From her glass box of an office that overhangs Turbine Hall in Bailey Power Plant, Karen Barnes gets a bird’s eye view of the burgeoning innovation community that gathers every Thursday night for Venture Café Winston-Salem.
“In just two years, we’ve seen so much,” Barnes says. “We’ve seen entrepreneurs identify problems and solutions and translate those solutions into business plans or prototypes. We’ve seen them complete accelerators, enter incubator space, get investors and customers.”
It’s fitting, then, that Barnes’ job, as founding executive director of Venture Café Winston-Salem, is to oversee the program’s efforts to build up the entrepreneurial community in the Triad. Since its start in 2017, Venture Café has served more than 11,400 visitors and provided 30,000+ hours of programming for entrepreneurs and innovators of all kinds.
But to learn the true value that Venture Café Winston-Salem brings to the entrepreneurs and businesses growing in the Piedmont Triad, you need to see the program from their eyes.
In some ways, the Piedmont Triad has an embarrassment of riches.
“We have what I like to call a high-quality problem in our ecosystem,” says Barnes. “All the investments we have made are working. We now have a healthy number of growth-stage companies.”
A growth-stage company has developed a business plan, a product or service, has customer traction and has some investment dollars.
“We wanted growth-stage companies all along, but now what?,” Barnes asks. “What do we need to make sure those growth-stage companies have what they need to stay here and to grow and scale here?”
For one growth-stage company—FlureeDB—what they needed next was community.
FlureeDB, a start-up that uses blockchain databases to ensure the trustworthiness of clients’ data, is on the fast-track of start-up success. The company, founded by Winston-Salem locals Brian Platz and Flip Filipowski, was recently named one of the top 50 Global Startup Grind participants chosen to participate in Google for Entrepreneur’s prestigious Accelerate Program.
While “community” might sound like just another buzzword given how frequently it’s heard surrounding Venture Café, the innovators at FlureeDB know just how valuable a vibrant community can be, which is how the company got involved with the organization.
FlureeDB’s public relations and marketing coordinator, Kevin Doubleday, wanted to host technology meetups about blockchain and its implications.
“Meetups happen for every subject, not just technology, and they happen everywhere,” Doubleday says. “I wanted to build out a community around FlureeDB that explored blockchain, decentralized applications and other related topics.”
Doubleday reached out to Barnes among others to gauge interest and elicit help with the meetup. Barnes reached back—with a different suggestion: FlureeDB should become a technology partner of Venture Café, providing content for Thursday Gatherings.
“Karen’s suggestion wasn’t what I was expecting,” says Doubleday. “But the more I looked into Venture Café, I realized it was the perfect platform for us to have these discussions, to bring in an audience of not only developers, but anyone from the general public who is interested in emerging technologies.”
FlureeDB held its first Venture Café meetup on the one-year anniversary of Venture Café Winston-Salem. Since then, FlureeDB has been a regular provider of content for Thursday Gatherings, including sessions that provide an overview of blockchain and its implications to deep-dives into topics such as how to build cryptocurrency.
“Not only is the programming you find at Venture Café diverse, but the audience is, too,” Doubleday says. “You don’t just get developers or CEOs; you get people across a spectrum who really engage in the conversation.”
The conversations that spring from sessions help build the community of Venture Café Winston-Salem. And that community builds a lot of value.
“Building a community affects every aspect of your company,” Doubleday says. “We’ve had great sales talks as a result of these meetups, but because you’re part of a community, they manifest organically. From a marketing perspective, you’re getting your name out there as a community member versus just another company trying to make a buck.”
Though Venture Café Winston-Salem provides great value to FlureeDB and other companies, being a part of the program is a way for the tech start-up to invest in its community.
“On the broader scale, we want to be a part of this local community and to present value,” says Doubleday. “Venture Café is such a wonderful platform for community building in every way: It’s not just providing content, it’s not just business networking, it’s not just drinks on Thursday. It is a platform for personal, professional and societal development.”
Shalisha Morgan doesn’t look like your average device repair technician.
“I’ve always loved building things, but I’m not what people expect,” Morgan says. “In all the IT departments and repair businesses where I’ve worked, I’ve been one of only a few women and the only black person in those groups.”
“Sticking out like a sore thumb” in her world, as Morgan terms it, is part of why she started Geek in Heels, a device repair business located in Hanes Mall.
When Morgan quit her job in IT and launched a full-time version of Geek in Heels in Winston-Salem in 2018, she was looking to network to help grow her business.
