The 2012 Entrepreneurial Champion is Zack Miller

Founder of Start Norfolk

Start Norfolk is an entrepreneurial movement bringing together individuals of different mind and skill sets – entrepreneurs, engineers, developers, designers and businesspeople – with the goal of building a viable startup.

By Teresa Talerico
Correspondent

At 28, Zack Miller is a youthful godfather to startups in Hampton Roads. His strategy? He puts a bunch of talented, creative people in a room together.
And then he stands back.

Miller’s Start Norfolk events unite fledgling entrepreneurs with professionals in marketing, technology, finance and other industries. Once introduced, they pitch ideas, collaborate and ultimately launch companies.

Increasingly popular, the local events reflect a national trend, as grassroots startup communities host similar gatherings across the country. The goal of these events, typically held over a weekend, is to not only brainstorm businesses but actually birth them on the spot.

So far, Miller has organized two Start Norfolk weekends. The first, in November 2011, attracted 175 people and 37 ideas. Participation nearly doubled for the next one, held April 27-29, with 300 people and 73 ideas. The initiative, which also includes monthly Startup Nights, has spawned companies such as:

• PodiumPro: Founder Sean Evangelista of Virginia Beach designed an iPad application that helps public speakers keep their cool at the microphone.

• Vinylmint.com: Created by Byron Morgan, an entertainment executive and adjunct professor at Tidewater Community College, the website allows musicians to collaborate and record music in real time.

• D8Night.com: Bored with dinner and a movie? This site offers creative date ideas. Brittany Hoffman, winner of April’s Start Norfolk, raved about the technical team that helped bring her concept to life:

“We had two coders, a databaser, a designer, a user interface, a business guy, an SEO guy,” she said in a May 4 video on Start Norfolk’s YouTube channel. “I am blown away by how much we were able to accomplish.”

“It’s a catalyst, getting these people together,” said Miller, project and marketing director at Norfolk technology firm We Are Titans. “But it’s more about what are you going to do after the weekend, and how are you going to take your concept and actually build that out? To see several of these companies do that is tremendous.”

Joe Hill of Chesapeake is one of those success stories. He unveiled Aeir Talk, an educational app for the iPad, at the first Start Norfolk. Modeled after flash cards, the app helps children read and communicate. Hill originally envisioned it as a way to connect with his two autistic sons.

Today, Aeir Talk has been downloaded in more than 20 countries, said Hill, who was recently featured on Inc.com.

We Are Titans designed the app for Hill, who approached the techie team with his idea last year. Miller’s startup events connected him with likeminded entrepreneurs and business consultants.

“It forges a group of people who are just starting out,” Hill said. “That wouldn’t be possible without Zack getting us all together in a room.”

Like his Start Norfolk participants, Miller began with the kernel of an idea. He first heard of Startup weekends in March 2011 at a financial conference in Atlanta.

Another attendee, Jesse Maddox, had just won an award at Start Atlanta for TripLingo, his company that designs language guides for international travelers.

“Since then, TripLingo has had 40,000 downloads and they’ve been featured on the app store twice,” Miller said. “I said, you know what? I think we have the talent in this area, the resources in this area to really establish our own startup community.”

Miller researched other startup hotbeds – Austin, Texas; Bloomington, Ind.; North Carolina’s Research Triangle – and figured out the common denominator. They were all university towns.

“They weren’t big metropolitan media markets,” he said. “Some of these cities, no one knows about, really. And no one really knows about the Norfolk area. And then getting the resources from the universities; obviously we have seven here. So I thought how can we connect all these universities, how can we take all this talent and get them to start companies together? It’s tying the universities with the talent together, and really just pushing people to be active and take risks.”

So far, Miller has connected with Old Dominion University, Regent University, Tidewater Community College and other local institutions. ODU hosted the first Start Norfolk weekend.

“It brings a sense of community, a sense of purpose and, in some cases, a trial by fire,” said Tom Osha, president and CEO of ODU’s Innovation Research Park. “Chambers and other civic and business organizations are very useful parts of the fabric of a business community. But they are mainly for networking. What Start Norfolk did is it created a goal, and that goal was to start a company in roughly 72 hours. It’s a very important opportunity for these people to come together in a way they might not otherwise.”

