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Millennia ago, agriculture and horticulture allowed humans to pull themselves out of abject scarcity and into the abundance that gave us modern societies. Today the same tools can provide abundance for communities experiencing inequality. Community gardens and food co-ops offer opportunities for production and service in the most fundamental ways. These as a result return ownership of a community to itself by strengthening the relationship between a neighborhood, its residents, and its surrounding areas.

“Perhaps the brightest light on BUGs’ horizon is developing a food cooperative for Homewood. Bey has teamed up with several economic development organizations in Pittsburgh to secure a building and parking lot for the facility, which could radically improve residents’ access to food as well as keep money within the community.”

Food and wealth are tied to one another at the core, and even share a prefix in the words ecology and economy. Besides what services are provided to communities, however, there are massive takeaways for individuals involved in regards to the skills take home.

“perhaps the real value comes from the case studies they provide, which teach important business skills.”

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The Day the Earth Stood Ill

It may be the end of the world as we know it. We’ve only known so much of it, and only for so long, but it may be ending. Nature is not without her forgiveness. Where there is death there is rebirth, meaning a new world is always imminent, but it may no longer be ours, or what we called ours. At least not what we’ve laid claim to.

Our planet is a mighty force. This Earth day we must meet it with care.
Our planet is formidable, but damageable

We call ourselves the dominant species. We are right, but only inasmuch as that means anything at all. It is a word and concept that we invented. Nature is equitable to each of her children; there is no hierarchy outside of those we’ve created. Simply roles that must be filled, mandated by evolutionary equations and the sublime will of the Universe. Nature herself is the only boss. But even by our own definition, that dominance is threatened. And we are at fault. The Earth is ill.

Stroll Through The Garden

Today is Earth Day in North America, and attention turns, even if just ever so slightly, to care for the planet. Our planet, by the way, is very large. It is also very powerful. Ancient, pulsing orb of mineral and minds, it is a mother in its own right. The Earth is not the world, however. The world is far smaller than our planet. A superficial writhing on her skin. The world is nature made more complex by human curation. The world is a garden, and the Earth, what’s left, is wilderness.

Among our most ancient inheritances is mythology, the spiritual breath of our collective cultures. Many of our creation myths discuss gardens. Gods creating mankind and placing them in land set aside for curation. This is how we view ourselves, divine groundskeepers bending and twitching branch and vine to our pleasure by a heavenly authority. As antiquated as many people claim to find this idea, we certainly act like it is the case.

Curiously, it is also common for mankind to be expunged from their Garden, being found undeserving of paradise through means of hubris and mistakes. These mistakes aren’t limited to snakes and legendary towers. Rome and the Mayan empire were said to fall due to environmental degradation. When we make the Earth ill, we become pathogens that die with the host.

Why We Need Earth Day

If we are to consider ourselves dominant, then the world is our throne on Earth. It is the seat of our power. It is also the contract of our reign. We have to consciously design our world with wisdom and felicity in mind. So long as the world remains a legitimate structure under mankind, we have the right to exercise our curation. This isn’t a statement that requires any level of theology.

Accepted tenets of leadership tell us that to rule legitimately we must earnestly serve first. In history, exploitation has been excused in the name of some greater good or another. What greater good can there be than the planet that sustains all life or the communities that give human meaning to anything at all? To exploit either not only breaks maxims of leadership but violates sound sense.

We must cater to and curate our world in a way that serves and glorifies both the planet and our communities. This is a scale we must balance if we are to legitimize the world and all of its creations. If we do not, the equity of nature will take over. Communities will revolt or nature will disrupt herself for her own sake.

Culturing A Lifestyle of Curation

I’m neither a sociologist nor am I a scientist however, I speak from the rhetoric of both. If we fail to control human-affected ecosystem and climate change, natural compensation may exceed our expectations to adapt. If we continue to treat scarce resources as abundant and abundant ones as in dearth, society will rebel against unfair distribution and destruction of natural resources.

A garden archway covered path
We are innate curators of natural shapes over human structures

We worry a lot about carbon footprints, recycling, and conscious consumerism. Each is good, but they only address the world as a place of harvest while neglecting it as a garden. This Earth Day we should add onto these mentalities a culture of curation. We should own our roles as planetary gardeners. Here are some suggestions to do so in your own day-to-day life.

1. Clean Fallen Leaves

We call leaves on the forest floor “litter.” In a garden we control what grows and the health of the soil by clearing litter. While we don’t have leaves, we still drop litter. We must begin to look at the ground as the floor of our garden and take initiative to intentionally take time to clean litter.

2. Pull the Weeds

What are weeds except for plants that take resources away from plants we want to thrive? What weeds can you pull that take away resources from you and nature? An electronic device that is almost always on standby? A water feature that is always on and rarely seen? This can serve you economically as well.

3. Turn the Soil

Turning soil helps both loosen it and mix its nutrients. Where can you make it easier for environmental thinking and actions to take place? This is a great place to start as a consumer. Not by consuming something new, but by making adjustments with what you have. Adjust your water heater. Arrange your kitchen in a way that uses fewer single-use tools.

4. Plant Good Seeds

This isn’t a metaphor this time. Plant seeds. Grow greenery. The world is an actual garden for humankind amidst the wilderness of nature. Lest treat it as such by planting a tree somewhere this Earth day.

