Durham's Kickstarter Kids

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While the industrial-chic American Tobacco Campus seems like a natural magnet for entrepreneurs, the newest and scrappiest companies in town make their home a few blocks away on the second floor of the Durham Chamber of Commerce. The Bull City Startup Stampede program provides sixty days of support for a select group of entrepreneurs, with the goal of establishing and retaining new businesses in the city center.

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During the super-charged incubation period, Stampede members have access to the Chamber's spare office space and the amenities that come with it, as well as pro bono legal, financial and business advising. The current Stampede crew reflects a wide array of innovation categories-transportation, banking, personal health, literacy, retail-and an equally varied list of early funding sources, including two successful Kickstarter campaigns. 

The first person we met on entering the makeshift coworking space was Michael Faber, co-founder of Bound Custom Journals. Michael and his business partner, Joel, raised $17,140 on Kickstarter this summer (far exceeding their $10,000 goal) and now they're sprinting toward launch, spurred on by their promise to send a finished product to each of their backers. Why this journal, you may wonder, instead of a Moleskine or Field Notes or plain old Mead composition book? Bound Custom follows a modular, print-on-demand format: customers build their own collection of pages online according to their needs. For example, you might want a city map, fifty day-planner pages, thirty blank sketchbook pages, and twenty with an address book template. Soon tech developers will be able to order pages with an actual-size line drawing of an iPhone for concepting app interfaces, and illustrators will be able to get blank T-shirt and hoodie images for drafting Threadless designs. The pages are bound and shipped when an order comes through. Design aficionados, take note.

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The other Kickstarter businessman in the room launched his company somewhat by accident. Matt Tomasulo, an urban planning graduate student at UNC Chapel Hill, was trying to explain urban infill development to his parents, and found he needed a visual aid. Using public spatial data, he pulled maps that showed all of the building footprints across the city. It was an effective means of showing his parents the distribution of unused urban space, and, he realized, the maps made a pretty nice piece of art. By gently abstracting the image, he created something T-shirt worthy, and sold a few of his DIY designs at a local craft fair. To his surprise, a blogger on the other coast covered his work on Thrillist Seattle, and he was instantly inundated with more orders than he could fill. So he took a step back, raised $36,176 on Kickstarter ($13,000 was the goal) and set out to build a proper business. Now he's prototyping tees, canvas bags and wall art under the label City Fabric. Thankfully, grad school is no longer a full-time gig.

We met one last entrepreneur before leaving, but she wasn't a member of Startup Stampede. She was delivering donuts. Lindsay Moriarty came over from the new incubator in town, Cookery, which is dedicated to getting food startups off the ground. Lindsay started Monuts after struggling to find employment, despite having two masters degrees on her resume. Now her business card reads "Master Master Donuteer," and she delivers donuts on a bright yellow tricycle, which her boyfriend fitted out with a food-safe cargo cabinet. Entrepreneurship seems to suit her just fine, and her donuts speak for themselves. Alexis tried to take only half of one, but in the end he had to eat the whole thing.

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Sarah Rich is the editor of Smithsonian's Design Decoded blog, co-founder of Longshot Magazine and the Foodprint Project, and a former senior editor at Dwell. Her most recent book, Urban Farms, was published in June 2012. 

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