Everyone likes a good story. Narrative helps us make sense of all life’s random details and events, and hearing other people’s stories often is a good way to inspire us to take a bit more power over our own.
The HQ Raleigh story starts with four founders who had a common vision of a place that they wished had existed during their own entrepreneurial beginnings.
Durham’s Bull City Forward leads to HQ connections and vision
Even before the seeds of HQ Raleigh had been planted, Christopher Gergen was working out a mission to give back to the Triangle community by helping new, socially-conscious entrepreneurs. Christopher himself was a successful entrepreneur, having, among other things, co-founded an online tutoring company called Smarthinking that he sold after over 1,000 colleges and universities had signed on.
After that sale, Christopher said, “It gave me the opportunity to pick my head a bit and think about where I wanted to make a long-standing impact. Recognizing that the challenges facing our world were only getting more complex, I realized I really wanted to focus on fostering the development of next gen problem solvers and entrepreneurs.”
Co-authoring a book called “Life Entrepreneurs,” the book’s success led him to a job at his alma mater, Duke University. They gave him an opportunity to teach on the topics covered in the book, including social entrepreneurship and startups. As he got involved in the Duke program, he got more involved in the Triangle business community and the future of the state.
“We saw ourselves in this place in North Carolina that had such a rich pool of talent, but at the time wasn’t doing everything it could to retain and harness that strong talent capital,” Christopher said. “So I helped start a non-profit organization in Durham called Bull City Forward to connect social entrepreneurs to the resources and relationships they needed to accelerate and deepen their impact — including launching one of Durham’s first co-working spaces.”
Bull City Forward proved catalytic for Durham’s burgeoning entrepreneurial community but Christopher says they made three errors that led to them shutting down their Main Street space after three years: they defined the type of entrepreneurs they wished to help too narrowly; they had the wrong kind of space and “didn’t know what we were doing when it came to real estate;” and the nonprofit model made capitalization and course correction too difficult. It wasn’t all for nothing though.
“Through that process, I had an amazing guy walk through our front door, named Jason Widen, who had a real estate and entrepreneurial background and shared the spirit of creating a high-impact, high-growth community. He also had the wherewithal to do it in a more sustainable way. So we started to look for ways to work together and the opportunity for HQ Raleigh presented itself.”
A fortunate meeting of minds
Jason, who ended up being another of the founders, describes how he came to work with Christopher, “I had established a relatively successful real estate investment company, and my wife and I were living in a small Indiana college town. We were really looking for a new adventure. We had been heavily considering moving to Denver but came to Durham for a three-day weekend and quite literally found a flat that weekend. The next day we signed a lease.”
As Jason and his wife, Heather, who runs an international leadership program, settled in, they became involved in Bull City Forward and eventually met Christopher. Jason says they “struck up a friendship” due to their similar backgrounds and interest in “not only wanting to build a business and be successful, but also to do good in the community.”
“Quite frankly, at the beginning it was just a matter of me throwing myself into the community and volunteering for different activities. And I had been trying to work with Christopher on how to improve Bull City Forward and look at different locations.”
Same mission, new model, new city
With Bull City Forward closing down, Christopher and Jason kept their eyes open for new opportunities for how they could partner towards their common goals. About that time a conference called Innovate Raleigh gathered more than 300 thought leaders with the aim of improving upon the strong entrepreneurial community in the area.
Brooks Bell, another of the founding four, was facilitating a conversation about connecting and convening spaces in Raleigh. She had available space that her company on St. Mary’s Street wasn’t using, so she reached out to Christopher. She said she was inspired to give back, but realized she wanted support into realizing her vision for supporting entrepreneurs in Raleigh and making the Triangle one of the top regions in the country for entrepreneurs.
And then there were four
Brooks’ husband, Jesse Lipson, who had recently sold his company ShareFile to Citrix, got involved too, and the four of them got to work mapping out what would become HQ Raleigh. Christopher says that “it’s been a terrific partnership” because the four founding members have a common vision for what they wanted to create.
“The thing that’s really important about the HQ story, and we often talk about it, is that HQ really is a community created by entrepreneurs for entrepreneurs,” said Jason. “The four of us, coming from entrepreneurial backgrounds, felt like we could have benefited from more supportive environment early in our careers. And that’s given us a collective impetus to say, let’s pay it forward and let’s think about ways we could really create the kind of environment that we could have benefited from ourselves.”
Christopher and Jason say they thought they would then begin building a small community of high impact, high growth entrepreneurs, and that maybe down the road it would grow into more. But within 45 days they had 547 inquiries. They know because they counted.
“So we got together as a group and said, this is more than a small office space with a handful of fast growing companies. Let’s be more intentional about building a connecting and convening place for the community at large.”
Jason says they made a point of meeting every person that walked through the door. By connecting them with the resources they needed to grow, they made what was often a years’ long process into a six-month burst for startups. Pendo, a software company focusing on sales churn, is one example of many. They started at HQ Raleigh with two people, and now they are a globally-recognized tech company with over 400 employees in the Wells Fargo Building in downtown Raleigh.
The future of HQ
This story is by no means over. There are more chapters to come — some that are being written as we speak. New locations in Raleigh and beyond are in the works.
“We continue to have growth aspirations because we believe our work is just beginning,” said Christopher.
Jason added, “We feel like what we’re doing is the future of work. What we’re offering is the future of our economy and society. And our ability to continue to deliver that value is really important to us.”
— Written by David Larson: David runs First Page Creative, a writing service specializing in marketing and journalism that operates out of HQ Raleigh. Visit him at firstpagecreative.com or call 919-302-0263 to learn more.