#StartupsEverywhere Profile: Zack Miller, Founder of Hatch (Hampton Roads, VA)
This profile is part of #StartupsEverywhere, an ongoing series highlighting startup leaders in ecosystems across the country. This interview has been edited for length, content, and clarity.
What’s your role in the Hampton Roads startup ecosystem?
I see myself as startup ambassador, cheerleader, enthusiast, and educator for anyone who is looking to build and grow their business in the Hampton Roads region. I do this through two roles: first, as the founder of Hatch, where we help businesses grow using our 1000 Four platform, and the second, as the host of Hampton Roads Business Weekly, a weekly business show on ABC.
The Hampton Roads region is pretty big, in terms of both geography and population, right?
Yes — Hampton Roads is an area that covers the southeastern portion of Virginia. It is three hours south of Washington, DC and three hours northeast of Raleigh-Durham, NC. It encompasses several cities such as, Norfolk, Virginia Beach, Williamsburg, and Newport News.
Can you tell us more about what Hatch does?
A few years back, I was working to grow a business but didn’t know where to turn for educational programming, mentorship, or any of the other resources that are helpful when starting a company. After talking with a number of other entrepreneurs who were experiencing similar challenges in the Hampton Roads region, I decided to start Hatch.
Hatch, which is our accelerator in Norfolk, exists to empower entrepreneurs. We know it’s really tough to find the right answers when building your business, especially in a younger startup ecosystem without the institutionalized resources of a city like San Francisco or New York. Entrepreneurs here in southeast Virginia often face challenges that their friends, families, and other community members don’t have the expertise to help them with. Hatch steps in to provide curated educational resources from experienced business owners who have been in the same position. We do the vast majority of this through our platform, 1000 Four.
Can you elaborate on how 1000 Four is useful for entrepreneurs?
The challenges that entrepreneurs struggle with don't have simple answers. 1000 Four gives them a place to find solutions based on the real-life experiences of other business owners who have been in their shoes. It opens the door to a huge community with a “library” of skills and experiences—not textbooks or out of touch professors. These people have either been there and done that, and can provide real life experiences to help guide you. Or, they're at the same point as you and facing the same obstacles.
In terms of functionality, it's like Netflix, but for business. So instead of TV shows and movies, there are webinars, workshops, and online courses. The goal is to teach anyone how to run a business.
What’s the most exciting thing that has happened in your ecosystem in the past year?
We’ve had a few Internet of Things (IoT) companies that have really started to hit some serious strides in sales: Netarus, SwimNerd, IV Watch, and Gray8. We’ve also seen some established companies in the area embracing the recent wave of innovation and change. Dominion Enterprise’s sale of their marine division is a perfect example of that, as the entire company has evolved from paper advertising brochures to online and mobile. For a company with over 3,000 employees to go through such a large-scale transformation, innovation was critical to success.
What is the biggest challenge you face in your ecosystem?
Brain drain, especially with respect to our entrepreneurial talent. Since most entrepreneurs here are young, we find ourselves showing those with talent and interest a new career path that leads them to larger cities and companies. Even when we do get some companies with growth potential, there’s often a critical input that they can’t find locally. Sometimes that’s capital, but sometimes it’s other types of aid. We’ve been working very hard to ensure that anything a growing company needs is available to them here in Hampton Roads.
An additional challenge that we’re facing is a lack of regional cooperation. Instead of all of the major players, both private and public, getting on board with one action plan, each attempts to create its own solution. We’re much stronger together and we struggle to remind local groups of that.
What are the most unique features of your startup community?
The strong presence of the military here has proven to have a unique impact in Hampton Roads. Veteran-owned businesses, such as Arcphor, are very common and often out-perform their competitors. The Port of Virginia has also fostered new opportunities for several logistics software companies. Together the military and port represent such a large chunk of our economy that startups have actually become crucial to our regional diversification and economic growth.
Are there specific public policies that have enabled innovation or startup growth in your ecosystem?
Senate Bill 604, which passed in 2012, made it legal for breweries to engage in direct-to-consumer retail sales and offer tastings of their beer onsite. This resulted in a statewide boom in craft breweries. By the end of this year we’ll have over 30 in Hampton Roads. Norfolk is particularly well known for it’s quality water, which has also attracted brewers. Now we’re also watching for complementary companies to pop up.
Have you had interactions with local or national policymakers?
I sit on Governor McAuliffe's Council for Youth Entrepreneurship, where I have been working hard to make sure entrepreneurship is well promoted among younger people. While the intentions of everyone involved are great, I have found it to be difficult at times for leaders to understand how to attract and grow startups if they’ve never started a business themselves. The leaders directing policy are often far removed from the on-the-ground action of business growth in the community. Councils, like the one I serve on, are critical because they facilitate engagement between elected officials and those who are truly in the trenches on building and growing ecosystems.
What is your goal for the next year? The next 5 years?
Right now we’re focused on the continued expansion of our education and community platform, 1000 Four. We also are striving to make sure that entrepreneurs and small business owners—no matter their industry growth potential—have the resources they need to survive. We are also working with cities, universities, and other spaces outside of our region to guide them through the process of fostering a real ecosystem. Our ultimate goal is to help 10,000 business, as well as 1,000 cities, incubators, or universities.
What are some startups to watch coming out of the Hampton Roads area?