There is a maturing market for entrepreneurial ventures in the Queen City. But can small business survive the COVID-19 pandemic? And what can Charlotte do to support entrepreneurs? For some perspective, we talk with Belk College alumnus and UNC Charlotte Foundation board member Bryan Delaney '03.
I’m Jeffrey Jones, Director of Executive Education and Professional Development at UNC Charlotte, and this is Charlotte Business Buzz.
Connecting the Queen City’s business community … From the Belk College of Business at UNC Charlotte.... This is Charlotte Business Buzz.
We tend to hear about the large companies moving their headquarters to Charlotte, with notable acquisitions including Honeywell and Truist the result of a merger between BB&T and Suntrust. In contrast, there is a maturing market for entrepreneurial ventures in the Queen City.
To give us some perspective on Entrepreneurship in Charlotte, today we’re talking to Bryan Delaney. Like many entrepreneurs, he wears many hats … among those… he is co-founder of Skookum (Pronunciation), a technology services company which was recently acquired by GlobalLogic, he serves on the UNC Charlotte Foundation board, and is UNC Charlotte alumnus. He also helped create the EO Accelerator through Entrepreneurs’ Organization Charlotte, which helps already-established businesses surpass the $1 million annual revenue mark.
Bryan, welcome to the program.
Thanks for having me Jeff.
If it is okay with you, let’s start ‘big picture’, how has the Entrepreneurial landscape in Charlotte evolved from when you launched your business 15 years ago to the present?
I think it's come a long way in the past decade or so but I think it also has a long way to go. Charlotte is a very corporate town and I had a friend that moved here maybe about 10 or 12 years ago and very successful tech entrepreneur a couple of exits so he likes to tell the story of coming to town and going out to dinner and parties and meeting folks and everybody inevitably says hey you know how are you doing, what do you do for a living, and he would answer an entrepreneur and the conversation would go on but eventually at the end of the night that person would come back around say hey here's my card, give me a call on Monday I'll help you get a job. So like in the Charlotte vernacular the word entrepreneur back in the day, kind of meant you were unemployed. So we come a long way from there, you know I think you've got some great people in town doing some great work Dan Roselli over at Packard Place - you got Keith Luedeman who had a great company here in town and he exited and now he's running to Innovate Charlotte program, Juan Garzon he puts out a tech entrepreneur a newsletter and also runs the pitch breakfast program. You're starting to see the city being a lot more active and supportive of entrepreneurs they run a great program called Charlotte Business Resources you can check that out at Charlotte Business Resources dot com, and then you get even the chamber which is now moved to the it's called the CRVA - it's evolving and looking to support entrepreneurs as well under their new leadership of Janet LaBar and then you have a very vibrant and active meetup community where people kind of self-identify and get active in the community around the things that they're interested in so those are a lot of things you didn't see 10 or 15 years ago, and a lot of the current work you'll see out there and the stuff that I just ran through is around supporting tech entrepreneurs and that's where I think we have a long way to go is supporting entrepreneurs who are not tech related. It still makes up a vast majority of the entrepreneurs in town and the ecosystem isn't quite as evolved for those folks.
Many cities boast attractive spaces and services for entrepreneurs to sprout businesses. What makes Charlotte unique in this crowded ‘market of cities’?
I mean I think we have some great co-working spaces - ventureprise at UNCC, Packard Place, plenty of the independent places around town like hygge that support entrepreneurs, but I don't think that's what really sets us apart. I think what makes us unique are a couple of different things - you know Charlotte's very much a growing city looking for its unique identity, you know I think you can move to Charlotte and really make a difference. I think there's an influx of talent coming from all over here. Everyone knows we have a world-class airport, you know high quality of life certainly raise a family here - quick day trip to the mountains or the coast but I mean Charlotte strikes me as a place that's big enough to feel like a city, but small enough for you to still make a mark here and I think that's attractive to a lot of folks and I'd really don't think there's a lot of cities around the country that kind of fall into that Goldilocks zone.
What types of funding are available in Charlotte for entrepreneurial efforts?
I think that's actively changing but you have some of the groups in town, the angel groups, they’re becoming a lot more active in their funding, you have some smaller venture companies here, you know there's always going through the you know traditional loan routes, things of that nature. We've got a ways to go in terms of capitalizing businesses here in Charlotte. Just like I said in the beginning you know we've come a long way but we still have a bit of ways to go in in that regard.
When we come back on Charlotte Business Buzz… we’ll continue our conversation on entrepreneurship in Charlotte with Bryan Delaney.
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Welcome Back to Charlotte Business Buzz.
