No one knows that better than Emily Wood, whose brand new business, Health in Hand Juice & Smoothie Bar, may not have happened if it weren’t for a supportive network of local innovators and leaders. Wood is one of many entrepreneurs taking advantage of the Upstate’s growing “collaboration nation”—an encouraging climate working hard to set startups on the path to success, and other business working together to help grow others.
The collaboration culture hasn’t always been so prevalent in the Upstate. Jason Premo, an angel investor and local entrepreneur, says entrepreneurs can thank community leaders who focused on making the area a great place for startups.
“It’s definitely a pro-business environment. There are spaces and environments that exist that didn’t before,” he says. “I think the community really rallies around the entrepreneur.”
The community rallied around Wood in an seemingly unlikely place—a craft beer shop in downtown Spartanburg. When Wood attended a meeting at the Growler Haus in Spartanburg, she had no idea what would come next. The program—called Grain Ideas—anyone with an idea access to great minds and resources. The idea is that people don’t necessarily need a degree to launch a great company, as long as they have passion, drive and experienced mentors.
Wood’s mentor turned out to be the Growler Haus’ owner, Craig Kinley. A few days after presenting her business dream at Grain Ideas, Kinley called her up and encouraged Wood to enter Spartanburg’s Main Street Challenge.
“Craig helped me construct my business plan, financial projections, and I went on to win the challenge,” explains Wood. “I knew what I wanted, and Craig knew how to help me get it.”
She beat out nearly 40 initial applicants in the 2014 Main Street Challenge, a business competition that awards storefront space and thousands of dollars in prizes to three winners annually. (The competition was recently placed on hold for re-evaluation.)
Health in Hand now joins a pet boutique as the newest retailers to make downtown Spartanburg home thanks to the Main Street Challenge. But the collaboration didn’t end once she got the idea out into the public eye.
“After the challenge, Craig has continued to work with me on anything I need,” says Wood, “it really is so helpful and good to know that I have such a great mentor who is just a phone call away, and who has the answers to all of my questions.”
Wood will open in early 2015 in a prime location between City Hall and Morgan Square, which may never have happened if it weren’t for groups like Grain Ideas, events like Spartanburg’s Main Street Challenge and mentors like Craig Kinley.
The Upstate has become a haven for startups, ranging from juice bars to coding schools, and entrepreneurs like Kinley are only one example of who is taking part in the growth. After ending a two-decade-long career in wireless communications, the Anderson native returned to his roots, simultaneously launching a business incubator and a crowd-sourced craft beer business, both in his hometown. The Growler Haus in Anderson opened two years ago to great fanfare, thanks to Kinley’s marketing prowess.
“The value of us opening a craft beer venue was really about building that craft beer tribe that allowed us to be cash flow positive out of the gates,” he says. A year later, he replicated the idea in Spartanburg.
But if he had to choose between beer and helping entrepreneurs, people always win, he says. “I really enjoy giving back to people who want to do something similar to what I have done,” says Kinley, 45. “That’s really my passion.”
Since becoming an Upstate entrepreneur himself Kinley says he’s seen the startup support community grow significantly. In fact, it was Kinley who grow the recent E-merge @ the garage, a public-private collaborative in Anderson that engages South Carolina industry partners in Health Care, IT, Education & Culinary Arts, “Over the last two years the entrepreneurial networks in Anderson and Spartanburg have really flourished,” he says. “We’re in a business start-up renaissance.
In terms of helping entrepreneurs, Phil Yanov is considered one of the Upstate’s founding fathers. In 2008, Yanov launched Tech After Five (Ta5), the Upstate’s only after-hours networking event designed specifically to help tech-focused entrepreneurs and the professionals they serve.
“We are relentless advocates for technology and entrepreneurship,” says Yanov. “We’re specific about getting things done. We want you to move the ball forward.”
He’s seen that happen in a big way through Tech After Five. One attendee told Yanov a quarter of his new business sprouted from the networking event; another did a million dollar deal with someone they connected with through Tech After Five.
“I think we’re doing something here that matters,” he says. “It sounds like a simple model of bringing people together, but they’re building powerful networks that are allowing them to build some pretty significant businesses.”
A much newer networking group for entrepreneurs is 10-4 Good City, designed to bring diverse business leaders around the same table with a common goal of making Greenville better, started by local web developer Adam Gautsch, who started the group back in June, with hopes of encouraging more positive collaboration in the community.