5. Make it Beautiful

A garden is an aesthetic structure. Whatever you do, keep it beautiful. This may not be an obvious service to the Earth but consider that we take better care of beautiful things. Well placed beauty, especially in ways that nod toward or sit besides nature, help us respect and admire it. Flowers and houseplants are encouraged. We should also keep renewable energy collectors and reservoirs aesthetically pleasing.

Earth Day is only One Day

These are all merely suggestions to help condition the mind toward curation mindset. To help establish the identity of a world gardener. However, it is a daily practice. Simply building the garden doesn’t unemploy the gardener. Every day she must pick, prune, plant, and plan. If not, it all returns to wilderness. This is what the peace of the garden truly is. Let’s act as caretakers to our garden, and work to heal the Earth from its illness. Let’s never let that illness be us.

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The Mentor Mentality and Wilmington Entrepreneurship

The road less traveled may make all the difference to Robert Frost, but to seasoned business people, it might be crappy advice to blaze your own trail. On Tuesday, April 16th at Iron Clad Brewery, a crowd of entrepreneurs and business owners gathered around brews to hear 3 panelists discuss the mentor mentality. The event was run by the Network for Entrepreneurs in Wilmington and hosted as always by its founder Jim Roberts. Roberts presented speakers with experience in mentoring and in mentoring programs to share much-needed insights with the audience.

The speakers on Tuesday night came from different successful backgrounds in engaging in mentorship in their industries. Dominic Taverniti was a mentoring founder, then a member, of CharGrow in Asheville. Hailing from Chicago Kevin Carson comes with several exits under his belt and runs AI BRIDGE. Finally, the Director of the UNCW Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE), Diane Durance, introduced a new university mentor partner program. Each of the three provided a short presentation before a facilitated Q&A.

Jim Roberts, Kevin Carlson, Diane Durance, and Dominic Taverniti speak on a mentorship panel at Network for Entrepreneurs in Wilmington
Jim Roberts, Kevin Carlson, Diane Durance, and Dominic Taverniti

Wilmington’s entrepreneur ecosystem might struggle with being taken seriously in neighboring regions. In the last couple of years initiatives have been proposed to increase the number of startups generating revenue, startups with successful capital raises, and those with substantial exits. There has also been activity to expand the amount and variety of funding sources and of patents produced from the region. One other thing local leaders are trying to produce is mentorship opportunities. For that to be effective, however, they will need entrepreneurs that listen.

Diane Durance and Jim Roberts described an “ask-hole,” someone who asks for advice, doesn’t listen and wastes everyone’s time. Ask-holes in the ecosystem cause trouble, as they put a bad taste in mentors’ mouths and dissuade them from participating. This is a problem. As a precaution, the April 16th gathering was as much about training entrepreneurs what to expect from mentorship as much as it was about presenting new mentorship opportunities in the city.

What Is a Mentor?

In the context of the event, a mentor is an individual experienced in a specific aspect of business or entrepreneurship who volunteers their time to assist a less experienced entrepreneur through a confidential agreement. Generally speaking, a mentor will be an older individual that has seen a lot more of the ups and downs of scaling a business. He or she will have advice and direction that can be headlights on a dark road for a young startup.

Mentors are a sounding board for green entrepreneurs. The panel agreed that a good mentor listens more than speaks. As a mentor, Kevin Carlson wants to get into the entrepreneur’s head and understand their passion. This type of attention helps to align mentors with mentee goals. Dominic Taverniti recalled a situation in which he spotted a scaling opportunity for a mentee only to learn that it wasn’t the entrepreneur’s vision. These can be red-flags for poor fit or miscommunicated expectations.

The audience at NEW learns about local mentorship opportunities. Photo credit Jim Roberts.

What a mentor isn’t is a board member, an executive, or an employee. Further, a mentor isn’t there to tell the mentee entrepreneur what to do. They are there to provide insight and give options that the entrepreneur may consider and take. A mentor also is not a “Yes man” who simply agrees with everything they hear. A good mentor ought to provide a bit of “tough-love” since the market certainly won’t be any kinder.

How to Be a Good Mentee

To avoid earning the title of ask-hole, the mentee needs to be coachable. That is, they need to be willing to listen to advice and execute on it. If they disagree with a mentor’s suggestion, then they may respectfully prove them wrong by demonstrating it through data or execution. An entrepreneur should remember that their mentors are volunteers offering valuable time and pay respect to that by not giving too much pushback or being a pushover. Discourse and respect are key in the relationship. What this boils down to is that an entrepreneur mentee must be coachable. This involves being attentive and respectful, understanding the value of advice, and implementing the advice.

Coaching in Wilmington

Under Diane Durance, the UNCW CIE began mobilizing a coalition to bolster local entrepreneurs. This organization includes several businesses in the Wilmington area. At the event Durance announced a new program to connect mentors to entrepreneurs through the university. She designed a methodology for getting talent together with entrepreneurs in which a team of mentors work with a venture. It is a peer learning group that helps the mentee move forward.

