Thanks to its startup community, Durham is a world champion.
In April, the Durham Chamber of Commerce took the prize for the Most Unconventional Economic Development Project award at the World Chambers Congress in Doha, Qatar.
The win was for the Smoffice (World’s Smallest Office), a six-month experiment in 2012 that gave a startup – the Makery – office space in the front of downtown Durham’s Beyu Caffé. The deal included a free downtown condo, technology, mentoring and other resources in return for a very public incubation.
This is not some trivial award. In 16 years of the international competition, no U.S. community had ever won. And of the more than 70 communities competing this year, Durham was the only U.S. finalist.
“We were the only Americans out of 2,200 attendees,” said Adam Klein, chief strategist at American Underground, Durham working spaces where entrepreneurs learn from and brainstorm with one another. “We were underdogs. Most Chambers around the world act more like Commerce departments, they have huge budgets and are nationalized.”
Klein and I first discussed the Smoffice in its idea stage in early 2012.
As a publicity stunt, it was spot-on. As an incubator, the Smoffice was a big risk.
It was a very public attempt in a crowded field that, at the time, included accelerators Launchbox/Triangle Startup Factory, Groundwork Labs, Joystick Labs, Startup Stampede (Klein’s other brainchild), and others.
The question now becomes, will there be a Smoffice II, or something like it?
That depends. Right now, the paint is just about dry on Klein’s latest American Underground project, Underground @ Main, an expansion of the startup hub that includes plans to house more than 75 early-stage startups in an open format.
“We’re working on data infrastructure,” Klein said. “Almost all of the offices are committed. We’re selling up co-working, and we anticipate launching with a lot of momentum.”
They’re also installing a slide, much like the legendary two-story slide at Epic Games’ facility in Cary, and procuring vintage video games to give the workplace a playful touch.
But Klein knows he needs to launch one or two projects per year specifically designed to build the startup ecosystem around the American Underground and downtown Durham.
Once Main is done, he’ll move on to another project, Paradoxos, a two-day Durham festival that runs June 6-7 and celebrates entrepreneurship and is built around Triangle Startup Factory’s pitch day and other events.
“The long-term hope is that Paradoxos builds on itself each year but always captures the essence of Durham and the Triangle,” said Klein, co-organizer of the event. “If we’ve learned anything, it’s that putting entrepreneurs and creative people together leads to great things.”