A Renovated Boylan Heights Home Nurtures Young Entrepreneurs
by Jessie Ammons
photographs by Justin Cook
It can pay off to live at work. Especially when work is easy to live in and work in, with corkboard walls, a kitchen with chalkboard columns (sometimes the best ideas come while cooking), and a sliding barn-door-style whiteboard.
This is ThinkHouse, a renovated Boylan Heights home where six hopeful entrepreneurs spend a year intensely focusing on their ventures. “If I’m going to live it and breathe it, I might as well do it with other people who have the same mindset as I do,” says Sophia Hyder, 32, who lived in the house from August 2014 until this past spring. “You’re in it, and once you’re in it, you’re in it full-time, so why not immerse yourself?”
Total immersion is exactly what Jason Widen, one of the masterminds behind ThinkHouse, hopes to provide. Now a seasoned entrepreneur himself, he remembers his early days. “Anyone starting their own business feels alone, like you’re on an island,” he says. “There’s a lot of insecurity that goes on in the early twenties. I remember wondering, ‘Am I qualified?’ ‘Do I truly have the experience?’” Mentors, while helpful, are often wrapped up in their own daily grinds. Widen credits the camaraderie with then-girlfriend and now-wife Heather McDougall with keeping him going. At the time, they were both working on start-ups. “A lot of this is daunting,” Widen says, “so having that peer-to-peer support and that peer-to-peer interaction is crucial.”
When Widen and McDougall relocated to Raleigh – she runs an entrepreneurial study abroad program called Leadership
exCHANGE and he is the executive director of HQ Raleigh – he saw a way to impact the city’s burgeoning start-up culture by providing that integral formative camaraderie. Together with HQ teammates Christopher Gergen, Jesse Lipson, and Brooks Bell, he developed a “living and learning community for postgraduate entrepreneurs. In essence, it’s taking a gap year to live in a house with your peers; be connected to a community like HQ Raleigh; be partnered with mentors; and be given resources, tools, and a platform to help you scale your business.”
Four months ago, in August, the third class of ThinkHouse fellows moved in, prepared for a nine-month-long gap-year-meets-staycation. Among the group is Jared Childs, a recent N.C. State grad who turned down a full-time digital marketing job offer to focus on a men’s retail and craft beer shop concept. He and business partner Grant Do were both drawn to ThinkHouse by the opportunity to spend more than nights and weekends developing their passion project. “The idea of living in a place where everyone is facing the same challenges is pretty great,” Childs says. “You’re not alone in here.”
Indeed, the notion of plugging into an intentional living community overshadows the networking and professional development for most ThinkHouse residents and graduates. Hyder, at 32, was older than most of her housemates. She moved in with both a graduate degree and years in the workforce under her belt. And though she thought she was past the “roommate phase” of her life, these aren’t just any roommates. She was eager for their input.
Working on an ethical fashion label had left her at a loss when it came time to find support in the Triangle business community, so she’d sold her house and prepared to move back home: “I thought California had everything I wanted in terms of finding that.” Then she heard about ThinkHouse, and jumped at the chance to have actual built-in support. “I was looking for an entrepreneurial community, and I found it here,” she says. The common denominator of working on a startup eliminated any differences in age or professional experience.
For many of ThinkHouse’s young residents, living with like-minded people – rather than networking in a more traditional sense – creates unscripted, fruitful moments. “If you come home and you’re sitting there late at night trying to work through something, having somebody else come up and really talk you through it or give you suggestions can propel you, or save you potentially two more hours of time,” says program co-director Liz Tracy. “It can give you that insight that you were looking for.”
Ultimately, the HQ team wants to replicate the ThinkHouse concept in a few regional locations. In the meantime, they’ve developed a ThinkHouse-U model for college campuses, beginning with UNC-Greensboro and Elon. The idea is to create a “pipeline of talent” for ThinkHouse, says Widen, and to get potential entrepreneurs rooted in a supportive community as early as possible.
They believe ThinkHouse is an investment in Raleigh’s future, too, as most of the residents and graduates remain in touch and stay local. They’ve become the youngest layer of the start-up scene, in part because ThinkHouse helps break down some of the psychological barriers to entry.
“Typically, in this culture, the entrepreneurial community has a lot of facades,” says Sean Maroni, a 23-year-old ThinkHouse graduate who lived in the house as a college student. “We’re always ‘crushing it,’ our metrics are ‘insane,’ we have a huge ‘revenue run rate;’ whatever it takes to convince people to give you money or work for you. There’s this race that people get caught up in. What I found was, being able to actually have real conversations with people in the same situation was a game-changer. We’re trying to start a really ambitious thing, independent of the industry you’re trying to get into. You can learn a lot.”
Maroni still lives in Boylan Heights and runs a company that manufactures and runs BetaBox mobile prototyping labs. It’s stories like his that “make Raleigh so cool,” Childs says. The city is cultivating its own distinct start-up culture, one that’s not quite so caught up in the race, which is what’s convincing people like Hyder to stay. “It’s a pay-it-forward mentality here.”