Why group mentoring? One-on-one mentor matching is hard to facilitate, especially when you’re new in town like Michigan transplant Durance. Further, skilled mentors are had to find. Teamwork helps to culture both mentors and entrepreneurs alike. The program, which involves a once a month mentor meeting, allows entrepreneurs to come to mentors and present their business. After being vetted and approved, a mentoring team is assigned to the startup, which doesn’t need to be CIE tenant but needs an active membership if matched.

To learn more about mentoring opportunities in Wilmington, contact the UNCW CIE for group mentoring, or for step-by-step startup mentorship contact Bill Warner at Entredot.

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My Azalea Festival Weekend

My wife once described the azalea as a homely plant that gets real dolled up for prom night. For most of the year, it is an unassuming and at times ghastly bush. At the crack of Spring, it bursts and blossoms into a fantastically beautiful bouquet, then like Cinderella at the stroke of midnight, returns to its former ignoble origin. Each year in early Spring my city of Wilmington, NC celebrates this floral firework display with, well, fireworks. The North Carolina Azalea Festival took place over this past weekend and, as it does, swallowed downtown in blossoms, bands, balloons, and brokers of cheap yet expensive goods.

Azaleas blooming in downtown Wilmington, NC
Color Explodes from Our State Shrub

The festival involves all the standard fare (you could say it’s really your standard fair) from floats to vendors to big acts. Many downtown residents understandably purport again and again that they hate the festival and its relentless shut-down of the streets in front of their homes and shops. Regardless, the festival draws in a decent crowd from both nearby and remote areas for the attractions.

Along with several auxiliary events like the Stop the Violence rally, Alt-Zalea and others, there are also big names that come in to perform, this year including Hank Williams Jr. and Ice Cube. These may escape the eye of the more casual passer-by, however, as you navigate the maze of tents, bleachers, and road barricades. The more common elements of the festival still serve well for interesting or insightful experiences.

The Parade Will Go On Without You

My family and I went to enjoy the parade early Saturday morning and it went exactly as you might expect. Backed up lines of costumes, cars, and brass instruments awaiting their cue to march for the crowd. Now I missed about half of this parade, actually, simply trying to corral my family. We arrived early (since there’s no other way to find parking or places to stand) which meant about 30 minutes waiting for the parade to start. Over this time span, children 10 and under get antsy. My toddler wanted to return to where we parked and took her mother and myself with her. My other two daughters stayed with their grandmother. After some back and forth we eventually coaxed the child back to the rest of the family sans meltdown.

The parade already started. Beauties and belles, arrayed in dresses that would make a Disney princess insecure, led the event. Their vestments a vestige of a romanticized American South and a heritage I don’t share and that honestly wouldn’t have me. Commentary aside, behind them a train of high school bands, color guards, veterans, Shriners, and floats appeared one-by-one entertaining at each stop with rehearsed performances. It was a pretty interesting display of music, dance, driving tricks, and oversized balloon monsters. For all that I saw I also missed the Chinese dragon dancers, several belles, and a few bands. My wife was disappointed. I was more intrigued.

Azalea Belles leading the parade before the ribbon cutting
Celebrating Flowers, Dresses, and Southern Oppression

Life Marches On

No one really needs another metaphor for life, but parades make a good one. Or perhaps it makes a better metaphor for experiences in life. Parades are an interesting type of celebration. They are fantastically passive. Floats and pageant queens drift by like colorful clouds while onlookers clap and snap photos. A progressive sequence of equally candid and curated moments, bundled up with heritage and history. Like clouds, like life, it starts and goes on without you. You can get so tied up in the struggles of the day that you miss it, even when it’s right next to you. But when you catch yourself, you find out there’s nothing to do but enjoy it or march along with it for a while yourself.

Diversion Can Be Medicine

After the Azalea Festival parade, we went to see the vendors. I was honestly surprised how the line of merchant tents actually seemed endless. Local businesses had tables near their physical shops, vendors from different towns showed up, shops that generally work out of their homes had booths. Everyone had brought some money so it was open season on any small things anyone wanted to pick up. This meant a good time for everyone to browse, enjoy, and feel satisfied with a fun spur-of-the-moment purchase.

Festival booths are also a great way to study the psychology of each member of your family. Every neurosis can be observed, it seems, by watching a person making a buying decision they don’t have to. There were many opportunities as every several feet there was another stop to step into a tent and ask about merchandise. There is also something therapeutic about simply gawking at something novel, interesting, or pretty. At least for me, I feel more creative walking around dealers and artisans, watching what they crafted by hand. To see how many of them took what were once little ideas and packaged them in compelling and ornate ways into a charming craft.

My children’s eyes lit up once or twice at baubles like bubble guns and cute stuff like stuffed toys. I find there is an important maturity developed from making a decision on a single thing from a spread of desires based on how much you are willing to and able to spend at the moment. Further, walking away satisfied with that decision breeds a responsible and appreciative adult (I hope).

North Carolina Azalea Festival merchant tents
A Mile of Artists and Artisans Easily Working Off Their Tent Costs

Deep Fried Paradise

Because we took the initiative to carry a package of nutritious Oreo cookies with us, we had snacks all while shopping. This meant things went very sanely when we arrived at the food vendor end of the tents. We already knew what we wanted, so we wrapped that adventure up with the purchase of a couple of obligatory funnel cakes.

