It’s probably not the first thing that comes to mind when communities explore what it takes to launch a supportive entrepreneurial ecosystem, but similarities can be drawn with human exploration of space, the quest to resolve problems and the alliances it takes to make big things happen. But it doesn’t happen overnight, and it isn’t always – if ever – easy.
Dan Roselli, founder of Charlotte-based Queen City Fintech and Packard Place, a hub for entrepreneurs in Charlotte’s uptown area, appreciates the long-range view it takes to launch a viable entrepreneurial ecosystem.
Said Roselli, “The entrepreneur community here is very robust and growing. I think the connection of the ecosystem to the broader Charlotte community still has work to do. But I also believe in the philosophy that in building an entrepreneurship community, you have to take a 20-year vision of what you are going to do.”
Brian Formato, principal and founder of Groove Management, a Human Capital consulting firm, has a similar, albeit galactic view.
“The entrepreneur ecosystem in Charlotte is like a constellation. There are a lot of stars, but it is not well connected. There is no overarching solar system, so it can be confusing to navigate,” he said. “But, there are also a lot of resources. [There are] very accomplished people who are open to sharing their knowledge and experience.”
And sometimes the stars align without all of the players knowing it.
Entrepreneur Justin Witz was on a mission to solve the inefficiency problem of the manually-intensive Request for Proposal (RFP) process. As his past experience overseeing multi-Billion dollar operational processes in the Armed Services taught him, so many companies just could not get a handle on how to gain processing efficiencies when issuing RFPs. For enterprise businesses, in particular, it often involves multiple teams, countless touchpoints and spreadsheets galore. And – Ground to Mission Control – no one really knew what was happening.
Witz’sMachine Learning-driven answer became Catapult, a company he launched in February 2017. Focusing first on Fintech companies, Witz was selected a month later to participate in Queen City Fintech.
According to Roselli, QC Fintech is a microcosm of the entrepreneurial support mission behind Packard Place. Almost 300 community mentors help guide, test and applaud participating startups.
One element of the intensive program is presenting at Charlotte’s Pitch Breakfast, a supportive environment for startups to practice their pitch for funding, without dollars on the line.
Executive Director Juan Garzon, said, “You never know who may be listening. We have had connections made even via social media during Pitch Breakfast’s monthly events. One startup offered a software solution in the home-improvement market. People in the audience were talking about it on Twitter and the head of Lowe’s noticed and asked for an introduction.
Those are the neat things that can happen, even when people aren’t in the room. So I encourage entrepreneurs to be on social media and we encourage those connections as best we can.”
And that is what happened with Witz’s pitch, too.
Steve Lewis, managing director of Randolph Square IP, LLC, attended the day Witz pitched. Fast forward a couple months when Formato stopped into Steve’s office at Advent Coworking.
Formato was on a break from a leadership development session he was leading for AccruePartners, one of Charlotte’s top hiring firms and a 16-year entrepreneurial success story.Formato mentioned in passing an RFP problem the Accrue cohort was working on. That’s when Lewis recalled Witz’sRFP solution pitch.
Still, it wasn’t exactly the concept Witz was focused on.
Instead of the process of issuing RFPs, Accrue needed a way to streamline their process of responding to RFPs. When Witz presented to the cohort, he was upfront about the stage of development and the switch to the other side of the RFP equation.
Accrue cohort member Josh White notes that there were more established providers nationally, but they liked what they heard from Witz.
“He told us his vision and what he was looking to do, and we talked about our vision and what we were tasked to do. Bottom line, we needed to save time in our RFP response process. We presented together to our leadership and they loved it,” said White.
Witz is beyond appreciative for the opportunity. In its first year, over 4,000 customers joined Catapult’s subscription-based web app platform.
“A lot happened after we secured Accrue as a partner,” he said. “It really was like Brian and Accrue were making a dual investment with Catapult and in me, personally, to grow the company.”
To Charlotte entrepreneur ecosystem trailblazers like Kevin Giriunas, founder of Advent Coworking, it’s not so unexpected to hear stories like this one about successful, organic collaborations.
“At the end of the day, we want to create, nurture and build collaboration among our members and the community. That’s what happened when Brian approached us about hosting Accrue here. And it’s not surprising that our member, Steve, stepped up.
Advent is an empowering space. Everyone here chooses to be here every day so they are already in a very different, embracing mindset. We’re really about giving individuals the platform to connect and collaborate, whatever that may look like,” added Giriunas.
Still, some point out that the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Charlotte lacks significant corporate involvement and investment. Roselli offers another perspective from his long-range entrepreneurship stargazer.
“If you ask me, are we on the right path? Yes. Are we there yet? No. But I’m not sure we’ll ever be ‘there.’ It’s a continual journey of improvement and advancement. So if we’re thinking there is an end, that’s the wrong way to think of it.”
Because the stars do align. Just in time to discover a new galaxy.