Ideas to Spur Startup Success in NC

Whether through consulting or working with non-profits who serve entrepreneurs, I am very committed to seeing jobs created through business creation. In my work, I am often scouring research publications to find data and resources that point to trends and patterns. The North Carolina Small Business Technology Development Center publishes data on small business and entrepreneurship trends across the state. The 2012 (results through 2010) report highlighted some interesting trends:

Not only has the number of new employer businesses declined, but so
have sole proprietorships. Only three times in the past four decades
has the total number of non-farm proprietors in North Carolina
decreased from the previous year – twice in the early 1970s and
again in 2008. The only reason there wasn’t a decline in 2010, was
likely due to the growth of the state’s population. NC’s proportion of
business owners to total residents dropped in two of the last three
years – and 2009 was mostly unchanged.

We don’t know exactly who is and isn’t starting businesses in North
Carolina. However, the 2011 Global Entrepreneurship Monitor noted
this trend for the US as a whole and looked deeper into the problem.
Their surveys showed a disturbing decline in entrepreneurship among
young adults. This could be from a lack of interest, knowledge/training,
or capital (unemployment and debt are high among those under 25).

The reason this is potentially troubling is because the experience of
youth entrepreneurship is essential to the pipeline of successful startup
businesses in this country – often created by those in their 30s to
50s. If this trend is real and sustaining, the economic effects could be
felt in years to come.

While the concern about national declines in entrepreneurship among young adults is a valid one, our experience in the Research Triangle area is that more technology start-ups than ever are being initiated by this demographic. What seems to be missing, however, are start-ups from that same age group that are in the category of “Main Street” businesses. Businesses like real estate brokerages, boutique professional services firms, personal services, healthcare related companies, and construction companies or other labor-intensive enterprises are simply not popular among young folks.

Instead, the Baby Boom generation seems more likely to start Main Street businesses. At the Cary Innovation Center in Cary, NC, for instance, virtually all of the entrepreneurs in residence are over the age of 40. They share a common background of having spent years in industry, having developed a little bit of a nest egg, strong skills in unique disciplines, extensive business networks within their industry, and a desire to be self-employed the remainder of their productive work years. 

Perhaps we need to actively engage the 20 somethings in some type of entrepreneurship fair that would expose them to the lower risk/better quality of life aspects of the types of businesses that are residents at the Cary Innovation Center (events planning, a digital marketing company, a career outplacement firm, etc). Most of these businesses require far less capital to get off the ground than their venture-backed and angel-backed peer start-ups. Furthermore, it is easier to generate revenues earlier in the life cycle of these types of companies. 

Alternately, we need to realize the wonderful phenomenon that is spreading throughout the more seasoned crowd. We can–and should–celebrate their excitement about entrepreneurship as a second career.

In short, national trends need not determine our experience. We have an opportunity to be better than other parts of the country if we encourage more of what is working, champion alternatives for younger entrepreneurs, and give them all a lot of support in the form of education and mentoring.

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