Fair food is a unique paradox. It barely qualifies as food and it’s never priced fairly. Despite this, it has an important place as I consider it the only true American food. Everything else is imported and immigrant born as far as I’m concerned. After all of the decades I’ve lived on this planet, I still marvel at the fact that you can deep fry and serve butter or Coca-Cola. I’m also amazed by the fact that I can eat a single onion, prepared and served in such a way to meet my calorie requirements for a day, and my fat and carbohydrate recommendations for a week.

Fair food vendor at the NC Azalea Fest
Fair Food Prices Correlate with its Glycemic Index

With the exception of some plants that my wife and mother took home with them from the festival merchants, in the end, every purchase although small was more than we needed or wanted. The bubble gun was out of bubbles and batteries by mid-afternoon, the stuffed toy is already neglected in the pile of other stuffed toys, and the funnel cakes were even too much to finish. It wasn’t the merchandise or their practicality that made them valuable, though. It was the moment of diversion they brought. Unlike distraction, which takes away energy and attention, diversion can actually add to experiences and help recharge some of the power cells we use to experience things in full presence. As far as participating in the Azalea Festival, a half-eaten Pollock pancake helps complete the show.

Enjoy Yourself

The Azalea Festival was honestly an extremely fun time. I didn’t have a chance to participate in all of the activities and events as I wanted, but that’s not the direction I should turn my head. There is a lot going on each year, and I was also invited to speak at a couple of auxiliary events and walk with a non-profit I volunteer for in the parade. It wouldn’t have been feasible to participate there and to also learn life lessons with my family. Much like making a purchase decision at a fair vendor, I’m satisfied with my choice despite all the others not taken. Okay, I’m lying. I wish I made the Ice Cube concert, too, but those are the breaks. I truly enjoyed my time anyway.

Children eating funnel cake on a boardwalk
My Daughters Enjoying Funnel Cake Over the River

Whether it’s a fragrant flower, proud parade, a maze of merchants, or an Oreo (deep fried or otherwise) there’s an art to being content. The North Carolina Azalea Festival spends a lot of effort and attention on simply appreciating simple things. This isn’t the first post I’ve written about a family outing where I learned appreciation, and hopefully, it won’t be my last. Learning that life experience is a parade you get to participate in or miss is a lesson I hope I’ll hold on to for a long time. And remembering to embrace a diversion, especially where it enriches an experience, could well become a fountain of youth for me. Let the small things go a long way whenever you get the opportunity. There is a lot of value hiding in each moment.

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3 Strategies for Early Startup Traction – NEW Event

Network for Entrepreneurs in Wilmington at Ironclad Brewery
Local Entrepreneurs Gather to Pick Up Clues

The monthly gathering of Networking for Entrepreneurs in Wilmington (NEW) met the evening of April 12th at downtown Wilmington, NC’s Ironclad Brewery. Featuring business and entrepreneurship panels, this month presented David Gardner, founder of CoFounder’s Capital Fund and one of the most active angel investors in the region; and Justin Miller, the founder of Deja Mi and WedPics, one of the rising startups in Gardner’s portfolio.

From North Carolina’s Raleigh area, they visited Wilmington specifically to bring insights to the Port City based on their experiences from both the investor and entrepreneurial sides of the relationship, respectively. The forum style was panel moderated by Merrill Mason of Smith Anderson Law, a founding member of the Council for Entrepreneurial Development (CED).

David and Justin gave the audience many tips and reminders that can make vital changes for entrepreneurs. There were three very important takeaways from this panel.

Get more than money from your investors

Much of the dialogue revolved around the investor and entrepreneur relationship stages of the mutual journey. This relationship, they explain, begins long before any commitments are put to paper.

“It’s very tempting to accept anyone that comes with the offer of money, especially in the earliest days of a startup trying to gain traction or even stay alive.” David confessed that in his first 25 years of being the one asking for money, he made some hasty decisions when accepting investors. In retrospect, he advises entrepreneurs to be as picky with their investors as investors will be with them. In short, whenever you give away equity, make sure you get more than money in return. An investor with a large network of potential customers or experience launching similar businesses is much more valuable than one that only brings a check.

Make influencers your customers

Inspired by the idea of recording the full experience from all aggregated photos and videos from a single concert event, Justin Miller left IBM’s creative department to launch Deja Mi. He was his own target audience and knew how to find the people he would market the app to, but the app failed to get serious traction. Responding quickly to keep his business alive, he explored all of the verticals he could best move his idea and progress toward and found that weddings came up every time.

Through WedPics – the name after Deja Mi pivoted – the entire wedding experience could be recorded through smartphones instead of through disposable cameras that wedding parties generally distribute during receptions. Since her wedding day is the one day a bride is guaranteed whatever she wants, that made her the key influencer for the sale. Once she is sold onto the app, by default so is the rest of the guest list.

Similarly when investing in Stealz, a university loyalty card app startup based in Raleigh, David Gardner did his due diligence to locate where his traction would be. Jeff Brock, an investor with experience in restaurant deals and an impressive rolodex of industry contacts, was brought on as an advisor.

Together they targeted location after location determining interest and cost of sales acquisitions. After determining that each sale came at a financial loss, they targeted local franchise restaurants. This move proved intelligent as success for their app propagated up the chains, eventually leading to their adoption at both Taco Bell and McDonald’s. This, only because they placed their app in the hands of those with leverage to pitch it to the right stakeholders.

