REGIONALREPORT CharlotteStartups want a jump-start
Nabeel Hyatt had an idea for a new company — two of them, in fact. It was summer 2001, and he was vice president of strategic partnerships at Internetsoccer.com, a Charlotte startup that provided soccer news and merchandise. He had stayed on after its acquisition but was itching to try something different. As he mulled the possibilities, one thing he knew for sure: Whatever he started wouldn’t be in the Queen City. “It just seemed very obvious to me that Charlotte wasn’t a city that valued startups,” Hyatt, now 34, says. “There was very little support.”
So he focused on Boston and San Francisco, both of which had a strong community of angel investors, engineers and project managers wanting to work with startups. After landing in Cambridge, Mass., he started a couple of businesses before launching Conduit Labs Inc., a game developer for social-networking websites, in 2007. In August, he sold it to San Francisco-based Zynga Inc., which has developed FarmVille and other online games. He’s now head of the Boston unit of a company valued at $5 billion. “It’s unfortunate that I had to leave [Charlotte] because I met some really good people.” Hyatt isn’t the only one frustrated with a lack of support in Charlotte, says Mac Lackey, his boss at Internetsoccer.com (Making Goals, March 2000) and now managing partner of Charlotte-based BlackHawk Capital Management LLC, which focuses on early-stage companies. “We lose really good entrepreneurs to other cities that are better aligned, or we have people sitting in a financial-services job uptown who just don’t know how to stick the shovel in the ground and get started.”
He says there should be a public-private entity that holds networking events and information sessions and can serve as a conduit for legal and other help entrepreneurs need — something like the Council for Entrepreneurial Development. The Durham-based nonprofit’s mission statement pledges support for entrepreneurship statewide, but most of its programs are in the Triangle. “Our funders are here, and we’re supported by the local community,” President Joan Siefert Rose says. “As much as I agree that there is a need and demand for the services, getting the funding in place has prevented CED from expanding.” David Moore is the founder and CEO of Direct Response Concepts Inc., a Charlotte-based developer of mobile-phone software. Help for entrepreneurs exists in the Queen City, he says, if they know where to look. He points to the Ben Craig Center, a business incubator at UNC Charlotte, and says the chamber of commerce and Charlotte Regional Technology Council hold networking and educational sessions. But even he thinks more must be done.
It’s not happening fast enough for Lackey, so BlackHawk is taking matters into its own hands. It recently provided office space to a new technology company in exchange for expertise. And he plans to push city leaders — public and private — to do more. If things don’t change, he says, the region could suffer. “The biggest consequence is the smartest talent may go elsewhere. You get tired of fighting the fight.”