Guest Columnist

Column: Volunteers, lab team up to help startups

Guest columnistNovember 11, 2013 

A pair of Raleigh software developers came together earlier this year to redefine what they think success at a technology startup company should look like.

With the international growth of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, the development of startup accelerator programs and local efforts to attract West Coast venture capitalists, it seemed to Blake Callens and Josh Anderson that success for a startup was increasingly tied to securing investment rather than building a viable product, getting customers, earning revenue and creating jobs.

What is needed, the two decided, was a different kind of success story – one that could inspire college graduates to forgo a corporate gig for a startup one, or convince experienced executives to apply their industry knowledge to an emerging business.

So the pair created a nonprofit organization that could help build sustainable, profitable businesses in Raleigh. And unlike most accelerators and incubators, there are no financial strings attached.

Callens, lead engineer at SpotTrot, and Anderson, director of engineering at StepLeader, opened Raleigh’s Entrepreneurial Accelerator Lab in August.

The lab provides business-building assistance from a team that includes lawyers, software developers, marketers and experienced startup founders – all of whom volunteer their time to help regional companies grow.

Entrepreneurs who join the program don’t give up any equity to get involved. Instead, they’re encouraged to bootstrap their companies as long as possible in hopes of making profits before outside investment is required.

“The whole mythos of taking in these ever-growing series of funds, and valuating the company larger and larger and larger works for a minutia of people that do it,” Callens said. “The majority of successful companies in this region, they’ll tell you they got money from friends and family – or bootstrapped and got clients.”

Morris Gelblum was the first to join the lab, with plans to build, his three-year-old company that matches college students with chores and odd jobs. He needs a new website that can be scaled to new cities, as well as advice and assistance to develop strategy around that growth.

“It’s valuable to me to have a focus group from different backgrounds to weigh decisions and address the problems we have,” said Gelblum, a 2010 UNC-Chapel Hill graduate.

Like the startups that go through the program, REAL is bootstrapped and reliant on the help of others. Callens and Anderson hope to find free office space in downtown Raleigh. They also want to bring on more coaches and advisers, and find another company to build up alongside Gelblum’s.

But mostly, they want to build a movement around creating good, successful companies in Raleigh.

“In 10 to 15 years, this snowballs, and the area transforms itself through successful companies that hire here, have spinoffs here, reinvest in companies here and help change the college curriculum from top to bottom,” Anderson said.

Laura Baverman is a journalist who spent eight years covering business for Cincinnati newspapers before moving to Raleigh.

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