Revisit your business plan often

Like many first time entrepreneurs, Justin Miller had no idea what he was doing when he started WedPics (neé Deja Mi) and had self proclaimed “delusions of grandeur” when pitching to investors. Reality contrasted starkly against idealized expectations of a flooding user base and $5 million in his first year. Gardner points out not to rely on fortune telling, but rather to use past performance as the most reliable indicator of future events.

Review your business plan monthly and measure predictions against actual performance numbers. This isn’t merely to give means to cry yourself to sleep. Rather, it allows insight to readjust actual performance. What’s most important about this point is the call to action, exercising it, and often.

Passion and problem solving are very often described as being key skills in entrepreneurship, but the above points cover two other important topics: performance and potency. They remind us to fully utilize our human capital, including our investors, to identify the most powerful sales audience and how to take the guesswork out of predictions. The next NEW event will be held again at Ironclad on May 19th with a new panel and more crucial information.

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Freelancing With a Stable Income

I freelanced making websites, e-commerce shops, and web applications for several years before incorporating and running a business. At first I didn’t know if I ever wanted to move on from freelancing. Running a business is hard enough without the pains of employment, offices, phone lines, articles of organization, and so on. Eventually I knew that it was less about the job I wanted and more about the life I wanted.

After much deliberation I decided to build a small business. But the plan was to keep it small. Really small. Not in breadth, reach or income, but in team size. A small, nimble organization keeps things fast paced, fun, and allows for the flexibility that comes with the freelance lifestyle. On the other hand, managing a team means leverage so that my time can be spent in my favorite activities, and others’ in theirs, and we all make fairly good change from it at the end from whereever we want.

Recently a local client of mine expressed similar concerns. Her primary concern was that, in a consultation, she expressed three concerns with making her freelance business generate a stable income and relevant presence: growth, hiring, and location. The following are some insights I would like to share based on that consultation.

Concerning Growth

Generally freelancers have a wide variety of services they provide. This is often because they want a wide net to catch the most fish, or because they haven’t settled into the service they want to focus on.

If your company has no standard rate, but that you have several services with different rates, I would recommend focusing on your support services in order to to gain the highest leverage. Once you’ve determined you can do this, raise your rates a touch. Even $5 or $10/hour can make a huge compound difference! Identify the service that is most requested versus the service you prefer to offer most. Focus on these two, and gear toward them so it’s easy to market to.

It may seem like shrinking, but that’s the magic in this illusion. Knowing exactly who to target means that prospecting and sales is now a science, rather than a guessing game. A series of niche testimonials makes a great case to close out any competition in the exact arena you are focusing on. This also makes it easier to turn down work. “Why would I want to do that?” I’m sure you ask. In short, when running a business, decision making is your primary activity. The ability to accept or shut down work in seconds rather than minute or hours of deliberation will not only provide peace of mind, it will free your time.

Concerning Hiring

There are two paths I’d recommend in hiring. The first has a high success rate but requires more cash flow; the second is harder but has less risk.

1) Find/train a contractor to do your simplest high quantity service. For this, you would have a freelancer/contractor whose job it is to take your work as soon as it arrives and prep all of the easy tasks. For instance, a support job might require initially installing firewall software or registering DNS filters. Their job would be to do this the moment work has been acquired, leaving more complicated or specific configurations to you.Your primary job would then to be to make sales until your hire is completely booked, after which you could break from sales to take all of his work over down the line, clear the pipes, then return to sales. The problem is that constantly running contractors require fast, consistent cash flow

2) Find/train a salesperson to sell your physical products on commission. This one would have a trained salesperson sell your Seagate hardware to clients. You would include a markup enough for you to gain profit and her to earn a commission. Her pay would be largely based on the volume she sells (since products are more leverageable than services) and can produce more revenue faster. This means you can focus on sales and work with the assurance that there will always be a consistent income. The problem is that it requires a skilled, knowledgeable sales person, which can be hard to find, and harder to negotiate a commission with.

In either case, don’t hire unless you’ve met these three criteria:

  • The job you’re offering is necessary to the company. This can’t be something you can go a week without tending to.
  • You have enough work in the pipeline the be suitably booked yourself.
  • You have enough saved to pay that person for one month if income died.

Also, prepare yourself to know where to find a new employee BEFORE you need them. This means that you should identify the site, agency, or audience you will farm in to get your next hire when work is light. When you’re slammed and need to release pressure on the valve is no time to need to break and build a Linked In or Craigslist strategy. This means you can go straight into prospecting immediately.

Concerning Office Space

Wilmington and RTP are rife with coworking spaces. UNCW’s CIE or the more expensive (and exclusive) TekMountain, along with AU and others in Raleigh offer affordable opportunities for space.

If you aren’t ready for that, try to make deals with existing agencies you fill a whitespace for. A whitespace is some service or expertise you offer that they don’t. This way, you can sit in their spare office space and invite clients there. In return, you are on call to help with their services for a highly reduced tenant fee. I’ve done this myself with local journalists and another digital agency.

On the whole, I wouldn’t concern myself with this at an early stage. Coffee shops, Skype, and tea house conference rooms are plenty and more affordable. When it’s time for you to expand, typically you will know. Focus on having a discretionary $20k available before worrying about renting space. The fees can become ridiculous on top of moving, security, storage, insurance, and networking.


