Rediscovering Durham's Startup Scene 10 Years Later

A Night at Tech Jobs Under the Big Top

BY ANDREA FJELD@andreafjeld4.22.13

Filed Under: NEWS: Startups

Durham was awful in 2003.

As an unpopular 18-year-old nerd, I was somewhat biased and hell-bent on getting out. Downtown was a place of abandoned brick buildings where people didn't want to go — especially after dark. I only had two reasons: the Regulator Bookstore on Ninth Street and weekly piano lessons.

After high school, I spent four years in Chicago and six in New York. I interned at a national magazine and then transitioned into the ad world. I worked 50 hours a week, commuted an hour to the office, and barely had money for food. I loved it.

I find myself back in the South 10 years later. Other than the architecture, Durham is unrecognizable. Bars, restaurants, and music venues occupy the once-shuttered buildings. Hip 20- and 30-year-olds saunter along the sidewalks, popping into cafés and vintage stores. A trip downtown almost makes me feel like I'm back in Brooklyn. But, more important to job-seeking 20-somethings is the thriving start-up community. Cutting-edge companies are sprouting up and flourishing in Durham and the greater Triangle area.

Take Thursday night. The fifth Tech Jobs Under the Big Top brought 13 local start-ups to American Tobacco to have a beer and tell hundreds of job seekers a little more about themselves. From small, young start-ups like Adzerk to more established companies like ChannelAdvisor, each had a table and three minutes on stage to present what they do. Afterward, they met with the eager attendees, handing out business cards and taking résumés.

I got to the venue early. The event staff encouraged me to take advantage of this time, when I had the presenters' uninterrupted attention. Instead, I took it as an opportunity to get a beer and stand awkwardly in the middle of the room. I hate networking events. I hate trying to sell myself. This is especially ironic, because I work in marketing.

The presentations started. An excited college-aged kid to my right furiously took notes. He wore a crisp collared blue shirt and had a furrow in his brow. He laughed at the techie jokes that flew over my head. I felt like an outsider: a lit nerd among tech geeks. Had subject line best practices, social media marketing, SEO, or, hell, even the importance of the serial comma, been discussed, I would have fit right in. But “sorry, we're only hiring engineers” was the line I heard most throughout the evening.

I still have hope. As Peter Mollins, KnowledgeTree's VP of marketing, said, they're looking for “smart people, writers.” So I distributed my résumé and took a few business cards with a promise to email.

I've spent the better part of the past few days carefully going through their websites, looking for insights and connections — talking points for the messages I'll draft when my research is done. I don't know what they'll lead to, but I remain optimistic. Because what I do know is that writers, lit nerds, and ad folks have a lot to offer these companies. They're interested, but not all of them can afford us. Yet.

Companies We Mentioned In This Post


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