“I love working for myself, but it is a struggle. I’m a solopreneur, and I moved to Winston-Salem only a couple years ago, so I didn’t have many connections and I was looking for a way to build my business network from scratch,” Morgan says.
That’s when she found Venture Café.
“When I went to my first Venture Café Thursday, I loved it. I loved hearing about all the different businesses in North Carolina and about different entrepreneurial walks of life,” Morgan says. “I think that it’s important for people to know that there’s not just one way to start a business.”
It wasn’t long before Barnes asked Morgan to share her story of quitting a full-time job to start her own business in a panel discussion at a Thursday Gathering. At first, Morgan balked, thinking that she didn’t have much to offer.
“I thought my story would be five minutes long: ‘I quit my job; any questions?’ ” Morgan says. “But then I found myself talking for an hour, and afterward people were asking questions. I realized that I do have a valuable story to tell.”
The inspiration that Venture Café gives isn’t limited to Morgan. Her two children, Aaden and Addisen, have each started their own businesses: Her son, 11, runs a clean-up crew for local businesses, and her daughter, 6, makes money by decorating badges at Venture Café.
“When I go to Venture Café, I take my kids. They both love Venture Café,” says Morgan. “My son feels like he can start a business—at 11 years old—because when he goes to Venture Café, he sees businesses like Cam’s Coffee.”
That theme resonates with Morgan as woman of color in a technology field.
“If you don’t see something, you never really learn that you can do it,” Morgan says. “Venture Café teaches them that anyone can innovate, anyone can be an entrepreneur.”
“Venture Café is extremely diverse,” Morgan continues. “Businesses don’t all look the same, and Venture Café Winston-Salem represents and celebrates that fact.”
Barnes is proud that Venture Café Winston-Salem is the second most diverse of all the Venture Café locations.
“We’ve been really intentional about trying to build a diverse community within Venture Café,” Barnes says. “It’s part of our core mission.”
To further serve that mission of promoting diversity in entrepreneurship, Venture Café Winston-Salem has a new partner—Piedmont Business Capital, a community development funding institution experienced in helping minority-run businesses access capital. Together, they recently opened the new ACCESS Center for Equity + Success.
The ACCESS Center will promote the growth of minority- and women-owned businesses by helping with certification training and contract matching, providing access to capital, creating connections and navigating the regional ecosystem.
“I think that this is the place where our organizations can make the most difference,” Barnes says. “How do we help people start businesses as a path to economic mobility? How do we put an innovation lens on the problems that we have using the power of the marketplace?”
People like Morgan know keenly the need for such a Center.
“Being a woman of color and running a tech business, there are things that I need—parts, equipment, staff,” Morgan says. “I don’t have access to the capital for those things. But this isn’t a side-hustle for me; this is my full-time job. While I want to grow and expand, I don’t have all the knowledge I need. That’s why this ACCESS Center is greatly needed.”
When Jake McCabe moved from New Hampshire, he was looking for a change of pace and nicer weather.
“I thought Winston-Salem would be a cool place; it’s up-and-coming,” McCabe says.
As a product manager for a large software company, McCabe worked remotely, so when he moved, he started looking for a network to plug into.
“It’s important to have people to talk to, to throw ideas at and brainstorm with. I can learn a lot from other people with different backgrounds and viewpoints,” McCabe says. “I’m nerdy like that—I want to see what other people are doing in technology and apply it to what I do.”
When exploring the innovation and technology scene in the Innovation Quarter, McCabe came across Venture Café. In January, he started attending the Thursday Gatherings where he about Triad Connects, a new way for entrepreneurs to connect with local mentors in real-time.
Using Triad Connects, entrepreneurs can submit questions—for free—about any subject. The platform matches that question to a handful of vetted local mentors who respond with an answer.
“I thought it was too good to be true,” McCabe. “There’s no way a resource like that could be free.”
Triad Connects was born out of a gap that Barnes noticed between entrepreneurs seeking help and the experienced mentors who were offering it.
Venture Café Winston-Salem and other programs in the area had been offering office hours where entrepreneurs could schedule time with experts. The first five or six months, Venture Café mentorship hours were booked solid. Soon, Barnes noticed a stiff drop-off.
“Clearly, something was wrong. It wasn’t that entrepreneurs didn’t have questions; they had a lot of questions,” Barnes says. “It wasn’t a supply and demand problem: We had people with questions and mentors ready to help. We had a delivery problem.”
What Barnes and other groups learned was that the mentors that they brought in didn’t always match the immediate needs of entrepreneurs. Some weeks, marketing experts were available, but entrepreneurs needed legal advice. Entrepreneurs needed more real-time connection with mentors of all kinds.
