Why Greenville Is The Knowledge Economy's Next Big Thing

The clackety-clack of weaving looms has long given way to automotive and turbine manufacturing in Greenville, SC, but the little urbane city in the foothills of the Blue Ridge is also home to a growing tech community that's about to bust out.

Talk to anyone who lives in (or has visited) Greenville, South Carolina, for more than five minutes and you're bound to hear descriptors like "world-class," "diverse," and "hidden gem"—often in the same breath. Though its lowcountry cousin Charleston often gets the lion’s share of attention from tourists, Greenville is at the heart of a 10-county metro area that’s loaded with its own natural charms (think a 60-foot waterfall framed by a suspension bridge just off Main Street) and boasts an economic engine that has chugged through the recession; the region boasts $1.1 billion in new capital investments and has created more than 6,000 new jobs in the last five years alone.

Greenville is technically a medium-sized market, but it has more corporate headquarters than any other region in the state, according to the SC Department of Commerce. It’s also home to the offices of a diverse group of Fortune 500 companies including 3M, Lockheed, and GE. 

But even as the echoes of the once-dominant textile industry give way to an ever-stronger auto manufacturing sector and health-science research, Greenville’s nurturing a new generation of businesses. Rooted in innovation and branching into all manner of technology, these fledgling companies are already creating buzz. For example, you can glimpse the future of health care in the media-rich in-patient Hospital Room 2020 or sign on to LoftResumes, a platform that generates jazzy CVs that give job seekers an edge. These entrepreneurial efforts are being supported by skilled labor and a growing number of initiatives such as NEXT, a Chamber of Commerce program dedicated to turning new ideas into viable businesses through advocacy and infrastructure development. 

Fast Company recently caught up with serial entrepreneur and founder of Loft Resumes Dodd Caldwell and Brenda Laakso, vice president of NEXT, to talk about five other factors contributing to Greenville’s success and why it’s destined to get on the map as a hub for the knowledge economy. 

Money, money, money.

Raising money can be a challenge for early stage companies, Laakso says, especially as venture-capital investors continue shying away from funding in the $1 million to $5 million range (what she calls “the valley of death"). Currently though, new businesses in Greenville can seek funding from the Upstate Carolina Angel Network (UCAN) or SC Launch. 

Portfolio ranked South Carolina fourth in the nation for small business vitality thanks in part to state programs like SC Launch, which has provided more than 251 high-tech, innovative companies with early stage funding and commercialization support. 

Thanks to the recession, local banks have been slow to give loans to unproven tech startups, Laakso says. Business and community leaders recognize there needs to be more rigor to the application process so a few have formed Innovative Commercial Solutions (ICS) to help early stage companies do market analysis to see if there are obstacles before they start.

Greenville hearts collaboration.

Laakso says that the NEXT Innovation Center, a flexible office space designed to meet the needs of startups, is nearly full and there are plans to construct another. Meanwhile, CoWork Greenville is filling the gap. 

"Basing my startups out of the Cowork Greenville offices has been the best collaborative experience I've had in my life," says Dodd Caldwell. The open office space fosters "over-the-shoulder" consultation, and Caldwell says the companies and individuals that populate Cowork Greenville are selected to avoid siloing. That means designers and developers both within and outside the tech space are encouraged to network in a diverse community of expertise. 

What’s more, the space offers Zero Days once a month. “Everyone takes a day off from their normal work and takes part in 10- or 20-minute presentations, feedback sessions, or pitches. Topics can range from "What I'm Learning About Doing Usability Studies Right Now" to "Help Me Name This New Business" to "Is There Any Way We Can Make Minivans Cool?" Caldwell says.  

A CEO's bullpen, built from word of mouth.

Doing business in the "old South" used to require entry into the good old boys network. It's taken a while, but things are starting to change, Laakso says. NEXT’s CEO Forum is a way for enterprising founders to get noticed and tap expertise. About 30 experienced executives come together for a monthly networking sessions that focus on best practices for building healthy companies. "It’s like a CEO's bullpen, they’ve been there and done that," she says, "and it’s built from word of mouth." New business owners just have to take the initiative to get in and start connecting. 

Likewise, Caldwell says that word-of-mouth networking goes a long way toward helping Greenville businesses tap professional service providers they can't find locally. There isn't a cohesive group of lawyers and acccountants specializing in the particular needs of new entrepreneurs. "Even if I may not personally know the right local attorney for a specific issue my startup is facing, it's really easy to find someone who knows an attorney in New York who specializes in that issue. For services such as legal and accounting, I just don't think it's that important to be in the same geographical location," he says.

That elusive "cool" factor.

Greenville’s Main Street downtown never fails to wow visitors and new residents. Teeming with a diverse array of restaurants that cater to the bustling international community courtesy of such corporate denizens as Michelin, BMW, and Mitsubishi, the city also offers a generous sampler of outdoor festivals, Broadway shows, a vibrant artists' community, and a wealth of hiking and biking trails. "Greenville has become cool enough that people actually want to move here now," Caldwell says. "A by-product of that immigration is that we now have world-class web development and design talent here."

(Local digerati —business owners, web developers, and tech geeks of all stripes— can also gladhand, learn and connect at TechAfterFive's networking events at trendy and friendly watering holes.)

Despite development downtown, the city itself is still small—a factor that keeps the cost of living affordable, he says, and from a startup's perspective it means that salaries don't have to be as high as in traditional startup-centric areas like Austin or Palo Alto. "It also means that there isn't as much competition for that talent," Caldwell says.

It’s the Next Big Thing... really!

Though it’s not part of the Chamber’s initiative, Laakso is quick to point out that Greenville’s first accelerator was funded with early stage seed money from NEXT. Founded by serial entrepreneur Peter Barth, The Next Big Thing is a 13-week program that’s part of the global TechStars network that boasts such alumni as Roundpegg and Contently. 

In addition to $18,000 of funding, selected businesses will be able to take advantage of an in-house design team, get office space, and receive free legal and accounting services. After this, Laakso says, participating companies will pitch at a Demo Day in September. "Peter Barth has pulled together 15 to 17 mentors, mostly from Silicon Valley and a network of investors from across the country. He’s done all he can to insure success."

Follow the conversation on Twitter using the tag #USInnovation.

 

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