Joe Procopio

Column: Startups get their start at other startups

Guest columnistAugust 26, 2013 

Where is the Triangle getting its next great startup founders?

“Recently they’ve been coming from Bronto and iContact,” joked Aaron Houghton, an entrepreneur who co-founded Durham startups iContact, an email marketing services provider, and BoostSuite, a small-business website optimization firm.

He’s got a point.

Houghton and Joe Colopy, co-founder and CEO of cloud-based marketing company Bronto Software in Durham, said the phenomenon of founders coming directly out of existing startups is necessary and good for the area’s startup environment.

Since I got into startups many years ago, I’ve gone between working at other people’s startups and founding my own. It’s been a great career move.

I started out working for other people’s startups, where I learned everything from having a customer-first mindset to how to exit without destroying the company.

I started my first serious company on the side, then another, and another, and I’m now working at Automated Insights, a Durham automated content services company, having paused my most recent startup to do so.

In each case, I brought what I learned from other people’s places to my own, and brought my experiences from my own startups to my other jobs.

It’s not uncommon for the best and brightest talent at a startup to eventually leave and start their own company. Their entrepreneurial drive and independent spirit is probably what led them to join a startup in the first place.

And the knowledge they get on the job is invaluable.

“I worked for a little over a year at Red Hat before leaving to work on the beginnings of Bronto,” Colopy said. “I knew that I was going to start my own tech startup, but I went to Red Hat in order to see the inner-workings of how a successful software company ran.”

Chaz Felix and Colopy founded Bronto in 2002. The company has since expanded to more than 140 employees and more than 1,000 customers.

The duo have also seen their own employees leave to start other companies.

“Yes. I have had it happen a few times,” Colopy said. “Ultimately, you wish them well and hope they are successful … and I am strong proponent of having more startups in the area.”

The high-caliber employees are the ones good entrepreneurs know they risk losing to ambition.

Houghton and Ryan Allis started iContact in 2003, and sold the company to Vocus last year for $169 million.

Houghton went on to start BoostSuite in 2012.

“I love hiring entrepreneurs,” said Houghton. “They are the only employees who understand how hard working in a startup should be. I always expect they’ll leave my startup better than they found it. And I plan to be a huge fan of their new ventures when they launch them, too.”

Joe Procopio is a serial entrepreneur, writer and speaker. Follow him on Twitter @jproco or online at

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