This North Carolina City Has Emerged as the Startup Capital of the South
Find out why Durham is attracting ambitious innovators and investors from Silicon Valley, New York City, Boston and beyond.
When Google set up shop in Durham, North Carolina, two years ago, one of the first major moves the Silicon Valley tech leader made was to create new funding, networking and mentorship opportunities for minority entrepreneurs in what was quickly emerging as the “startup capital of the South.”
In partnership with American Underground, a leading Bull City coworking space (and one of nine Google For Entrepreneurs hubs in North America), Google hosted a weeklong immersion program it called “Building and Funding the Best Black Led Startups.” Part of the Google For Entrepreneurs Exchange series, the goal of the intensive immersion program was to “bridge the gap between startups, experts and new markets.” A dozen startups were selected to participate in the initiative from a pool of more than 160 applicants from across the globe.
One of them was Harold Hughes’s company.
Called Bandwagon and jointly based out of both Durham and Greenville, South Carolina, Hughes’s startup operates a unique, data-driven online college sports ticket marketplace designed to help fans find the “perfect seat on game day.” The Clemson University Business School graduate founded the venture in May 2014 because, as he told Free Enterprise, he “hated the uncertainty that came with buying tickets online.”
“You spend hundreds of dollars, plan for weeks and weeks, only to show up next to an obnoxious member of the other team’s fan base,” Hughes said when asked about the inspiration behind the company. “So I started Bandwagon to help fans protect home-field advantage and resell tickets to fans of their team.”
The company later shifted its focus to identifying who sits in which sections of a given stadium and leveraging that information to improve the fan experience. For instance, Bandwagon can now let ticket purchasers know where the family-friendly section is located or where the home and away team fans are likely to be sitting.
Some of the other minority-led tech startups to participate in the special Google program include: BlindedHR, a platform that helps companies form a talented, creative and inclusive workforce through diverse, unbiased recruiting measures; RantRoom, a social engagement platform that enables users to create public and private rooms based on specific topics; and RewardStock, a web-based platform that creates plans for the best way to travel with frequent flier miles, credit card rewards and hotel points instead of cash.
Each startup founder receives one-on-one mentoring and an inside view into the ways in which venture capitalists vet prospective companies – standard offerings for these sorts of immersive startup programs. However, in addition, participants like Hughes received guidance around overcoming racial bias in the fundraising process – a unique and incredibly useful educational opportunity, he said.
To close out the program, Hughes and fellow founder participants pitched their startups before dozens of investors and corporate CEOs.
Hughes said participating in Google and American Underground’s “Building and Funding the Best Black Led Startups” program last October had a tremendous and lasting impact on Bandwagon, enabling him to break down often systemic barriers and quickly vault his nascent business to the next level.
“The program directly impacted the success we’ve realized in the last six months,” he said. “Not only was I able to make connections with black founders from across the country who are dealing with the same challenges that I face, but I was able to tap into a group of supporters in the American Underground team that really opened doors.”
Thanks in particular to Adam Klein, American Underground chief strategist and former Greater Durham Chamber of Commerce startup strategist, Bandwagon was able to expand its network very shortly after arriving in the city, Hughes said.
“Where it took us weeks and months to get meetings with some of the colleges that we’ve targeted, Adam and his team helped us get meetings with nearby North Carolina State University and the University of North Carolina within 48 hours of being in Durham,” he explained.
Hughes continued: “The partnership between Google and American Underground really speaks to the future of talent and tech, overall. The fact is, you don’t have to be in Silicon Valley to build a great company and create immense value. In the end, with support from both entities, we secured investors, closed our round and got feedback on how to expand to new markets in the Raleigh-Durham area.”
For Klein’s part, he feels that Google and American Underground’s continued efforts to foster diversity and inclusivity across the startup spectrum will help to uniquely position Durham as a national model for what’s possible — and very much needed — in other parts of the country.
“We as a team and as partnering organizations see that our country is only going to increase in diversity, and it’s really important that people who are designing services, products and technologies, and leading startups, are as inclusive and reflective of that diversity as possible,” Klein told Free Enterprise. “We think this is a really important business opportunity that’s not only critical for the long-term economic development of Durham, but also around the country on a broader level.”
He added: “Google gave us the support and resources to work closely with female founders and founders of color in Durham, and the cool thing there is that we’ve got a chance in Durham to build an optimally inclusive next generation of startup innovators, and to set our city up for success in the decades to come.”
As for continuing to operate Bandwagon out of Durham (via a satellite office at American Underground that he frequents one to two times a month), Hughes says he’s committed to doing business in the Bull City for the long haul.
“For us, the balance of resources and costs in Durham is perfect,” he said. “Aside from being centrally located to some of our target sports fan bases, being around like-minded entrepreneurs really charges you up and pushes you to do more. What I love about the Durham ecosystem is the intentional way that the community strives to create its own culture, rather than simulating a version of Silicon Valley or anywhere else in the country.”
Others are taking note of Durham’s booming startup culture, too.
The vibrant Southern metropolis ranked fourth among the country’s top 25 technology hubs in the latest Innovation That Matters study, an annual research project published by Free Enterprise, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation and 1776. While Durham has a lower startup density than some of the nation’s larger and more established tech havens, the city boasts stronger ties between local startups and the surrounding community, as well as a regulatory environment that is relatively friendly to new businesses and business growth, according to local founders who took part in the Innovation That Matters analysis.
In addition, Durham ranked tenth out of 100 U.S. metropolitan areas on GoodCall’s 2016 list of Best Places For Women Entrepreneurs list. Bull City was also named on the data analytics company’s recent Best Cities For Black Entrepreneurs list, ranking ninth out of 100 U.S. cities.
Question is, can the city sustain its recent momentum and continue to cultivate one of the best startup cultures in the South? According to Hughes, as long as Durham leaders maintain their emphasis on diversity and inclusiveness within and outside the city’s booming technology arena, the sky may very well be the limit.
“Honestly, I was blown away by the conscious inclusion that I witnessed while I was in Durham for the Google program,” Hughes said. “When you think about the deliberate nature in which Durham and American Underground specifically focus on diversity and inclusion, you realize that it isn’t a marketing strategy for them. You see that they understand and personally believe that talent is everywhere and that good ideas — regardless of where they come from — simply need resources and support to get started.”