Jeffrey Kaplan took to the TEDxAsheville stage earlier this year to talk about something uncomfortable: The entrepreneurial journey as we know it is pretty broken.
As Director at Venture Asheville, he’s seen the negative outcomes that come when a tech ecosystem focuses on funding exclusively. Founders suffer when they feel they don’t have a place to ask for help or work through their vulnerabilities.
“What I see is founders literally running in and out of my building. I see them overwhelmed and battling against time, against payroll, against burn rates, against their supply chains…and against just trying to get out in time for their kid’s soccer practice,” he said during his talk.
Kaplan’s 15-minute TED Talk gives insight into how the team at Venture Asheville is rethinking that entrepreneurial journey and helping the next crop of founders build tech in the city.
Entrepreneurs across the country have taken notice.
Asheville, a city with a population just shy of 100,000, might not be top of mind when you think of strong tech talent pools. But an influx of new workers, on top of a strong ecosystem and investor community, means this smaller city is punching above its weight class. This focus on individual founders’ journeys has helped local startups garner $35 million in outside investment, create over 300 jobs, and bring in $90 million in revenue.
“We’re busier and more booming than ever,” Kaplan told Hypepotamus.
Kaplan said the city has transformed over the last two years, attracting remote workers looking to take advantage of Asheville’s unique recreation and restaurant scene during the pandemic. But growth hasn’t slowed down.
Asheville was fourth on realtor.com’s list of places job seekers flocked to in 2021, and it has consistently been high on other lists for those looking to work remotely from smaller cities.
Many of those moving are entrepreneurs, particularly in the B2B and healthcare space. Kaplan said Bramble, Pluritem Health, Trova Health, Level.io, and Netmaker (the city’s first Y Combinator acceptance) have all set up shop in Asheville.
Another key metric: The overall digital nomad community is booming in town. Just a year after launching an official Meetup group, AVL Digital Nomads has over 460 members.
“While I’ve found myself highly productive remotely, it does have some downsides around isolation and loss of social connections. Feeling the Asheville energy, I thought I’d test to see if others felt the same way here,” co-organizer Ric Pratte told Hypepotamus. “I thought it would be mostly dudes from the tech industry. I was very wrong. Gender is evenly split with quite a great diversity of people, it is Asheville after all. There are accountants, salespeople, designers, writers, and even therapists. We also have quite a few freelancers whose work comes from customers all over the world. The wide variety of professions and backgrounds make the social discussions delightfully interesting. To our nomads, Asheville is about LIFE/work balance, where living comes first. Many events we’ll get a true nomad passing through Asheville who will come to an event.”
So what makes Asheville a unique spot for growing tech startups? Kaplan thinks the city’s focus on community is a big asset. “People in Asheville are adamant about supporting local. It’s in the water here,” Kaplan added. “What I find about Asheville is nobody just ends up here. People choose to be here very intentionally. And that leads to an incredibly giving culture.”
That helped the city’s restaurant, food, and craft beer scene take off. Kaplan believes that can translate over to the tech scene as well.
The Asheville Tech Landscape
Any tech ecosystem needs local funding to grow. And despite its small size, Asheville has its own strong sources of local capital.
Notably, the Pisgah Fund is a $50 million venture dedicated to bringing capital to healthcare-related ventures in the western North Carolina region. Venture Asheville also houses Asheville Angels, the local chapter of VentureSouth, formed in 2014. It has invested in 33 startups to date.
“It took a long time to build the infrastructure that startups needed here,” Kaplan said. “Now that is here, it makes it really easy to drop in and start something.”
Getting entrepreneurs up and ready to start that “something” new in the city is what Venture Asheville does best. The organization hosts several programs throughout the year to keep entrepreneurs focused on what matters in the early stage of the startup journey. It also hosts the Elevate Program, a mentorship program based on the MIT Venture Mentoring Service.
Now that the infrastructure is in place, Kaplan is ready for what’s next in the Asheville tech scene.
“New remote workers who live in Asheville are telling me that maybe in a year or two they are going to start something of their own. So we’re on the precipice of a pretty significant wave of new venture creation that is a result of migration into Asheville,” Kaplan said.