One of the great joys of being an entrepreneur is becoming immersed in all of the value creation going on all around you. At first you see it on your industry, in my case shopper media. Then you begin to see all the innovation going on around you. From the killer restauranteur trying out of the box concepts aimed at business leaders to the Realtor using LinkedIn to connect to business oriented buyers. Innovation sparks innovation cycles as more and more people are touched by the waves to putting the puzzle pieces together differently.
This past week, Shannon and I combined a business trip into a mini-vacation and set out to explore the great state to the north of us for a couple days. Since our #RonRroadtrip team preparing for a massive 5015 mile odyssey, I thought this could be a good opportunity for a test run. We used the roadtrippers.com platform to plan our trip and to discover sites, eats and food along the way. What we discovered was an epiphany in American entrepreneurial spirit. Starting from our home in Raleigh, one of the best places in the country to start a business, we wound our way through the Virginia countryside.
Education and Entrepreneurship
Our first stop was the Booker T. Washington Monument near Hale’s Ford, VA. Born a slave and freed after the civil war, Washington spent his life seeking to create opportunities for black people through education and entrepreneurship, an idea he advanced in the Atlanta Compromise. Far, far from equality promised by the constitution, the unwritten agreement funded educational charities and vocational training along with due process for blacks. The is little doubt that Mr. Washington recognized that economic opportunity provided by value creation would create much greater impact for future generations politically. We hadn’t expected to find an entrepreneurship story and yet here was a story of how one person inspired others to create their own path and opportunities.
Junctions for Trade
The day ended in Roanoke at the Hotel Roanoke, built in 1882 by the Norfolk Western Railway. The town of Roanoke (then known at Big Lick), was transformed in to a hub of v business creation when railroad entrepreneur Fredrick Kimball decided to create a junction in the town and build the hotel as a traffic point for his company’s customers. The decision transformed Roanoke into a center of manufacturing, distribution and mercantilism that continues to this day. As with all centers of innovation, relationships become the core and connection points like the Hotel Roanoke provide the hubs for ideas to incubate and spread.
Pathways To Commerce
The next day we traveled along the Blue Ridge Parkway north of Roanoke for a couple hours en route to Flint Hill, VA. The parkway itself was an entrepreneurial experiment partially funded by the New Deal. By putting people to work and also creating a sense of wanderlust for many. Countless businesses and communities benefitted from this investment and grew enterprises fed by the most popular attraction in the National Park system (despite not being a national park). Our travels on the parkway were a powerful reminder of infrastructure’s role in fostering innovation and development, especially as a pathway for business formation. We stopped along one of the over 100 crossings of the Appalachian Trail, another phenomenon of connectivity and commerce.
Time to eat!
I personally can’t go on a road trip for long without BBQ (and why would you?). We had added some potential lunch spots to our roadtripper’s app and by accident discovered a new restaurant, JJ’s Meat Shak. Whoa, what a complete smoked meat tour de force. JJ’s has a serious commitment to the bbq arts. Like many great restaurant startups, JJ’s started as a food truck in 2011 and has expanded into a full-blown restaurant and catering operation. Like Apple, a great product goes a long way to build a great business. Whenever we’ve built our businesses we did so on a simple principle, create a value that dwarfs other options. JJ’s dwarf’s other options and we plan to make up reasons to be in Buena Vista real soon.
Thanks to some heavy rain and a few wrecks on Interstate 81, we ended up arriving in Flint Hill in the smack of the dinner rush at Flint Hill Public House. Unexpectedly, a large group of women had shown up for dinner and the Inn and Restaurant were overwhelmed. We just needed a shower and a glass of wine after a long drive and the manager Lorraine graciously took care of us in the middle of all the crush and we settled ourselves in the bar to enjoy a couple glasses. The art packed Inn was amazing and quite a model for the modern B&B. We took our glasses and strolled through the working garden which supplies the restaurant with all manner of fresh faire. Quite simply, we love this joint!
We had snacked on amazing road food along the way (gummy worms, dark chocolate) so a full dinner was out and we decided to check out the British Pub (Griffin Tavern) a couple doors down. The sunset lingered until almost 9pm and seemed to reflect the business beauty of both places. The Union Jack juxtaposed on the Harley Davidson and Triumph flags spoke volumes about the character of the tavern and the way it flexed to appeal to likely locals and sojourners alike. We snacked and returned to the Public House where the staff shared a glass with us before we retired for the evening. Lodging and restaurants are tough businesses and take a tremendous amount of relationship understanding. Flint Hill appears to be in great hands.
Greatness Takes Struggle
The following morning we traveled to Marshall to meet our business partners for breakfast before our meeting with the team at RdV Vineyards. What followed was simply an amazing lesson on how to build a great business. Wineries are no easy undertaking, by a long stretch and for a great winery, multiply by 1000. The business is tough, crowded and driven by a ton of factors that are out of control of the principals like weather and the quixotic wine ratings system. Again, the core entrepreneurial DNA is looking at a market and seeing the inevitable holes. To begin its business, RdV literally drilled holes in order to take core samples. Great wines, like many great companies come from a struggle.
Finally, we turned our trajectory back toward North Carolina with one last stop. Years ago I was fortunate enough to work at a company called PictureVision that changed the trajectory of digital photography. It was the backbone of AOL’s You’ve Got Picture Service and Kodak PhotoNet. At PictureVision I worked with a dynamic businessman named Jeff Mitchell. Jeff had a passion for changing photography as people knew it as did the entire team. For the past nine years, Jeff and his wife have built The Culpeper Cheese Company into a thriving part of the Culpeper community through their combined passions for great cheese and relationships.
I believe The Culpeper Cheese Company is the future of all retail which is deeply rooted in experiences. Jeff and his staff have created an environment to connect with friends and family over great cheese, beer, wine, chocolate and more. As with most products, you could find them elsewhere (maybe less so with the carefully curated store selection) but not with the personal education, attention and relaxing environment offered by his shop. Retail of the future will either be high-touch, experiential goods or products will simply show up when and where you need them without much shopping friction. Everything in the middle will suffer a slow, margin withering death as most products become irrelevant because there is no need to think about them except when they are being immediately consumed.
We didn’t set out on an entrepreneurial discovery trip but that’s where we ended up. The great thing about great entrepreneurs is that they teach, inspire and motivate others to action. Times of great change lead to massive opportunities for folks willing to look as existing markets where dollars are rapidly flowing in new directions and build new models to capture some of the flow. Media has already seen great changes but billions are still spent using old channels and tactics in new channels. Push messaging is dead and yet most media is still implemented with a push mentality. As we move towards the creation of our next company in the shopper media disruption space, these experiences are so helpful in shaping our vision and sparking our drive.
Thanks Virginia business builders!