Though to some, the self-described “cultural swagger” of the Richmond of today seems far removed from its conservative, historical roots, it may be that the next five years will bring even more change than the last five have. That is, if investment and startup-scene royalty Larkin Garbee and Todd Nuckols have anything to do with it.
The changes currently happening in Virginia’s capital are huge: the iconic Richmond farmer’s market is getting some growing room, as the street next door becomes permanently shut down and transitioned into a pedestrian mall not too different from Charlottesville’s. Two blocks from there, an old train station will be renovated into a beautiful indoor events venue and shopping center with new shops and locally owned stores. And with several iconic startup organizations like New Richmond Ventures, 804RVA, and Lighthouse Labs setting a firm commercial backbone in the city, it’s hoped that more entrepreneurs and business owners will continue to flock to the eclectic charm and community that Richmond offers. (The fact that industry giant CarMax recently relocated their headquarters downtown seems like a good indication of the growth that Garbee predicts will only flourish in the coming years.)
The way Garbee describes it, her involvement with Richmond’s entrepreneurship scene begins with a man named Todd Nuckols “showing up on [her] doorstep and talking about acceleration.” After his own venture failed, Nuckols learned the importance of accelerator labs as a support network for entrepreneurs. Garbee started her own co-working space, 804RVA, the year before, and was looking for a way to get even more ingrained into a community of technologists after working in the “brick and mortar” side of business ownership for years. The two seasoned businesspeople were eager to help others learn from the trials and tribulations of their own ventures.
After hosting Richmond’s first startup weekend, the two created a non-funded trial run of their accelerator concept. Without funding, the program became about creating community, helping to set company purpose, and believing in the ideas of the innovators coming in their door. From that program, the companies collectively received a little over $1 million for their ventures. “The fact that the founders of those companies were moonlighting on these passion projects and keeping their day jobs and were still able to raise that kind of money was the ultimate proof of concept,” Garbee reflects. The traction was enough to run their first funded program, giving five companies $25,000 each and eventually creating their next venture, an accelerator program called Lighthouse Labs. Four years later, the fourth batch of companies is now going through that program, adding 100 jobs and $6 million of investment to the track record since Lighthouse opened its doors. She proudly and humbly remarks on the social impact of that program: “We have definitely pushed a lot of companies through the program that would not have gotten a lot of support locally otherwise.”
In the spirit of true entrepreneurs, the two will venture forward, debuting The Annex, a co-working space for companies that outgrow 804RVA, this fall. Business owners will find more structured mentorship and support in the space, which is currently under construction and will be home to Lighthouse Labs upon its completion. Sustained support and growth is among the tenets of their philosophies as entrepreneurs and individuals. Nuckols recites their motto: “Speak softly, deliver big results.”
Though this humble philosophy may not be the direct result of the city they work out of, the spirit of inclusion and hustle is quintessential of Richmond. “RVA is the perfect city for going big while staying small,” he comments. “No doubt increasing access to technical talent and early stage capital are key areas for improvement [for the city, but] with the community growing together over the last four years we have managed to avoid the sticky political silos that can inhibit growth.” For Garbee, Richmond’s enormous success only further inspires her curiosity for and dedication to support programs and networks for startups. “I think it’s a statement of the people and entrepreneurs that are in Virginia. But on the other hand, what would it look like if we continued to support East Coast ventures the way West Coast ventures are supported?”
Thankfully, the two will get to sit back and enjoy the view of their impact this fall from the comforts of The Annex. And with the big tenacity of a small city, Richmond is set to have a dedicated force continuing to grow out the business scene downtown. The two business partners, it seems, won’t be leaving the city they love any time soon. “For a long time, people were leaving Richmond or using it as a stepping stone. Now we have all the good one’s sticking around,” Garbee wistfully appreciates. Nuckols concurs: “It’s really grown into a family– a family I’m proud to be a small part of on a daily basis.”
Come celebrate the Richmond startup community.
Six Virginia startups will compete for $25,000 on Tuesday, September 20 at the Hofheimer Building in a live pitch competition. Gov. Terry McAuliffe will open with a fireside chat with Virginia entrepreneurs.