A Newbie’s Guide to Venture Café
As a recent college graduate and being fairly new to Winston-Salem, I had heard the name Venture Café many times. Its programming is well-known for connecting innovators and entrepreneurs. I was very curious about the Thursday Gatherings, but also a bit apprehensive as a “newbie.” After attending my first Venture Café, I now understand why people go back week after week.
Flywheel Coworking had been beta-testing a AI-driven platform called Protopia from a start-up in Raleigh. In partnership with Flywheel and Launch Greensboro, Barnes and Venture Café Winston-Salem wrote a joint grant to NC IDEA to prototype Triad Connects, which was run on the Protopia platform, in order to connect entrepreneurs with questions to advisers with expertise in real-time.
Launched in September 2018 and then opened to entrepreneurs in 12 counties across the Triad in February 2019, Triad Connects enables entrepreneurs to connect with more than 200 advisers for free by building out a profile on the platform.
But does it work?
“I was skeptical at first,” says McCabe. “It sounded like something I’d have to pay for, and I wasn’t sure there would be a real benefit or that I would actually get a response.”
McCabe decided to give the platform a shot.
“I’ve used it multiple times, and each time, I’ve gotten a response from someone who was really knowledgeable,” McCabe says. “It’s not too good to be true; people really do want to help.”
McCabe has submitted questions on anything from how start-ups can get funding to advice on technology for web applications and has appreciated the timeliness of the responses he gets. Even if advisers can’t help, they can point you to someone who can.
“I’ve even met a few people because of Triad Connects,” McCabe continues. “It’s great for building a network, matching you with people in the community that have various skill sets.”
At its core, Venture Café Winston-Salem is about connecting.
“Venture Café has always been about connecting people, that’s when the really cool stuff happens,” Barnes says.
For some, those connections can make all the difference. Take, for example, Austin Moody. As the president of North Carolina Corporate Solutions, Moody knows firsthand how hard it is to run a start-up. In 2016, Moody left his job at a large marketing firm to strike out on his own.
“Growth can be sporadic. Our toughest year was year one. Year two improved, but year three was when we saw the most growth,” Moody says.
A good deal of that growth was due to getting involved with Venture Café Winston-Salem.
“The first time we attended Venture Café, we walked out with a ton of connections, and before the next Venture Café Thursday Gathering the following week, two of those connections closed as clients,” Moody says.
When getting started, Moody had tried another networking event—one that companies paid to attend—but found that connections and referrals quickly ran dry.
“It was always the same people, and the time commitments were tough for a start-up entrepreneur,” Moody says.
At Venture Café Winston-Salem, Moody found more than a networking event. It was a community, a haven from the stresses of running his start-up.
“I go there every Thursday to make connections and meet potential customers, but I end up meeting friends,” Moody says. “The environment is welcoming and comfortable, and the people are so genuine that it becomes a getaway, a place to go and decompress from the stresses of entrepreneurship.”
The more Moody attends, the more he finds that people who attend—from entrepreneur newbies to CEOs of established companies—are invested in each other’s success.
“Everyone there has an amazing outlook and attitude toward Venture Café,” Moody says. “They care about other entrepreneurs; they stop what they’re doing and ask how they can help.”
“Plus, they have amazing catering,” Moody adds. “When I meet entrepreneurs who are hesitant to come to Venture Cafe because of bad experiences with networking events, I tell them about the free wine and beer and the good food.”
Taking the Leap
At the end of the day, the success of Venture Café Winston-Salem comes down to the people—the people who run it and the people who attend.
“Karen Barnes and Susan Morris [Venture Café’s program director] are always looking out for us,” Doubleday says. “They put effort into our relationship. I know that they are looking out for the best interest of the community.”
“It’s just in their blood,” he concludes.
That attitude trickles down to the community members, as those who attend Venture Café Winston-Salem don’t just rely on the leadership to make connections.
“The community fosters collaborations,” Morgan says. “People have a desire to collaborate, and even if you don’t collaborate with someone you meet, you know who they are, and you can send connections their way.”
It worked for Morgan’s business, as well as Fluree’s. Both companies received the award for the Triad’s Most Innovative Small Business from Venture Café Winston-Salem in 2019.
“I truly wouldn’t be where I am without Venture Café,” Morgan says.
But to fully understand the value that the Venture Café Winston-Salem community can bring to entrepreneurs and companies, you have to attend. So, to borrow a catchphrase from Barnes herself, “See you Thursday at Venture Café!”