Why Entrepreneurs Should Know About This Secret Startup Hub Down South

After arriving at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business in 1988, two things took me by surprise almost immediately.

First, I realized that Duke had a good basketball team. I remember telling people I was going to school there and they would almost immediately mention something about basketball. I was perplexed because I just didn’t know anything ACC basketball at all (I was from the Northeast where the Big East reigned).

Second, I started to notice that Duke’s surrounding area was a great technology hub. Like many people from the Northeast, I was totally oblivious to RTP (the Research Triangle Park area, or “Triangle,” comprised of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill). After graduating, I decided to stay in the area, and, like many of my classmates, I built my life and business here.

As is with many things in the South, people in the Triangle tend to be understated and modest. Therefore, while the area gets some attention for its technology companies, it doesn’t have the national reputation that it deserves. The truth is that, along with Silicon Valley, this is the best area in the country to start a technology or information business. In fact, when you drill down into the details, it may be an even better place for entrepreneurs than Silicon Valley. There are several reasons for this:

  1. Three excellent schools. The area has three major universities within about 15-20 minutes, which offer a blend of important characteristics. Duke draws a national population of kids, and I suppose it checks off the box for having an elite university in the area. UNC-Chapel Hill (“Carolina”) is one of the best state universities in the country, although they would rightfully make a claim for being as academically strong as Duke, without the typical Yankee snobbery that you find across Tobacco Road. NC State is a true hidden gem that, to me, produces by far the strongest engineers and employees of the three. Unsurprisingly, this brain power contributes to a highly educated workforce that companies can pluck from. Because many of these graduates stay in the area, it is regularly included at the very top of the “smartest”/”best educated” cities lists.
  2. A rich, long technology heritage. The success of technology companies in this area didn’t happen by accident. In fact, there’s a great deal of historical context behind the rise of tech in the Triangle. As the name suggests, the area is comprised of three major cities, forming a rough isosceles triangle, and the land in these cities was (and is) poorly suited for farming. In a state driven by agriculture, this led to affordable land prices. In the 1950s, several entrepreneurial minded individuals recognized a business opportunity: these visionaries came together to create an infrastructure for inviting technology companies to this area, where land prices were quite low. The rest, as they say, is history, and the area’s commitment to technology and entrepreneurship has not wavered for 50 years. IBM was one of the first companies that came in, and half a century later, I founded my company Sageworks across the street from that original IBM compound. Red Hat and SaS are some of the more recognizable names headquarted here, but the area houses a large, vibrant group of organizations which are really committed to entrepreneurial excellence. There’s a real legacy here and reason why it “works” as a hotbed for technology companies.
  3. High quality of life. The area has an incredibly high quality of life. By some measures, the highest in the country. The average price of a house in Raleigh is less than $200K. Compare this to other tech hubs such as San Francisco ($1.1 million) or New York City ($570K). The average commute to work is about 25 minutes. Again, compare this to San Francisco (28 minutes) or New York (34 minutes) As previously mentioned, the area produces a huge number of highly educated graduates each year. But what I’m finding now is that, because of this high quality of life, the area has become a mecca for people across the country. So the talent pool is not only comprised of graduates from the three universities; the area is also pulling in talented individuals from all over.
  4. Friendly people. Granted this point is a little subjective, but I’ve found that the Triangle is home to some of the friendliest individuals in the country. Most of us are from other parts of the country, so we are, to a certain degree, respectful visitors to an area. I was raised in Connecticut, where you sometimes feel as if people can be provincial and, frankly, off-putting. The Triangle is an area of happy newcomers; we’re just glad to be here. The people who come here tend to be very sharp, but many of them seem to be a little gentler in their approach to life. This friendly environment, like the high quality of life, increases the overall pool of talent in the area. People want to come here.
  5. The area is employer-friendly. The Triangle is not burdened with labor unions and undue government regulation. There seems to be genuine cooperation between the government and businesses here. It’s fairly obvious why this would encourage business growth and tech entrepreneurship in the area.

The Triangle has been a fantastic place to raise a family and incubate a business. And I know from talking to other entrepreneurs in the area and witnessing the great success of many Triangle-bred companies that my experience tends to be the rule, not the exception. The bottom line is that, if I’m a young entrepreneur and I want a great to start and grow a business, there’s no better place to do so than the RTP area in North Carolina.