The COVID19 pandemic is impacting everyone. What pandemic-related challenges are Charlotte entrepreneurs facing and how might they overcome them?
Anytime you're running a small business and you're facing a recession that's it's not easy but you know this pandemic is another level. You know I've been in business 15 years or so and I never remember a time when the government was telling us to - telling clients to stay home right so that's that's very difficult as a business to counteract that. But I think one of the best things entrepreneurs can do right now is try to broaden their networks with peers, and connect with other entrepreneurs. There's a lot of pain and a lot of mistakes that are being made right now, so I think there's a lot of benefit in connecting with other entrepreneurs so you don't have to only learn from your own mistakes. Unfortunately Charlotte's entrepreneur community particularly outside of tech has been fairly disparate and fragmented. So that makes connecting with other entrepreneurs very challenging, but you know this also gives us an opportunity in business to take a step back and I think most businesses are going to have to pivot right now through all of this so how do you pivot in a direction that makes your company better - is it making that hire or should you you know let a couple people go that you've been holding on to for too long or you know pivot into this market that has a better margin and things of that nature I think we really have to look critically at our businesses to make sure that we can survive this time period.
Many entrepreneurs operate in tight spaces, or co-working offices - how do you see this changing?
I could see people probably starting to move away from that- just for a limited amount of time. I mean one of the great benefits that co-working spaces give you is that ability to connect with like-minded people and and peers in your space and unfortunately there's just not a ton of places like that in Charlotte right now so I think folks who are working in those spaces have to make a tough decision for themselves but some of the bigger issues that I see is - did that business pivot, are they gonna be able to survive, what cash do they have on hand, and what does that look like what is the run rate for their survival look like. PPE was nice but I think it's also hopefully insufficient assuming this pandemic continues to drag on. Just like many companies have moved into working virtual and digital, I think a lot of the networking entrepreneurial community or a connectivity in town has done that as well and will continue to do that. I do think those co-working spaces serve a vital purpose in our ecosystem. You know they're they're running against how to pivot on these in these times just as much as the rest of us are.
You mentioned folks working at a distance working remotely. Have you noticed anything surprising in your own experience?
One of the things that I've realized is that people seem to have less tolerance for what I would call meetings that should have been an email. So where people get frustrated and show up to a meeting it's not what they wanted to deal with. Right now if you're not catching people's attention in the first what 10 minutes of a zoom call, you start to see the participation drop off and people are unapologetic about that, which I don't think that's the worst thing in the world right because it makes the content providers think differently about what they're putting out into the world and making sure that it is as impactful as possible.
Let's shift a little bit here could you explain to us your journey from UNC Charlotte student to co-founder of Skookum?
Yes, so I was at UNC Charlotte, random room assignment with James Hartzell who happened to be my co-founder or ended up being my co-founder of Skookum. We went through the Belk College of Business program we graduated and both got jobs working for the Department of Defense and then it was interesting opportunity because we were down - we went from the big city of Charlotte to a small military town, and gave us some time away to think about what we wanted to do and we came up with this idea for Skookum. So we both ended up quitting and moving back to Charlotte and hanging the shingle and starting the company and you know what we eventually evolved into was digital transformation and digital innovation firm working for mostly you know fortune 1000, but the way we started out was just trying to find clients right and and I think that's the journey that a lot of companies go through is the pivot but I always kind of joke around that I would go door-to-door selling website packages in Locust North Carolina to small businesses and this may come as a surprise but Locust is not a hotbed for technolog. We had to do quite a few pivots over the years but things worked out well for us.
So I'm curious, you know we are 15 years in. If you could give yourself any advice for when you were starting out, what would you give yourself?
I guess it's a couple things. Find mentors, find people who have been there done that. I always joke that we spent five years paying a hefty idiot tax on how to run a business. Anytime you can avoid that it's helpful, but I would also say you know growing and scaling businesses is really difficult. You know it's an emotional roller coaster I saw this book by Cameron Herald I think it's called double-double - but he kind of maps out what the emotional roller coaster look like and your trajectory it it's called uninformed optimism and as you start to crest and come down you hit informed pessimism and as you hit the bottom of the curve, you hit this crisis of meaning right and you could go one or two ways you can crash and burn and fall apart, or you can start to go back up the hill and that’s called informed optimism, but through this journey support is key and finding a peer group of people that understand what you're going through and I think it's just really helpful because for the most part you're on this journey alone. Most your friends, colleagues, people you graduated with, people you go to church with, they're all working a corporate gig so you know why they want to complain about that thing their boss did last week - you know you're over here wondering if you can make payroll in four weeks. So I think it's very important to surround yourself with other entrepreneurs going through similar challenges.
