It Takes a Community to Raise a Startup
Setting a vision like Silicon Hollar and offering startup resources is all well and good, but to really succeed, Startup High Country will need community buy-in.
Fortunately, the High Country has already blazed a small-scale trail in both tech and other startups, thanks to a few local pioneers. A prime case study is ECR Software (ECRS) Corporation, a startup icon founded and headquartered in downtown Boone.
The company has not only transformed the way we shop, but has also helped lead a renaissance in “Main Street” development. Housed in a former auto dealership building, ECRS was founded in 1989 by Peter Catoe, who was a marketing student at Appalachian State at the time.
The software/hardware company holds the exclusive rights to their self-checkout register software– systems that allow consumers to easily scan, bag and pay for their groceries at thousands of retail outlets across the country.
According to the company’s website (ecrs.com,) the local business offers a plethora of retails systems “from front-store systems including point-of-sale and self-checkout, to comprehensive back office, warehouse, and inventory management solutions. Clients include grocers in San Francisco, Montana, Toronto, as well as beverage companies, breweries, health-product distributors, fuel suppliers and healthcare systems.”
“When I was first approached by the core team at SHC, I was struck by their level of energy, optimism, passion and entrepreneurial vision they have for our community,” Catoe said. “In addition, I’ve also really enjoyed observing the Silicon Hollar meetings. It’s very exciting and heart-warming for an old tech entrepreneur, such as myself, to see so many young entrepreneurs coming together within our community, and being excited about building great products and great companies,” he added.
Watauga County has also transformed the startup environment by becoming a Certified Entrepreneurial Community. In partnership with AdvantageWest Economic Development Group, the county launched a strategy in 2007 to create “overall business climate, policies, regulations, and opportunities to learn and grow [that] are simple to find and available.”
“When you put it all together you can see that SHC is filling a void that was present, because free enterprise can only be transformative within a community when entrepreneurship is valued and most of all, nurtured,” Catoe added.
James says a key component to Startup High Country’s success lies in the already available resources at Appalachian State University. Local university contacts like Dr. James Wilkes, Sara Beth Hopton, Erich Schlenker and Ged Moody have helped pave the way by linking SHC with students and faculty who have a vision and drive to start new companies locally.
Other community resources include Mike Quinto, James Bauler from Cruxolve, and Dave Walker from Ascent. “They have been integral in creating the momentum behind Silicon Hollar and we couldn’t have moved the needle without them,” James said.
ASU’s Transportation Insight Center for Entrepreneurship has also launched a unique enthusiasm for startups both among students and local community leaders. Directed by Schlenker, the center’s staff empowers those with new startup ideas and partners with them to research and crunch numbers to determine if there’s a market and viable business model. “Entrepreneurs can use the center’s office space and other on-campus facilities while center staff connect them with professional services, funding and mentors,” notes a recent report in ExitEvent.com
“It’s easy to be excited about ideas and opportunities, but the difference between having success and not having it is being willing to start,” Erich said.
As SHC’s Silicon Hollar concept gains traction, the group is seeing new success stories blossom across the board.
“We’re really focused on job and investment opportunities, and by getting several startups off the ground and funded within the next 12-18 months, they will quickly make a really positive impact in job creation,” James said.
Promising young entrepreneurs, like Zak Ammar from Vixster and Dale Yarborough from Gidoa (pronounced Gi-Dough), stand out as success stories for SHC. Vixster, for example, is a trash and recycling service company that facilitates a peer-to-peer removal service for commercial and residential customers. Think of it as Uber for trash service. By using a digital, GPS platform, users can create an account, request an on-demand pickup – pay for it online, and Vixster will match them with a driver in the same vicinity to pick it up. Gidoa aims to provide transparency and accountability in the charitable donations industry. Both are finalists for the recent 2016 Pitch Your Idea Competition at ASU.
“We’ve had a really nice response from the community to what we’re doing,” James said.
Startup: The Next Generation
A tech-oriented community will wither on the vine quickly without a fresh infusion of talent and software experience. To meet that challenge, SHC plans to break new ground in software coding education.
“In order to stay competitive globally, not just locally, we need to get more of our kids exposed to software coding before they hit the post-secondary level,” James said. He is among a growing number of startup leaders who believe computer coding classes should be required in high school curricula.
We’re really focused on coding education,” Sam said. “We’re hosting a summer camp – High Country Coding Corps – with App State’s Gear Up program, teaching rising 6-9th graders computer programing through something they all love – Minecraft.
“For most of us coding is a foreign language, but kids who make coding their native language will be well equipped to snag high-paying jobs and work at amazing companies like Google and Amazon, or even locally at ECRS,” James added.
Making Headway in the Hollar
While most people can get on board with Startup High Country’s vision and enthusiasm, everyone involved also realizes the road ahead, like the region’s soil, will yield a lot of bumps, rocky obstacles and steep climbs.
Although the High Country offers many advantages for startup incubation and recruitment — Outside magazine has named Boone one of the “10 Best Small Towns in the U.S. – job creation has always suffered due to a variety of factors, including cost of living and geography.
“It’s no secret that there’s a serious lack of quality, high-paying career opportunities in the High Country,” James said. “It’s not an indictment on anyone here, it’s just a reality.”
And the future for the High Country may grow bleaker if economic strategies fail to adapt. According to the N.C. State Institute for Emerging Issues’ Future Work Job Disruption index, Watauga County outranks all other counties in North Carolina in potential job losses due to technology automation.
“I see SHC as an opportunity for our community to get ahead of the forecasts and take control of our future, to push back against that prediction,” James said.
“Let’s use what we know: creation, innovation, and technology to rewrite our community’s economic story.”
Get Involved with Silicon Hollar
“I tell everyone, this is challenging work, but it’s good work. All we need is a few lighthouse companies — those companies that shine brightly and that others can follow and avoid the rocks. With Startup High Country, we can invest in entrepreneurs ‘on the mountain’, so they don’t have to go ‘off the mountain’ to build their companies and fulfill their dreams,” Startup High Country Co-Founder James Bance says. “The easiest way to stay connected with the tech initiatives in our area is to sign up for the mailing list at siliconhollar.org and come out to the events. We help curate the site, but it’s really a public space for everyone to use; it’s a gateway to all things tech in the High Country.”
“You don’t have to be a computer programmer or work for a technology company to be involved. The beauty of a startup community is that almost anyone can get engaged. It takes many different disciplines to drive success, not just tech. Designers, photographers, executive assistants, writers, project managers and more, are all essential to the mix.”
This article first appeared in High Country Magazine, a sister publication of High Country Press