“There are obviously a lot of places to go and network in Greenville right now,” he says. “My hope [for 10-4 Good City] is to get a diverse group of people together each month and work on interesting problems.” Gautsch is a big believer in the value of collaboration, and says the Upstate is heading in the right direction towards improving communication between various entrepreneurs and business leaders.
“If you’re working on something that’s big or wants to be big, you need data and input from lots of different people,” says Gautsch. “It helps you think better, it helps you think differently and allows for you to go further than on your own.”
It’s only been seven years since Marty Bauer graduated from Wofford College, but after earning his diploma he’s seen a major shift in the Upstate’s collaborative energy.
“When I graduated in 2007, there was one of my classmates who started a company and no one understood what he was doing,” recalls Bauer, who now serves as managing director for The Iron Yard in Spartanburg. In addition to being the largest coding school in the country, The Iron Yard is the only startup accelerator in the Upstate. Each year, The Iron Yard runs three accelerators, giving app-based startups big perks, including $20,000 in seed capital, a full year of free co-working space and three months of intensive mentorship. In New York and Chicago these tech startups would be considered little fish in a big pond, but in the Upstate, they receive more attention and support—encouraging companies to stay in the area where they can feed off the energy and entrepreneurial eco-system.
The importance of that entrepreneurial eco-system and creating a climate for collaboration cannot be understated, says Premo, who works out of the NEXT Innovation Center, scouting for promising early-stage companies in the Southeast. He recently invested in Savannah-based company Aetho, creating affordable products that help consumers produce Hollywood-quality videos. Premo gave the startup $100,000 in seed money and is helping them launch production—his ultimate goal to have Aetho’s GoPro video accessories manufactured in South Carolina.
In addition to his work with Aetho in 2015, Premo is also creating an accelerator program in Greenville that combines co-work space, an incubator and a maker lab in one location along with mentorship resources—proof of Premo’s belief that there is power in collaboration.
“A lot of sparks fly when you get a lot of people in one place where they can communicate,” he says. “It’s definitely helped the person with an idea get that idea off the napkin and be able to make a prototype or meet other people that can help them whether it’s joining forces or getting funding.”
It’s a concept even Upstate educational institutions have started getting behind in recent years. In 2010, Wofford opened The Space @ the Mungo Center, a place to help students launch businesses by providing mentorship, consulting and even space to create. Originally housed in small offices in the Campus Life Building, fostering students’ entrepreneurial spirit has now grown into a priority at Wofford College. It is no longer a fringe opportunity, says Scott Cochran, Dean of The Space.
“It used to be either risky people or quirky people that wanted to try a unique idea [to became entrepreneurs],” says Cochran. “I don’t think that’s the case anymore.”
Cochran leads an innovative program that helps student entrepreneurs at Wofford College develop leadership skills, research ideas and understand market needs. “If you have a great idea and you get a support system that can help you move through the process of launching a business, you can make it,” he says. “Entrepreneurship has become more mainstream.”
The term “mainstream” isn’t a stretch. After all, less than a mile away, in the heart of Spartanburg’s downtown district is the University of South Carolina’s new $30 million dollar, 60,000-square-foot facility affectionately known as The George. Named for hometown entrepreneurial legend George D. Johnson, Jr., The George houses the university’s business incubator, which opened about a year ago on the building’s third floor. Dean Frank Rudisill says five startup companies currently keep offices there, paying only a small program fee to access benefits like internet service, business coaching and meeting space.
“My number-one focus is that we’re graduating students prepared to serve the business community in South Carolina,” says Rudisill, who believes more people are talking about the Upstate’s economic future rather than focusing on the past. “It seems to me like it’s our time.”
The school just started offering a minor in entrepreneurship for students in the fall of 2014. That means soon graduates will be leaving college increasingly prepared to take on the business world. And if the last few years are any indication, there will be even more groups, events and mentors joining the collaboration nation, ready to help them experience startup success.
GOOD FOR BUSINESS
The culture of entrepreneurship and collaboration is felt across the entire Upstate region—from Anderson to Spartanburg, from individual collaborative generators like 10-4 Good City to our university-based entrepreneurial extensions. It truly is, as Cochran noted, mainstream.
But it’s important to note that just because entrepreneurs are becoming more mainstream in the Upstate doesn’t make what’s happening here ordinary. Cochran notes that it’s easier to access a support system here in the Upstate, as compared to other markets.
“I think what you’re seeing in the Upstate is out of proportion to what we should be,” he says. “It’s a really good place to be an entrepreneur.”
Want to know more? Click here for a list of collaborative organizations in the Upstate.