Miller hopes Norfolk will become another startup hotbed. It recently attracted the attention of TechCrunch, a San Francisco-based blog about technology startups. In April the city’s vocal startup community convinced East Coast Editor John Biggs to pay a visit. Biggs, who was hosting TechCrunch meetups along the Eastern seaboard, added a stop in Norfolk. He later gave it a thumbs-up.

“Zack is really passionate about the city and the talent there,” said Biggs, who featured several local companies on TechCrunch. “It’s exciting to see things popping in Norfolk and, as evidenced by Vinylmint, some great things are happening. The community is small but growing. It’s nice to see.”

That growth includes HatchNorfolk.com, a three-month accelerator program that will provide capital, rent and mentors for eligible startups.

Norfolk is also one of eight cities in the FounderDating.com network, a site that connects entrepreneurs with potential co-founders. We Are Titans will organize a FounderDating event on July 10.

Meanwhile, Miller continues with his Startup Nights, which he describes as a “peer-to-peer mentorship program” with a different topic each month. A recent topic: keeping personal relationships intact while running a business.

“We all work 40, 50, 60, 70, 80, 90 hours a week, and we’re passionate and we have this great thing going on,” he said. “But we don’t want to forget about our loved ones. That’s something that a lot of people are shy to talk about, but it’s very important and needs to be addressed. You know, work is work; your job is your job, it’s your life, but the people at home are the people you can’t forget about. They’re your true passion.”

Miller, a West Virginia University grad, actually moved to Norfolk in 2007 as a photojournalist for WTKR-TV. Since then, he has turned a passion for storytelling into a passion for startup-jelling.

“I wanted to help people by telling their stories,” he said of his original career goal. “Now I think I’m doing that by helping them achieve their dreams and their companies.”

When did you start the program and what gave you the idea for it?
I started researching startup ecosystems in March 2011 after meeting Jesse Maddox of TripLingo from Atlanta, who at the time had recently won Start Atlanta, which is a similar event to Start Norfolk.

What was the hardest part of launching it?
The promotion and adoption of the event by the public, although every event we’ve organized, whether it’s Start Norfolk, Startup Night or Drinks Downtown, has been a success with quality participation.

What lesson did you learn that you wish you’d known back before you started?
I learned to not forget about your family and your loved ones. You become so passionate about what you are planning and creating that it’s easy to neglect those who support you from other areas of your life.

What risks did you take?
I don’t think there were any real risks. Each event has led into the next and evolved into Start Norfolk’s weekend-long event. We’re focused on continuing to build off of what the participants want from these events.

What was the biggest obstacle you overcame?
Trying to create the entrepreneurial ecosystem, reaching out to those entrepreneurs in the area and trying to get them to join in. Hustle and never quitting, long days and being honest.

What or who has helped you the most in establishing the program?
Marty Kaszubowski, Larry Lombardi, Tom Osha, Bob Fenning, Greater Norfolk Corp., Drew Unvarsky, Paul Dinardo and Joel Nied, to name a few.

What do you consider your greatest innovation?
This area has always had entrepreneurs, but there’s never been an ecosystem of past, present and future entrepreneurs who could learn from each other. Being a part of creating that is an awesome feeling.

How has the program grown, both in terms of participants and funding?
Start Norfolk started with 175 participants and over 30 ideas pitched and grew to 300 participants and over 70 pitches in a short time frame of only six months. Funding and in-kind services went from $20,000 to over $150,000.

Has the program earned a profit? If so, how long did it take to get there?
No, Start Norfolk does not earn a profit, and never was planned to make money on the program. The goals for Start Norfolk are to educate and accelerate local startups.

Discuss future plans for Start Norfolk.
There will be another Start Norfolk, but we have not announced a date yet. After organizing two successful events, we’re taking what we learned from these events to make them better; that’s our current focus.

What is your biggest challenge for the future and how do you plan to handle it?
Keeping the energy and momentum going. The idea is to keep new and fresh ideas coming and putting a twist on them to keep up the excitement.

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Were coding our new iPad App. Meanwhile, our blog and twitter machines will give you great tips on speaking confidently, ruling the room and being awesome.
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