The trick is to have preparation as you go into each new phase. Choose potential clients in your field, know where to find our hires, determine which office scenario you will want. Further, be consistent. Make sure you reply in timely ways and are available when you say you will be. This will keep loyal customers. By offering fewer services and to fewer industries you’ll be less likely to ever over promise.

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Expanding your Business Beyond the City Limits

It’s hard enough starting a new business. First off, there is the statistical fact that 90% of them are doomed to fail. Beyond that there’s the battle of bringing an idea to market, and identifying that market to begin with. Once you’ve celebrated the victory of your startup actually starting up, what comes next? It’s often said that a business that isn’t growing is dying, so many owners and founders will find themselves looking beyond the horizon into parts unknown. But what does it take to accomplish this? Where do you start to grow your business to extend past its birth town?

On January 27th Jim Roberts hosted another installment of NEW, Network for Entrepreneurs in Wilmington, an ongoing entrepreneurial event that works to strengthen business growth and leadership in the Port City. Held at Ironclad Brewery, this event ran with a theme of building your business beyond the city limits. The point of small business is seldom to stay small, at least for business flippers and serial entrepreneurs. The event featured three entrepreneur panelists: Joe Procopio, Mac Lackey, and Brandon Uttley, and was moderated by Ben Brown, reporter with the Raleigh News Observer. Each speaker brought their own perspective to the task of expanding your business beyond local.

Focus on Building Entrepreneurs, Not Startups

Joe Procopio has twenty entrepreneurial years and five exits under his belt. He was the Founder and CEO of Intrepid Media and ExitEvent and serves as the chief product officer of Automated Insights. Placing a stronger effort in building the local ecosystem to support your business, he believes, is an integral step to growing your business beyond that same ecosystem. Joe’s philosophy can be summed up in one phrase, “the rising tide lifts all boats.”

He states that a stronger entrepreneurial community is integral to creating more successful startups and points out a huge gap between the number of startups formed each year and the number of investable entrepreneurs that are available to nurture them. A support network that can identify leaders, along with an infrastructure capable of supporting the constant return to the well of knowledge required to educate throughout each stage of their ventures, is vital.

The framework to provide the events, resources, and education would be created by the community of business owners and entrepreneurs, Joe continues. The drive and direction needed to build and sustain it isn’t that which would come from government or other sources. Such a platform would be a sturdy one to train entrepreneurs in and build businesses upon, but would take time. Based on a premise by Brad Feld of the Foundry Group, Joe states that the Triangle is in year five of a twenty year cycle which Wilmington is just starting. This indicates that a mature version community described above is a task that reaches out into the horizon, which is something to consider while planning growth.

Speak Directly to Your Audience

Brandon Uttley comes from a background of public relations and web design, and now focuses his attention on the phenomenon of podcasting. His book Pod Castaway was recently released on December 31 and outlines the difficulties of entrepreneurship and getting heard by your audience. He stated that terrestrial radio stations are aware of the threat podcasting presents to them. “From what I know, iHeartRadio has considered doing a local business-oriented podcast in Charlotte, but it has not come to fruition.” It provides an opportunity to present quality, on-demand content to your target market.

Podcasting, according to Uttley, is nearly a blue ocean. With between 250–300 thousand active podcasts vs. nearly a million active blogs and bloggers, the competition gap is not negligible. If your niche, topic, or category is saturated, it may be necessary to do as you would with any product and differentiate by focusing on or stacking together topics. Even still, Brandon remarks that podcasting is hard, especially as a solo gig. You will have to hustle to produce content and keep your audience interested and satisfied with between daily or weekly updates. As Ryan Holiday, author of The Obstacle is The Way, told Uttley the week their books were ranked together on the Kindle best seller list, “publishing is both a sprint and a marathon.”

Starting a podcast can also be a low cost and simple process. His general shopping list included a Mac or PC, a decent USB mic, free editing software like Audacity, an account with Libsyn for hosting your files, a WordPress blog to store the information, and a place to record audio, which could be the back of your car. Once you have the supplies, clearly define your audience using avatars or personas to outline the segment you are speaking to and hoping to reach with your message. He also recommends joining a mastermind group to help develop ideas and make discerning decisions.

Design, Distribution, and Direction

Mac Lackey offers the advice to use storytelling to control perception. Mac explains that while primarily focusing on tech companies, he once had the opportunity to be the founder of an aspirational brand, Mountain Khakis. This put him face to face with the story telling process, from how he presented himself as a component of a company that represented a city he didn’t live in, to promoting the lifestyle it represented itself. Story telling is in and of itself an art form, so Mac provides a framework for creating this perception using the Three Ds: Design, Distribution, Direction.

Design is where the story telling process begins. Through design the entrepreneur can shift the focus of the conversation away from the negatives and distractions, whether real or perceived. As an example, he discusses business cards. They are a generally inexpensive tool and are often at the top of the list of cut costs. Lackey suggests, however, using incremental investments in the card designs, such as a thicker stock and cleaner edges, to change the perception to a larger company at first impression. As an investor, Lackey filters through many investment presentations at his desk, many of which are black and white and dull. When he comes across a bound and color printed presentation, however, his attention is immediately excited and that becomes the first presentation he reaches for. Focusing on incremental, attention-focusing improvements to one’s brand can help manage the high cost of marketing and the problem of shouting into the wind.

