I was burnt.
Having co-founded AuthenTec (Melbourne, FL) with Dale Setlak (often referred to as the smart one) in 1998, raising some $70M in venture capital and taking the company public in 2007, by the time I handed over the reigns of the Company to my friend Larry Ciaccia in 2010, I was completely and thoroughly burnt out. There’s a longer story there, and will leave that for later, but by the time I stepped aside I was both emotionally and physically drained (actually, wrecked might be a better word). Being an all in kind of guy and loving both our Company and the folks I worked with, 12 years is a very (very) long time at warp speed. I swore that I would never work again, maybe sit on a few boards and attend lots of tailgates (not to be confused with actually going to the games).
And then along came the Triangle Startup Weekend.
First invited to be a judge at the 2011 event, after a little research (having never heard of Startup Weekend), I volunteered to be a coach instead. I figured that being a coach was an opportunity to work directly with lots of folks over the course of the 54-hour event, versus simply hearing some 5 minute pitches at the end of the weekend. It was an opportunity to immerse myself.
And I loved it.
While for many, Startup Weekends are an opportunity to start something, for me, it was an opportunity to renew somebody – myself. It was during that weekend that I realized how much I loved the startup game; the idea of creating something new, working with really smart people, helping others realize their dreams. As I worked through the weekend, spending as much time at the awesome American Tobacco Campus in Durham (where the event was held) as did many of the teams, I was often reminded of our startup years at AuthenTec. Yet for all the good things I could say about the weekend, from the various ideas being presented to the phenomenal job the Startup Weekend team did organizing the event, what I loved most about the weekend was the people.
Frankly, that is what I loved most about AuthenTec. The people. For me, working at a startup is like playing a sport, analogous to the old, “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat” tagline from the Wide World of Sports. Yet, it was never the work per se that made it so much fun, but rather the AuthenTec team I had the pleasure of “playing” with (umm, that might not sound right, but you know what I mean). Like a soldier in the trenches, fighting for a common goal, well, you develop a special camaraderie and lasting bond. That weekend in 2011, I realized I missed that.
Over the course of the weekend, I got to work with some really great people. In fact, although I was only a visitor, I struck up some strong and lasting friendships with several at the event, guys like Mital Patel who is a lawyer who has a passion for early stage startups and organized the event; Greg Mullohand, a engineering graduate of NCSU and Cambridge, now pursuing an MBA at Stanford (and who is a walking encyclopedia); and Danny Page, a incredibly creative software engineer who has a strong opinion about everything and has more piercings than my wife and three daughters put together. Of course, there were/are others, but I mention these three since they represent what a diverse and incredibly interesting set of people the Triangle Startup Weekend draws. Although diverse in terms of capabilities and personalities, I would say there are three common qualities across these gentlemen (and others at the Weekend): they are smart, they care about the community and they are fully capable of drinking large quantities of craft beer (which is plentiful in the Triangle).
So, we moved.
The fact is that I enjoyed my weekend so much that upon returning home to Florida, I suggested to my wife we consider moving to the Triangle area. To some degree, it was a matter of moving back, since I graduated from State and my wife is originally from Edenton (over on the coast). It took a while before we moved as I had other obligations, it took a while for us to sell our home (remember, we were living in Florida), and AuthenTec was acquired by Apple. However, we finally moved in December 2012 and could not be happier with the move, both professionally and socially.
I often tell folks that there are probably ten places you can do a startup in the US where location is not a penalty. The Triangle (Raleigh-Durham-RTP-Chapel Hill) is on that list. While it is not Silicon Valley (there is only one of those), everything you need to start and grow your business is right here – great universities (led, of course, by NCSU), large companies (such as IBM, Lenovo, Cisco, Citrix, RedHat, Cree), lawyers that understand term sheets, accountants that understand options, a very strong angel network and a number of incubators and accelerators to help you get your idea off the ground. Of course, throw in the fact that there is some kind of startup event almost every night, to the point one really doesn’t have to ever buy their own beer ever again, and you have all you need to get your startup off the ground.
Honestly, to some extent I expected all the above since I had done a good bit of research on the area (including a number of trips) before moving, but what has really been a pleasant surprise were the social aspects of the area. With the state capital and the three major universities all centered here in the Triangle, one does not lack for something to do, whether sports, art, theatre, concerts or just a good pub after another dinner at some rather eclectic restaurant.
So, to the team that organized that 2011 Triangle Startup Weekend and to all those that attended – thanks!
And for those attending this year’s event, I look forward to meeting you. Unfortunately due to other commitments and my own travel schedule, I can’t attend the entire weekend and can only be a judge, but I do hope to poke my head in several times during that frantic 54 hours.
What I can promise is that if you are really looking, you’ll find inspiration that weekend.