National spotlight shines on Wilmington, its flourishing entrepreneurial community

On 6th birthday Wilmington ecosystem organization NEW moves beyond comfort zone


Editor’s note: Startup Spotlight is a regular part of WRAL TechWire’s Startup Monday lineup which includes news from our exclusive Triangle Startup Guide, information about jobs at startups as part of our Jobs Report, an exclusive list of Triangle area meetups, calendars of events from across the state, and our Startup Rewind look at last week’s headlines. 

WILMINGTON – If you live in Raleigh, Durham or Charlotte, these national and international rankings about being named a top business and entrepreneur destination may be ignored after a while. This is understandable in the Triangle startup ecosystem that is more than 30 years old or the 20 year old Charlotte ecosystem. The Triangle news media did not mention the recent 2021 Startup Genome rankings.

But in Wilmington, we are yelling from the lighthouses and I used the recent rankings by Startup Genome to attract new media attention to the Wilmington entrepreneur ecosystem.

Watching the PBS event. (Photo courtesy of Jim Roberts)

In 2020, Startup Genome announced a new ranking system of Global entrepreneur ecosystems and Wilmington was shocked to see the eight year old ecosystem was ranked #91 best EMERGING startup ecosystem in the world. Most people consider the formal start of the ecosystem as the opening of the UNC Wilmington CIE incubator. The 2021 global rankings were recently released and Wilmington MOVED UP TEN SPOTS to #81 in the world in the EMERGING category.

So I used that new international ranking to reach out to a new set of more regional media outlets and even hooked a big national media show to film entrepreneurs at the beaches of southeastern North Carolina. The Network for Entrepreneurs in Wilmington (NEWilm.com) has been very active in promoting Wilmington as an up and coming ecosystem since 2015.

The Little Step Sister City

Since 2013, Wilmington has worked hard to make some noise in the media about the city as a growing business destination. Sure having Live Oak Bank go public on NASDAQ was headline news in a state dominated by the banking industry.

Wilmington made much louder noise when nCino was growing into a FinTech powerhouse outside of the Queen City banking cluster and eventually had their own IPO on Wall Street. In smaller deals, UnTappd / NextGlass and PlayerSpace also had positive exit events for entrepreneurs, employees and investors in 2020.

With that progress from the hard work of the entrepreneurs, we could get the attention of the media in Charleston and Nashville that cover startup businesses who needed some fresh sources of stories.

But the big fish is the Atlanta media market when I pitched their startup news site. Sure this was a challenge as the site changed editors twice and a pandemic hit.  After some convincing, the new editor agreed to visit in January. On the strange day and activities of January 6th in Washington DC, we escorted the business writer around our beach town to meet a variety of entrepreneurs and entrepreneur support organizations to build a story. And that story turned into three stories and Wilmington being the subject of the whole newsletter. That story about the startup scene in Wilmington is still the most read article of 2021 of this news website in Atlanta.

Using a Bigger Hook for National Media

With proof we not only had a story to tell but we could promote those stories to attract valuable eyeballs, I reached out to the national media.

I began to follow a show on PBS called Start Up seen locally on UNC TV. And at the end of the show, the host says, If you would like to nominate a business to be on the show, reach out to us through our website.

Jim Roberts goes on camera with PBS crew. (Photo courtesy of Jim Roberts)

But of course, I did not just nominate one business, I nominated our city and a list of 45 businesses for them to consider. I guess most of the applicants for the show are individual entrepreneurs looking for exposure for their products to sell to a national audience.

After some persistence and perseverance, the show agreed to film in Wilmington, the film crew did not travel outside of Michigan for the whole year of 2020 during the pandemic. I stayed in touch with a series of local and regional articles about the city and companies they were considering for the show.

Of course, entrepreneur support orgs usually work with scalable tech and life sciences companies but that tech is very hard to show on a television show with just entrepreneurs on laptops again and again. So the shows producers chose more consumer product companies and social impact startups.

The companies chosen were:

     TRU Colors Brewing

     Sea Love Sea Salt

     Bitty and Beaus Coffee

     Genesis Block Coworking Space

     End of Days Distillery

The View from the Beach

After all the build up about the show, we held a viewing party on October 14th at Ironclad Brewery, where we have most of our ecosystem events.

We showed the TRU Colors Brewing episode which had their national premiere in late September. But as it turns out, young people who had cut the cord with cable television have less access to PBS than I was aware of at the time of the filming.

We invited in WHQR – NPR to partner and moderate the event to attract a new audience in addition to our members. Four out of the five companies featured in the fall season participated in the panel. We also partnered with John Hinnant of Eastern Carolina Commercial Real Estate and Holly Childs of Wilmington Downtown Inc who have recently benefited from the work of the startup ecosystem to fill some long vacant valuable real estate downtown.

The viewing of the episode was meant to build some pride in the business community of Wilmington. Wilmington has a long difficult history of large employers moving out of the region from naval ship building, to the railroad industry moving to Florida or the scary future of the recent acquisition of PPD by Thermo Fisher.

As one person in the crowd emailed me … “It was wonderful to feel so good about my town tonight.  Thanks for that.  Great program! And that was the secondary purpose of all of this work, to build some new local pride in the citizens of Wilmington.

If interested, you can watch the Tru Colors Brewing episode here, or find future episodes at the Start Up tv show website.

About the author

Jim Roberts is the founder of NEW, the WALE Angel Network and has worked in entrepreneur development for 19 years in North Carolina in Charlotte, Asheville, Durham and Wilmington. You can follow Jim on Twitter @RedSpireUSNC @91omgbiz or NEW on Facebook at @newILM





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Kassie Hoffman
Kassie pens down all the news from the world of politics on ANH.