No story, no matter how well designed, can reach the customer on its own. For this reason Lackey recommends partnering with a capable distribution channel who already has access to the market. With his soccer startup KYCK, he found the biggest players in the market and formed exclusivity agreements with them. This win-win relationship meant that KYCK did not need to incur costs of generating market penetration. There are manufacturer matching services that can assist with these.

Finally, to create a powerful story and to attract the key players into it – your team and your customers – you must inject a profound direction into your brand image. “People want to be a part of something going somewhere great.” Tell the story that supports this. “We will be the number one manufacturer in this sector,” or “we will eliminate this problem from our customers’ lives.”

In Summary

If building a community is a key step to building strong startups, there will be no difficulty for founders in Wilmington. Ironclad Brewery, which served as the event space for the panel, was filled wall to wall with men and women who raise their hand to the title of entrepreneur. Moderator Ben Brown, a seasoned reporter for the Raleigh News & Observer, expressed that he was impressed both with the informative panel of “heavyweights” and with Wilmington’s growth.

“Wilmington has come a long way quickly with start ups and I can’t help but think that this event nudged things further. Can’t wait to hear the first new podcast that comes from it.”
-Ben Brown, Raleigh News & Observer

After the panel, Ben opened the floor to questions, to which the presenters provided valuable information for the entrepreneurs to put to action. Overall each speaker placed a particular emphasis on a different part of the startup journey, each being highly important to the growth of one’s business beyond local boundaries. Create a community strong enough to support and deserve hosting your ambition, talk directly to your market in a way that they will listen, and design your brand to portray an incrementally greater vision over time.

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Future Work —Will Automation Impact Employment?

Technology has always existed to make work easier, and to that end it has been incredibly successful. But what happens when work becomes so easy that the technology simply does it for us? It’s no secret that I have my own opinions about the prospect of artificial intelligence affecting our job market. That said, I do believe that the dialogue isn’t complete by any means. In his book Zero to One, Peter Thiel of PayPal and Palantir reminds us not to become spoiled by the idea that the future will happen, because, unless we actively design and implement that future, it won’t be the one that we get.

Here in my state of North Carolina, there is a continuous discussion about employment and economy. Further, the entrepreneurial fire has grown hotter and larger over the past several years, triggering a period of job creation, especially in the digital and biological tech industries. With companies such as IBM with their Watson learning machine and Automated Insights content-writing robot Wordsmith based in the state, there is a sense of cognitive dissonance in the conversation. Are these companies actually taking jobs from humans by automating skills we rely on? Will we adapt quickly enough to feed people into the new workforce? Is our education infrastructure prepared to instill the next generation of workforce skills?

The Institute for Emerging Issues at NC State is hosting the 31st Annual Emerging Issues Forum Februrary 8–9 2016. The event, named “FutureWork,” is themed around the above issues and will focus on helping communities and companies in North Carolina prepare for the impact of automation and intelligent machines. This is a perfect opportunity for leaders and workforce members to be involved in the greater discussion, present their concerns, and learn more about the systems already in place on both ends of journey. This forum will be the first in history to be televised live on UNC-TV, allowing even those that may not attend to take part.

The forum, a two day affair, will begin at the Raleigh Convention Center for Day One on the 8th, and will relocate and continue at the Hunt Library at NC State on the 9th, Day Two.

The first day will be geared toward exploring what North Carolina can do today to prepare by creating quality jobs for the upcoming future. This should be a perfect discussion for entrepreneurial leadership to take part in to inspire the creation of more leaders, and also to help direct their own actions towards innovating their own models to suit the changing market.

The second day of FutureWork will involve hackathon sessions designed to help identify and dig into the obstacles presented by technological automation and the predicted market changes, and then create actionable plans and frameworks to address them. These hackathon sessions will be industry specific, and topics will feature the key sectors of Banking & Finance, Education, Energy, Healthcare, and Government/Smart Communities. Speakers and appearances at FutureWork will include Governor Pat McCrory, Governor of North Carolina; Martin Ford, Silicon Valley Entrepreneur and Author of “Rise of the Robots”; Vivek Wadhwa, Nationally Syndicated Columnist; Dambisa Moyo, International Economist and Futurist; and Jaylen Bledsoe, Youth Entrepreneur and Tech Prodigy.

Digital automation, robot manufacturers, machine learning, and electronic decision-making may have all been fantasies just decades ago, but they are now realities and are very present in our industries today. Many of these technologies are being pioneered right here in North Carolina. I personally doubt that jobs will ever deplete; as long as we have problems, there will be work to do. It is still a question, however, if we are producing the workers and leadership capable of identifying and solving these problems quickly enough to create and fill those jobs in the upcoming environment. FutureWork is a discussion that has already begun and has to be formally addressed, not just by thought leaders and experts, but by everyone touched by the economy.

Again, the future will happen, with or without your permission, but only the future that we actively create today will manifest tomorrow. If we don’t replace fear with understanding and ideas with strategies, we will miss the chance to inject our vision into this upcoming paradigm shift and will have to adapt to the consequences rather than direct them. With that in mind, regardless of our employment scenario – now or in the future – we have at least one more job to do.

