ELEVATING TECH STARTUPS IN THE HILLS AND HOLLARS

Writer: Jason Reagan - a futurist, tech writer, communications specialist and optimist. Jason blogs for DroneLife (@DroneLife) and SiliconHollar.

This article first appeared in High Country Magazine, a sister publication of High Country Press


When James Bance and Sam Glover gaze out over the amazing vistas from Howard’s Knob in Boone, N.C., they see the usual sights — the college town’s main streets, Grandfather Mountain’s stolid profile and the gorgeous “hollars,” hills and peaks that have captured the hearts of so many.

But James and Sam see something else – an opportunity to transform the region from just a thriving tourist/university area into the next tech success story — a vibrant new hub for startups. Forget Silicon Valley, meet Silicon Hollar.

James and Sam form the core of Startup High Country. The nascent partnership is a hybrid incubator, startup accelerator and consultancy group. Wait. What does that mean?

“What that means is we provide mentorship, software and web development services, physical space and, in some cases, we’ll be providing seed investments to local entrepreneurs who have an existing company or a new business idea,” James said.

The duo teamed up with Chris Grasinger and Jeffrey Scott, two longtime High Country residents and advocates for local entrepreneurship and, together, the group hopes to blaze a new trail with the vision of building a technology and entrepreneurial ecosystem to support quality jobs and provide investment opportunities for everyone in the region.

“In the High Country we have a fantastic variety of entrepreneurs in the area, we have a thriving university and high speed internet infrastructure,” Grasinger said. “We created a title and an organization to help brand and organize the efforts of connecting and accelerating these elements.”

“I can remember growing up and people always talked about distribution and sales going off the mountain, but the beauty of technology is that neither one of those is an issue,” Sam said. “The world becomes your market and there’s no need for overhead, shipping and warehouses.”

“[Sam and I] had been blessed in that we’ve worked for amazing companies, like Google and Shoeboxed,” James said, adding that the duo “recognized that many of the residents here hadn’t felt the financial benefits of the 21st century. So, we set out with this completely audacious goal.”

The SHC Difference

That all sounds great, right? Better jobs, a higher quality lifestyle, access to better technology. But can it really work here? Local residents have heard this before – the blossoming of a new startup and venture-capital paradise nestled in the Appalachian Mountains has to some extent been only a dream in the High Country for years.

The Startup High Country difference? It boils down to experience. The four-person team has tons of experience as startup entrepreneurs – you might say they’ve climbed this tech mountain many times.

“We’ve all experienced the successes and the scar tissue that comes with the territory of starting a company,” James added. “We want to short-circuit a lot of the inevitable early mistakes that first-time entrepreneurs will make and then put them on a track to ramp up faster.” In fact, Startup High Country has already started mentoring and providing services for four companies.

It’s Business and It’s Personal

For James, the startup culture has been part of his DNA for most of his life. He co-founded his first tech company at 21 after moving to the Bay Area from his native Wisconsin. Over the past 15 years, he has built a solid resume in the tech and investment world, occupying roles in leadership, sales, marketing and business development at companies like Bazaarvoice, (a 2012 IPO), Adometry (which was acquired by Google 2014), AOL/Verizon and John Hancock. He knows his stuff.

However, James’ High Country journey started in Deep Gap. He and his wife, Sharla – along with their children, Blake and Mila, – moved to Blowing Rock from Austin (another American startup success) four years ago to be closer to Sharla’s parents, Deep Gap residents John and Vicki Unmack.

“They’re amazing people and have a heart for serving others so they’ve built deep relationships here. My wife and I decided to make the move to be closer to them.”

As happens so often with new residents, James and his family immediately fell in love with the outdoor life of the area from skiing to cycling. But the Great Outdoors will only take you so far when the siren song of Entrepreneurship calls.

A High Country native, Sam attended UNC-Chapel Hill and is known throughout the region as an innovative entrepreneur and growth leader. Over the past six years, he’s worked with several NC-based startups. Sam helps them define core metrics, accelerate growth and scale product development. He recently launched and sold his first company, Zip-Services — a technology platform aimed at disrupting the commercial laundry and linen business. Currently, he’s VP of Operations for Shoeboxed, Inc. Like James, he lives in Blowing Rock with his wife and dog.

Silicon Hollar

While the High Country may never match the startup tech horsepower of Silicon Valley, Startup High Country believes the region can brand an appropriate moniker – Silicon Hollar. The name arose after a conversation with local entrepreneur James Bauler, referring to the deep, rich valleys (hollows or hollar as we say ‘round here). Because SHC is already working with the Appalachian Regional Commission to attract angel-fund investors, the Hollar metaphor resonated immediately.

“Silicon Hollar is simply an idea, a concept to rally around, a place and a metaphor for the tech ecosystem here – much like Silicon Valley in California or Silicon Prairie in Nebraska,” James said, adding “it’s not an attempt to become, or to be thought of as another Silicon Valley, we don’t want that.”

Using a strong and memorable branding metaphor like Silicon Hollar has the potential to highlight the uniqueness of the High Country and leverage its strengths, along with technology, to set the standard as a beacon in rural Appalachia and to demonstrate what a successful tech community can look like.

“What I love about the [Silicon Hollar] metaphor is that is gives people in the area something to rally around and be proud of,” Sam said. “It’s a network of people interested in bettering the High Country through entrepreneurship and technology.”

“Most people have now heard of Silicon Valley, so the name will usually make some sense to individuals,” Chris said. “The truth is our Silicon Hollar will have its own unique personality – similar to the valley, we aim to be a hotbed for high growth entrepreneurship, but we also value adventure, outdoors, and the beautiful environment in which we live.”

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.

Real Results

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