummy. The right question is, why haven’t you heard of these guys?

As a community, we are failing them and all the future start-ups that won’t be founded here because we are oblivious, failing to take any interest at all in their work. If there is one – just ONE – super ambitious start-up in this town and you’ve never heard of it, well then, I guess we all need to give the fuck up and move. Because tech start-ups like this are the future, and if they don’t have a future here, then Roanoke might as well eat a bullet. Ask Norfolk Southern; that was pretty much their conclusion.

It is totally inconsequential if We Evolve Us “makes” it (unless they scale globally, which, while unlikely, would obviously be a game changer for the whole region). On the other hand, it is imperative that the community embrace this project, if only to encourage the next entrepreneur that this is a welcoming place to try something new. Roanoke has to feel like a safe place to fail, or nobody can feel empowered to take risks. 

Here’s the thing. If We Evolve Us fails, you know what founder and CEO Philip Tompkins is going to do? He’s going to try something else.  And the odds of his success will go up, because he’ll be able to avoid the unseen pitfalls you only discover by falling in. But the onus will be on all of us who live here and give a damn to convince him that founding his company in Roanoke, Virginia, was not one of those mistakes to be avoided the second time around.

So, a look back at the past year reveals…what? Well, that a small, part-time team can build an incredible platform for social change that ironically hasn’t changed social networking here in the Valley. But that was Year One.

So my birthday wish for you, We Evolve Us, is that you find a userbase and enough funding to make it to your second birthday. Hopefully a year from now you won’t be the only interesting start-up in town. 

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Filed under Roanoke Start-ups, Start-up culture

It is called “serendipity”

On the same day Apple unveils its dope watch, Roanoke receives a 600K grant from the state for a land swap deal that will lead to the opening of an accelerator inside an old medical building in 12 to 18 months time.

Coincidence???

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Filed under infrastructure upgrades, Start-up culture

Same ol’, same ol’ Part 1

I swear that this blog will eventually be more than simply re-posting articles from the Roanoke Times, but just this very second (!) I read an interesting and almost germane article that I thought you, my zero dear readers, would find…um, how will you find this? Amazing? Catastrophic? Since there are zero of you, I guess there will be no feeling at all.

Anyway, here is the article.

“Start-up culture,” on which I’m an unquestioned expert so don’t question me on it, begins with smart people with new ideas, but it does not end there. You also need boring infrastructure crap, as you would for any nascent endeavor. (Except for hillbilly culture, for which all you need is dirt. No, I kid! This is Appalachia, homie, I ain’t hatin’. I’ve got pickup envy SO HARD right now.) Infrastructure that One Million Percent includes ubiquitous broadband, but also just good office space. Utilitarian – meaning conducive to the way start-ups work, so NOT segregated cube farms in suburban office parks – and comfortable.

We need more and better office space for start-ups to thrive here. For all the hype surrounding Roanoke’s downtown revitalization over the past decade, developers have actually done a shit job on this front. Sure, we needed apartments, but we didn’t only need apartments. What about a grocery store? Or a movie theater? Or affordable, attractive office space for start-ups??? *Caveat:Coworking space is a separate issue, and one I’ll discuss at a future date; as regards Roanoke, it is a surprisingly fruitful topic.*

Back to the article in the Times, which, for those too lazy to click on it, is about the City of Salem’s plan to “energize” their lil’ downtown. Why is it interesting for our purposes here at Grandin Republic? Especially when a reference to start-ups, even an oblique one, is nowhere to be found? It is because of the following quote, explaining that the methodology of the Salem study, which included public solicitation of ideas and upon which planning for downtown revitalization was based, uncovered this response:

“Not everyone sees the need to change anything in Salem, though. Payne said one thing they have noticed from survey respondents and casual conversation is that older generations of Salem residents think downtown Salem is fine just the way it is and don’t care for any changes.”

Yeeeeaaaah.

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Filed under NIMBY, Start-up culture

A second post?

Yeah, a second post! This is almost legit.

So here is a confession: I wrote a few posts even before taking the plunge and signing up with WordPress. I figured that if there was actually something to be said on the issue of Roanoke Valley Start-Up Culture, I’d be able to write more than one story pretty much off the top of my head.

And I was. Able to write more than one piece, that is; in fact, I stockpiled a handful. However, after publishing the first post, I’m questioning the value of those rounds remaining in the clip.

Still, I want to keep the momentum going, so I wanted to share a couple of articles you might have missed in the Roanoke Times. Here is one posted online February 26, and another posted today, the 8th of March.

Neither article is about start-ups, exactly, unless you consider DIY civic hacktivism to be a part of start-up culture. Which I do, and it obviously is, so I’m happy to share these cool examples of Sisters Doing It For Themselves.

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Filed under Start-up culture

Hello World

Howdy.

Here’s the deal. I looked around for one good source, one decent outlet for news and reportage on the Valley’s “start-up culture,” but couldn’t find one. Sure, there were a few scattered news stories in the paper, but nothing in-depth and on-going.

To clarify: Not THAT Valley, but this whole ‘nother valley here in Virginia, the Roanoke Valley. Y’all should come visit.

Anyway, it was a Dead End, so this first entry represents something of a rightaboutface, a three-point turn in that search cul-de-sac. I’m gonna take this old jalopy (huh? What jalopy?) out on the information superhighway and just EMBODY the change I want to see in the world. (A blog is the change you want to see in the world? Please, lower your expectations before life rips your shit to shreds.)

I am not going to be cynical. I am not going to make this about myself. I am not going to make this about my pit bull, who regularly rips my shit to shreds.

I am, instead, writing this thing for ONLY ONE PURPOSE.

Oh, you want me to explicitly state that purpose? I thought it was obvious enough that I wouldn’t have to spell it out for you. Ok, I’m going to write about “start-up culture in the Roanoke Valley.” Duh.

I imagine this could be difficult. And when I say difficult, I mean there will be words and also typing of words. So yeah. But, again, I went looking for a resource and it apparently doesn’t exist, so dagnabbit, somebody has got to do this thing!, and I guess that somebody is me until I get bored with it. I’ll just take it one step at a time. As they say, the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. And also additionally too, you miss one hundred percent of the shots you don’t take.

And I’m not going to be cynical or snarky starting on my very next post.

Speaking of, here is how I see the path forward in future posts (leave a comment if you have additional ideas [eternal silence of slumbering keyboards]): discuss resources for local start-ups, e.g. access to capital and adequate work space; interviews with local techie types; rambling opinions; pithy musings on muesli;  and other start-up issues.

So let’s briefly recap. Roanoke Valley start-up culture. News. Information. Pit bulls. Muesli.

Stay tuned.

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Filed under Start-up culture