By Will Doran
The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.).
A new program aims to connect budding entrepreneurs of all ages with established professionals in areas such as accounting, graphic design, web design, law, marketing and consulting.
InnovateF-V, hosted by the Fuquay-Varina Chamber of Commerce, kicked off in late August. It will hold regular meetings for participants, with speakers and networking sessions, until culminating with a weekend-long event in January.
James Wong, a marketing and IT professional who also runs the Fuquay Coworking space, is heading up InnovateF-V.
Whether someone has a dream of building a mobile app, opening a cupcake shop or starting a new charity, he or she can bring that idea through InnovateF-V.
Organizers are hoping to attract 100 to 150 entrepreneurs, business professionals, mentors and other interested participants.
The program is open to non-residents, though organizers hope to find ideas that will benefit the local area.
The first of the monthly meetings is Wednesday, Sept. 9. The next one is Oct. 6, and they continue until Feb. 23.
The highlight, though, is a weekend retreat from Jan. 8-10 in which the ideas for startups and inventions will be finalized.
People can sign up to join the program at any time. However, organizers suggest joining soon to take advantage of all of the programs, as well as early-bird discounts on the registration fee.
Until Nov. 1, entry costs $40, or $30 for teenagers, college students and graduate students.
“For these students, a lot of it’s going to be just seeing how businesses start,” Wong said. “Or they could have ideas about an invention or an app.”
The end goal
During the January weekend, participants will gather for a friendlier, more community-oriented version of the TV show, “Shark Tank.”
The first day, Friday, each entrepreneur will make a short pitch for his or her idea. Through the rest of Friday and Saturday, the professionals in the audience will be pitching their own services to the entrepreneurs they liked.
“You pitch you idea, and if it’s successful, maybe you have three marketing professionals, five graphic designers, wanting to be involved,” Wong said. “And then it’s like on-the-spot interviews.”
That’s when experienced bakers will meet with accountants, or app developers will meet with graphic artists, or consultants, accountants and lawyers can offer business newbies some idea of the challenges they may face.
On Sunday, the revised ideas will be presented again to the audience and a panel of judges, who will pick the winners.
“We hope to launch several startups out of that weekend,” Wong said.
Organizers are still looking for local businesses who want to contribute prizes for the winners. They already have prizes such as business cards and consulting sessions, but want to give more.
The winners also will get a free membership in the Chamber of Commerce — an automatic networking opportunity with the chamber’s other 400 members.
After more than a month, the group will reconvene Feb. 23 for the winners to give an update and do some further networking.
While many of the entrepreneurs might be new to the game, Wong is not. In addition to his experience leading Fuquay Coworking,
he also organized a similar startup weekend when he was president of the Triangle Interactive Marketing Association.
Helping the local community
Linda Frenette, the new executive director of the chamber, said many other places have held innovation programs.
But not all of them have the same structure as InnovateF-V, she said, with its monthly speakers and meetings leading up to the final weekend, and then the promise to continue offering help and guidance after that weekend.
The Small Business Center at Wake Technical Community College also can help out participants, whether they win or not, Frenette said.
“Most of it is at no cost or, at worst case, low cost,” Frennette said.
Frenette said she has been talking with local venture capital firms about keeping them informed after the January workshop.
“You just never know what could happen,” she said.
The Town of Fuquay-Varina also pitched in $5,000 to help sponsor the project. Jim Seymour, the town’s economic development director, said one of his main goals is helping “to facilitate or procure high-tech start-up firms or young entrepreneurs.”
He said much of the U.S. workforce already is involved in small businesses, not large corporations.
And especially in this area, with so many highly educated residents and people with experience in tech fields, that trend will continue upwards.
“We’re going to see more businesses that originate as startups,” Seymour said.
Go to www.innovatefv.org for more on the program.