For many entrepreneurs reaching that $1,000,000 milestone is among their toughest challenges. This is where the EO accelerator comes in. How does this program help entrepreneurs scale up their businesses?
Well I mean kind of playing off that last question, I mean I jokingly refer to it as a support group for entrepreneurship but you know we're set up as a non-profit and we set this accelerator program as a three year course so to speak and we take in businesses who do over 250,000 in revenue and who are actively looking to scale. So the way we set that up is we pair our participants in small groups of four to six people that we call accountability groups and those groups are led by a local entrepreneur who has scaled their own company past a million in revenue so being taught by people who have been there and done that is hugely helpful. And so we help our participants set goals and report on them monthly and you know inevitably you're gonna miss some of those goals and run into challenges and so we encourage those folks to make a presentation to the group and then the group shares their own experiences and perspectives on similar things that they have faced. Additionally we hold what we call quarterly learning days and these are set up like a classroom style environment - full day - 6-8 hour session. And the topics are cash, strategy, execution and people. And the goal is you know if you entered this program, we follow this curriculum, and you you know create this peer group, that you can cross that million dollar revenue threshold within three years or less.
What insights have you gleaned from interacting with these different entrepreneurs through this process?
Two things have really stuck out to me. One is that most people don't have a true - a really good understanding at this point in their business of what their market looks like and what they can sell their services for. And more often than not they are significantly undervaluing and underpricing whatever good or service they're selling. The other thing that I've noticed is there's just not a strong knowledge of financials. Almost to the point where a lot of the folks that come into our program new are ashamed to talk about their their numbers they don't want to show you what their revenue was, or what their margin is, or what their expenses are, which I mean that is a core function of running a healthy business right and so there's some psychological aspect that we we have to navigate these folks through and that alone makes for a much healthier business.
Why is it important now for you to give back to the University?
You know as I came through there wasn't a lot of talk about entrepreneurship at UNCC when I was there. But things have certainly changed I mean there's a lot of great programs the university is running around entrepreneurship and they're constantly trying to evolve that. I think as Charlotte continues to evolve its entrepreneurial scene it will be critical for the resources of the university to be plugged into the ecosystem so that we as a community here in Charlotte can truly achieve our potential. So you know I kind of see the the opportunity with serving on the foundation's board and my entrepreneurial background that I'm I'm plugged in and helping move us in that direction even if I am only playing a very small part in that role.
What more can Charlotte do to support entrepreneurs?
I think this is is really simple and I think it's always been in play but it is especially relevant after COVID but buy from them. You know this is a popular narrative we're hearing right now - especially for service oriented companies like restaurants, and bars, and places like that but it applies to other business as well. You know I've mentioned this earlier but Charlotte is a very corporate town, we have a lot of Fortune 1000 headquarters here, and then we have outpost of other very large companies that are here and we need that corporate community to support the local entrepreneurs. You asked the question earlier - all businesses need capital especially in times like this and the cheapest form of capital is revenue. So buy from Charlotte companies if you can personally and especially if you're in a position to do that for your company, in your day job, you know as you go out and look for vendors see see who's in Charlotte that could support you.
If you had a minute to give a pep talk to an entrepreneur starting out in Charlotte right now, what would you say?
Well I think I kind of touched on a little bit earlier, but that aspect of finding entrepreneurial peers is huge, but the other thing I would say is that if you just starting out take the leap. I think entrepreneurialism is in vogue right now and I think that creates a lot of what I'll call want-treprenuers. People say, well you know I just got to get through this thing, or do this, or do that/ You know you just got to take the leap and and see if you you can make it work. I saw this cartoon once and said an entrepreneur is one who jumps off the cliff and builds the plane on the way down before it crashes right and I think there's a lot of truth to that because a lot of the successful entrepreneurs I've known - sure maybe they had a business plan and things of that nature - but ultimately they just took the leap and they believed in themselves more than anything else and I think that's what leads a lot of folks to be successful, is that undying belief that they themselves will succeed.
Well thanks so much for your time today Bryan.
Yeah thanks for having me. Bryan Delaney is an alumnus of the Belk College of Business and serves on the UNC Charlotte Foundation board. For more information on the EO Charlotte Accelerator program visit E-O Charlotte dot o-r-g.
Learn more or listen to previous episodes at belkcollege.uncc.edu/buzz B-U-Z-Z
This is Charlotte Business Buzz ... Connecting Charlotte business through one-on-one interviews with UNC Charlotte faculty, staff, alumni and industry partners… and is presented by the Belk College of Business, the Office of Industry and Government Partnerships and produced in association with University Communications.