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Data Security for Non-Geeks

Today is National Data Privacy Day. My specialty is developing application systems for human wellness and business performance. As one can imagine, this involves monitoring and working with particularly sensitive data. Business activities and an individual’s health stats are considered among the most private breeds of data, and a compromise can mean not only losing confidence with your clients, but it can also make very vulnerable data available to a malicious third party. With this in mind, what is one expected to do about the delicate matter of privacy, and how should he approach it?

Good security is mostly just good policy. Even a bad thief knows to check under the welcome mat for a spare key. That being said, most of your attacks come in through the front door, so to speak. Here are some general considerations for the non-geek to make when handling security.

In Business

Your office security can be locked down completely, but if an employee uses the same password for his Facebook as he does to login to your billing software, your business doesn’t even need to be breached for them to get credentials to your finances. A good password policy and auditing plan can help this, and it’s best to have someone in charge of this. Keep it scheduled and enforce changing passwords, or implement two-step authentication.

If your business runs under a Bring your own Device (BYOD) structure, creating a strategy can be a real pain, but even a simple plan can help avoid huge threats. Catalog each device that an employee may bring that connects to your network. That means phones, tablets, laptops, and even USB sticks. This will give you a real idea of what threats you might be bringing into your network from the outside and will let you know what type of BYOD policies you truly need.

The Cloud

The cloud is generally more secure than your own datacenter. On one hand, you have the security of “owning” your systems when you have in house technology, at least in a geographic sense. However that means all responsibility for those systems fall on you. A reliable third party cloud company dedicated only to the storage, management, and encryption of your systems and data will be dedicated to managing the infrastructure while you manage your business.

Of course that doesn’t mean that the cloud provides perfect security. Always read the fine print to figure out how your cloud provider encrypts and protect your data. If there is a blank spot on any of this in your provider’s terms, you should worry a little.


I know I said this would be non-geek, but IoT (Internet of Things) is now a main stream real concern. Every device you own that shares data without you necessarily interacting directly with it is essentially an IoT device. This includes FitBits, Google Nest, Iris, automatic pet feeders, front door cams, and a whole host of sensory devices. While you willingly allow these devices to monitor and spy on you all day, there are many cases where a third party can be listening in.

To start with, any time a device offers a chance for you to change its default admin username and password, do so. This goes from routers plugged directly into the network to drones. Especially with popular devices, an attacker can remotely access any of these by identifying its signature and become a man in the middle, listening in to your communications. Also, often times the only way to access these devices is through a web or mobile application that is still communicating via WiFi or cell signals. This means that for unencrypted channels anyone on the network can “listen in” to what you’re communicating. At that point your are whispering in a crowed but quiet room. When dealing with any new IoT device make sure the vendor has protected it’s communication with a secure SSH key and an encrypted web connection.

The Rest of Us

Simply keep your antivirus updated. The nature of business now means you will be collecting and sharing a lot of information just to keep operations going, and you shouldn’t trust yourself to be safely discretionary of everything that comes past your email. It won’t catch everything, but it will stop more threats than having nothing in place.

In Short…

While developers and device providers like my colleagues and myself work hard to create software and tools that take your data privacy into consideration, there are thousands of devices that I can’t account for. Personal privacy is also your responsibility as a consumer, so keeping savvy with vulnerabilities and using basic conventional wisdom should both be on your list at the very least. Thank you, and I wish you a happy, and secure, Data Privacy Day.

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When Robots Take Our Jobs

When Uber driverless cars and Amazon delivery drones are the norm, what will happen to all the drivers and package handlers who were replaced? This is usually the first line of thinking that many come up with when approached with the reality of technological automation. It spurns a rage against the machine and a sense of a war against devices that will replace us. The problem with this perspective is that it simply makes no clear sense.

It’s natural that people fear being replaced. We seek jobs and careers for a sense of purpose, livelihood and fulfillment. There is something spiritually crushing about facing a future where you may not be needed or may be plain superfluous. This innate sense of worth and belonging is where the fear ends, though. There is nothing else after that, merely an irrational fear of being replaced by a machine that truly doesn’t want your job, because it doesn’t really want anything.

But what about those people pushing the technology? Surely they are looking to push people out of their workflows to reduce overhead and improve efficiency! Well yes, that is a driving factor, but then there’s another dynamic at work here. When machines flood the work force, society won’t stay as it is. It simply can’t. The quality of life will increase as the First World elevates itself. In the future, the developing nations of today will be like the First World of the present. That, along with the current Entrepreneurial Age, will ensure we don’t simply “run out of jobs.” We are amazingly good at making up jobs as soon as the opportunity arises. Titles and positions such as “digital marketing director,” “iPhone screen repair person,” or “sales ninja” simply didn’t exist a hundred years ago,

Good technology has a way of winning in the end. Our grandchildren will laugh over the quaintness of the term “driverless car” the same way we do over the phrase “horseless carriage.” The opportunities related to that technology will remain foreign as long as the name of the technology itself does. Our capacity to adapt will change in proportion to our capacity to accept, and when the jobs that are easy enough for our technology to replace are gone, we will be ready to take on the hard ones still meant for us humans only.

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