This post is my last official act as Executive Director of Rocket Hatch. After three intense and wonderful years at the helm, I feel that it is time for me to step down and let others lead. I stepped into the role because –after more than two decades in tech, I found myself in a unique position that allowed me to devote time to nurture a community for people like me. It was a personal challenge because as an immigrant my initial tendency was to leave for greener pastures in search of the change I was looking for; instead, I chose to “be the change I wanted to see” in Huntsville. I stayed much longer than I expected in this philanthropic hiatus. I have learned much during this time, and I feel inspired by the progress that we have collectively made as a startup community.
In these three years, we have seen a significant increase in the quantity and diversity of entrepreneurial activity in town. The term “entrepreneur” has gained visibility and importance, and become a part of the local vernacular. Most importantly, our budding startup community has grown as measured by the quantity, quality, and diversity of its members. This does not mean that the job is done, much can still be accomplished, but there is significant momentum and many great leaders are emerging and doing amazing work.
As was always our goal, my wife Ana and I are returning to the for-profit world, working within the startup community that has emerged in our metro area. We are excited about this next phase in our life and we are looking forward to applying the lessons we’ve learned helping other entrepreneurs and startups and connecting with other startup ecosystem builders across the US. I am pleased to announce, that I have partnered with Brandon Kruse in HuntsvilleWest coworking where I am now Executive Director. Ana, who is also stepping down from her role as Operations Director at Rocket Hatch, is now working as part of the Discount Divas team. We are also starting a new venture that we very excited about and that we will be announcing soon.
During the past month, we have had a chance to reflect on all that was accomplished in the past three years and thought it would be interesting to share the evolution of our ecosystem from our vantage point and the role Rocket Hatch played in promoting this change.
THEN AND NOW
Back when we started Rocket Hatch –and inspired by the work of Sheldon Grizzle in Chattanooga, we created a baseline map of the ecosystem as of January 2014:
Looking at the January 2017 version, we can see that much has changed, and we are proud to see the collective progress that has been made and the role, if modest, we have had in it as Rocket Hatch. We pioneered big entrepreneur-focused events and helped put the spotlight on entrepreneurs with local and regional media. We also brought entrepreneurial education programs based on lean-startup frameworks, peer-to-peer support and accountability cohorts, and created neutral platforms where entrepreneurs and investors could get to know each other and develop lasting relationships. Many other players have joined the effort, and incumbents saw an opportunity to retool, diversify, and re-energize their programs.
A COMMUNITY CATALYST
Our premise was that it all ends and starts with the community. Our strategy was to create a sustainable movement –and that required us to focus our efforts on cultural change and values as well as education and mentorship. Our values required us to be inclusive, lean, and smart.
During my tenure as Executive Director of Rocket Hatch, we tried to follow these principles, extending an open invitation to all: Educators, high-school students, gen-Xers, millennials, boomers, stay-at-home spouses, engineers, artists, scientists, makers, small business owners, tech entrepreneurs, minorities, and immigrants.
We partnered with many organizations, too many to mention, both locally and regionally. We understood that building a community relies on the efforts of many. We celebrated and supported all inclusive efforts to the extent we could, given our limited resources.
We bootstrapped, so we had to be lean. We focused on maximizing impact, operating virtually, utilizing existing infrastructure, and spending our resources in activities that created lasting value: Engagement, Connection, Learning, Launching, and Accelerating.
It still amazes us to think all we accomplished as a bootstrapped startup non-profit, with a working board and many other loyal volunteers who gave generously of their time and talent and who made our programs not only possible but especially unique. This was a significant effort that involved thousands of hours and that resulted in hundreds of thousands of dollars invested in the local economy and our alumni.
Below is a breakdown of our sources of revenue during these initial three years. We know the impact we made dwarfed the cash we raised: in investment and grants alone, our alumni received well over half a million dollars during the past three years not to mention generated income for their founders, jobs, and added hard to quantify, yet–significant value: products, services, and culture to our local economy.
Below are some of the sponsors that helped us fund programs and events. They contributed sometimes with cash but also providing us with space, free or heavily discounted services, but most importantly by endorsing our efforts through their involvement.
We reached out to, and engaged with, a diverse community. Our events, always inclusive, brought together an eclectic group of people and promoted connections that in many cases would not have happened in any other setting. We were also lucky to engage and bring key players from surrounding startup communities. Our ecosystem is now connected to the emerging Southeast innovation economy which is reflected in the many friendships, partnerships, and projects that have emerged, and that now cross city, county, and state lines.
Our programs brought together thousands of people and engaged hundreds of volunteers and alumni. We know that the true legacy of our work lies within those people that got inspired, engaged, and connected at our events and workshops.
It was our privilege to work with many driven and inspiring entrepreneurs as they were building their ventures. We are sure we will continue to hear from them as they move forward on their entrepreneurial journey. Below there is just a small sampling:
While Rocket Hatch and community building will always have a soft spot in our hearts, both Ana and I will take a leave of absence from the Rocket Hatch board in order to focus fully on our new ventures. Matt Jones has stepped in as interim Executive Director, and with the Rocket Hatch board, will be taking some time to chart the roadmap for the organization moving forward. We are now at a very different stage in the evolution of our entrepreneurial ecosystem, and the role that the Rocket Hatch will play in its development needs to respond to this new reality. We look forward to this new chapter at Rocket Hatch and to supporting the resulting efforts as time permits at our new roles. Keep hatching!