DURHAM, N.C.–Steve Case stood there practicing his pitch. His moment under the lights was minutes away, and he wanted to go through it a couple more times, making sure he had the direction and the delivery just right.
It was difficult not to see the irony.
Hours earlier, eight entrepreneurs were given the opportunity to present their start-ups to Case, one of the founders of America Online and now one of the country’s most renowned tech investors, on stage in front of a packed house at the historic Carolina Theater in Durham, N.C. It was the second of five such events comprising Case’s latest Rise of the Rest tour, during which his team is traveling across the Southeast to celebrate under-the-radar entrepreneurship hubs by holding pitch contests and awarding $100,000 to one young company in each city.
It’s Case’s third start-up tour in the past year, during which he has seen and critiqued more than 100 pitches. He has seen countless more during his many years as an investor. So why was he now nervous about his offering?
Because this one had nothing to do with a business plan, market penetration or expected returns on investment. Case was standing in the bullpen at the Durham Bulls ballpark, honing his toss before throwing out the ceremonial first pitch at the team’s game on Tuesday night.
He wound up lobbing one right over the plate, a fitting end to a day of pitches.
For the eight local entrepreneurs, who had been whittled down from a larger pool of applicants, it was a chance to talk up their ideas to not only to one of the most closely followed start-up backers, but also to local and national media and to other investors in the audience.
Ultimately, it was ArchiveSocial — which provides software to help state and local governments store and manage social media data — that earned a $100,000 investment from Case and his Washington-based investment firm, Revolution Ventures.
During the deliberations in the judge’s room backstage, Case pointed out that, while some of the previous competitions have resulted in a near-unanimous winner, there were votes for four or five of the presenters in Durham. “I think it’s interesting how evenly spread it was, and that bodes well for start-ups here,” Case remarked before uncapping his Sharpie and signing an oversized check to ArchiveSocial.
On stage after the announcement and at a reception following the competition, there was little sense from the other seven presenters that they had “lost.” Quite the opposite, really. One who pitched his health care I.T. company was chatting about the nuances of his software with a local physician, who had moments earlier been asking about the ins and outs of angel investing. Another presenter with a social-media company was approached by entrepreneurs and investors in that same field.
So while a six-figure check would have been nice, the benefits of simply pitching to such a large and diverse crowd — new connections, constructive feedback, investor interest — were on full display.
Meanwhile, for Durham and its signature start-up campus, called American Underground, this was a chance to show off their town — and really the North Carolina’s entire Triangle region (including Raleigh and Chapel Hill) — as one of the country’s up-and-coming destinations for entrepreneurs. Throughout the day, local tech leaders weren’t shy about touting some of the city’s recent successes to Case and anyone else who would listen.
“There have been so many great things happening here,” Adam Klein, American Underground’s chief strategist, told the crowd before Case took the stage. “In the past two years, we have seen a billion dollars worth of exits from the acquisition of six companies here in Durham.” Others repeated that same statistic multiple times over the next few hours.
It was a pitch intended for more ears than just Case’s. Moments before the festivities began, a standard announcement was made throughout the theater asking those in attendance not to take photos or videos. “Please, please ignore that,” Klein said. “Tweet, Facebook, Instagram, Periscope, whatever you’re going to do.” In other words, please spread the word.
Earlier, Klein and his staff shepherded Case around to meet with dozens of the start-ups housed at their (yes, mostly underground) co-working space. In large part, it was meant to further illustrate to Case — who previously served on President Obama’s economic council — that the type of companies one might expect to see in the Bay Area in California or in the lower half of Manhattan are sprouting in smaller cities like Durham.
This latest tour started in Richmond on Monday, continued to Charleston on Wednesday, and will wrap up with pitch competitions in Atlanta and New Orleans. Previous roadshows have taken Case and company to places like Detroit, Kansas City, Nashville and Cincinnati. So far, they have put about 3,000 miles on their bright blue Rise of the Rest bus.
“I have been here a bunch of times, and it’s always impressive to see the momentum that’s building,” Case said. He has previously invested in three Durham companies; one that provides big data visualization tools, another that provides marketing and customer retention software, and a third that makes health-focused energy drinks.
The state’s governor even got in on the pitches. Gov. Pat McCrory (R) met with Case and several of the North Carolina’s leading business executives at the governor’s mansion in Raleigh to start the day, where he touted the state as one of the nation’s leaders in innovation and entrepreneurship. McCrory pointed out that America was once a start-up itself, and North Carolina was one of its founding members.
And for Case, his lob at the end of the night wasn’t his most important pitch of the day.
His message throughout the afternoon — and really over the past year — has been that America needs a start-up scene that isn’t relegated to three or four cities on the coasts. It needs investors and policymakers to look beyond New York and Silicon Valley for innovation, and to support big ideas and new ventures in cities across the country.
“If we want to remain the most entrepreneurial nation in the world, we have to level the playing field,” Case told the crowd in Durham. “You’re here, so you know what’s happening. One of the main reasons we’re here is to help tell that story to the rest of the country.”