Hoopers Island – If you’ve seen it on the road, or parked in a company lot, you’ve probably asked yourself, ‘What’s up with the big yellow bus?’ And especially, you may ask, what does StartUp Maryland mean?
We caught up with StartUp Maryland co-founder Mike Binko at a party hosted by Hoopers Island Oyster Aquaculture Co., and asked him straight out what was going on.
“StartUp Maryland is a loose federation of volunteer entrepreneurs,” Binko told us. “We try to help other entrepreneurs.”
In a nutshell, StartUp Maryland works through a variety of means to connect entrepreneurs with a great idea to companies and individuals who may be able to help the entrepreneur to realize their dreams. That help could come as mentoring, counseling, connection with investors, practically anything. Basically, StartUp Maryland tries to help anyone with a seriously good idea transform that idea into a real business.
“We launched StartUp Maryland as part of a national group called StartUp America, which was founded by Steve Case, who was previously the CEO of AOL. He wanted to help grow entrepreneur communities in all their forms around the country. He wanted entrepreneurs helping other entrepreneurs,” Binko told us.
“I knew Steve from his AOL days, because I worked with accompany called PSINet in the early days of the internet. So when I saw Steve putting his personal effort behind that, I reached out and told him I really like this idea of entrepreneur community building, I wanted to help. His idea was to start doing regional initiatives, and I said I was moving back to Maryland from Virginia. So he asked if I wanted to do something in Maryland, and I said ‘Great!’
“So we put a group together as an organizing board, and we realized that this agenda of entrepreneurs helping other entrepreneurs was really needed. We’ve got great resources in Maryland, with diverse industries. Our workforce is great, available and readily applicable…but the one thing we learned is that the entrepreneurs don’t talk to each other, they don’t talk much about growing a business. They’re just nose-down doing it.
“So what we focus on is entrepreneurs helping each other understand what it means to be an entrepreneur, and then helping them to avoid pitfalls. So whether it’s how do you fund your company, what are the options if you’re doing a software company, or oyster aquaculture? How do you protect your intellectual property—the legal side of that and the go to market side of that? How do you roadmap to an exit? Nobody talks about how do you get acquired by a big company, or how do you pass a successful company to your family? Nobody talks about that unless you’re paying $400 an hour for a consultant or an attorney.
“So we basically said that’s where we’re going to focus our attention. We want to own the relationship with the entrepreneurs as their peers. And as we looked around Maryland, no one else was doing that. I mean you have Chambers (of Commerce), and business bureaus and economic development agencies, but we really wanted it to be a grassroots community engagement. And those of us who have built multiple companies who were willing to be mentors to others, that’s what we focus on.
“When we launched StartUp Maryland, we wondered how are we going to do this? We hit on the idea of doing a bus tour. I was hosting a cable-access TV show called The Upstart Show. It was a shark tank without money. So the entrepreneurs would come on and pitch to me and another guest who would comment on their opportunity and ask them some questions. So I thought, why don’t we put a video studio on the back of the bus and let people come in and tell their story in their words, and their passion will come through. And we’ll take it across the state.
“In 2012 we did the first tour, and we thought we’d get maybe 45 or 50 companies to come do it. By the time we were done just on the Eastern Shore, we had 50 videos in the bag. And when we were done with the tour (across the whole state)—this was the month of September—we had 175 videos. The first year.
“We currently have 825 entrepreneurs who have gotten involved with the movement. So in StartUp America, we’re the number one state in the U.S.”
When we caught up with the StartUp Maryland bus, they were on their third annual tour. Their mission is to go around and get the stories, videotape the new entrepreneurs, and celebrate their accomplishments.
“Like Johnny and Ricky of Hoopers Island Oyster Aquaculture Co. When we met them the first time it was Johnny walking up to Cambridge with a box of oysters saying, ‘I’m going to revitalize the oyster fishery in the mid bay.’ For StartUp Maryland, there’s nothing more “Maryland” than an entrepreneur trying to grow an oyster company.
“So we said to Johnny, ‘Whatever we can do to help.’ and he said, ‘We need some awareness.’ In the end, Johnny was one of the finalists. Of all the videos we judged in the competition, an independent panel reviews all the videos and then chooses those that represent the highest potential new companies in Maryland. Hoopers Island Aquaculture was one of them the first year.
“So after our tour is done, we have the investors and our panel review every video and pick the eight best. Those eight appear at the Entrepreneur Expo in November. Johnny was just out of the gate, he hadn’t gotten his facility set up, but we invited him to pitch at the entrepreneur expo and he got a lot of attention.”
The end result of that one instance is the growth and success of Hoopers Island Oyster Aquaculture Co., now in their third year. StartUp Maryland works every day to push forward all the good ideas, like Hoopers Island Oyster.
“We are a feeder program,” Binko tells us. “We go out and find the entrepreneurs and bring them in where the investors can look at them, and make heads or tails of their opportunity.”
And from there, the sky is the limit. Or in the case of Johnny Shockley of Hoopers Island Oyster Aquaculture Company, the opportunity is just as deep and bright blue as the Chesapeake Bay.