Two startups were born in the same coworking space near downtown Blacksburg in 2014. They both went on to raise money from venture capitalists, launch products and hire employees — just like economic developers like to see.
But only one did so in Blacksburg.
Today, both the company that stayed, Card Isle, and the one that left, LawnStarter, are happy with their respective decisions.
But the opposing experiences highlight the complex — and often invisible — calculus that new graduates consider when choosing where to put down roots.
More of them should be looking in the Lynchburg, Roanoke and New River Valley area, local leaders said Wednesday following a yearlong assessment of the region’s ability to attract, engage and retain talent.
“Stopping the Brain Drain,” the study sponsored by the GO Virginia initiative, found that 18% of local college students surveyed said they would search for jobs within the region after graduation. The majority, meanwhile, said they either didn’t know (26%) or would look outside Virginia (31%).
That number is too low, leaders from the region’s three largest economic development groups — the Roanoke Regional Partnership, Onward New River Valley and the Lynchburg Regional Business Alliance — agreed at a press event Wednesday.
“All too often, we know students come to the region and many of them — the 18% or more — end up leaving not knowing the New River Valley beyond a great place to go to college,” Onward New River Valley Executive Director Charlie Jewell said. “So trying to build those connections, help them get off campus and have good experiences with employers throughout the New River Valley is of huge importance to us.”
Beth Doughty, executive director of the Regional Partnership, said this is what modern economic development looks like. For years, the job has been about recruiting new companies to town. But now , she said , it’s also their responsibility to attract and retain the people employers need.
For LawnStarter, which created a digital platform for booking lawn care providers, one of the top priorities was getting into a major technology hub, co-founder Ryan Farley said.
He met his co-founder, Steve Corcoran, at Virginia Tech, and they launched their company together around 2014. Blacksburg served them well in that first year, when they had little money and were taking advantage of free office space in Virginia Tech’s now-defunct NuSpark startup incubator.
But if LawnStarter was going to take off, the founders knew they would need a deep talent pool for hiring, local investors who would know how to grow their business and peer companies around town they could go to for advice.
Farley said they simply didn’t anticipate finding that here.
LawnStarter moved from Blacksburg to Austin in June 2014. Since then, the company has raised more than $7 million from investors, expanded its service to 30 metropolitan areas and grown to about 80 employees.
“It’s always sad to move on from a place where you really enjoyed, but — personally speaking — that wasn’t the place that we wanted to spend the next several years,” Farley said.
The founders behind Card Isle, which shared office space beside LawnStarter inside NuSpark in 2014, recognize the same advantages of running a technology company in a major city.
But they continue to choose Blacksburg.
Adam Donato and David Henry admit they haven’t been able to raise enough capital from local investors here, so they head out of town for fundraising trips. They also struggle to attract new hires.
“There’s a lot of things that work against us from a business perspective,” Donato said. “But this is the best community I’ve ever lived in.”
Donato pointed to a lot of the same strengths identified by the Stopping the Brain Drain study, including quality of life and a cheap cost of living.
Card Isle is undergoing major changes right now, as the startup transitions from a business that primarily sells custom greeting cards out of kiosks to one that offers a print-at-home service. It recently landed a partnership with Canon, which the startup hopes will be an inflection point.
That major shift came five years after the company was founded — a long time in the world of startups.
“We’ve kept an idea alive for about $1 million,” Henry said. “If you run the math on what it would have cost a team like ours to live in Austin, I would say that amount of money would have kept us alive for a year, two years?”
“There’s tradeoffs,” Donato said about running a startup outside of a major technology hub. “There are wins and losses, but it can be done.”
Roanoke Regional Partnership’s Director of Talent Solutions Erin Burcham said there are a lot of success stories like this, including Interactive Achievement. That Roanoke education software company was acquired by California industry giant PowerSchool in 2016. Since then, the company has identified this as a growth market.
Still, the decision to stay is never simple.
Josep Bassaganya-Riera, founder of several biotech startups, said the conversation comes up about once a month.
The well-known Virginia Tech researcher’s latest venture, Landos Biopharma, is trying to earn U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval for a new drug to treat Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. He has an aspirational timeline posted to the wall of his Blacksburg lab that shows his company going public in the not so distant future.
But to get there, Landos is going to need a lot more highly skilled employees, funding and support from the local technology ecosystem.
He said the question of whether this market will be able to provide what his company needs hasn’t been answered yet.
“We are being very deliberate,” Bassaganya-Riera said. “It’s a very sensitive item because we are committed, we’ve been here for a long time, we like the area. But nonetheless, we need the right conditions to make sure we grow at the right pace and we move in the right steps with the right talent.
“And just for the record, we have not made the decision,” he added. “But it’s something that comes up.”
The Stopping the Brain Drain study included responses from more than 1,000 college students and businesses. It found cultural diversity as one of the region’s greatest perceived weaknesses, along with entertainment amenities, wages and dating opportunities, among others.
The greatest strengths were the cost of living, outdoor recreation, education assets and overall quality of life.
All three economic development organizations involved in the study said this is just the first step, as they’ve already begun developing strategies to play up the strengths and encourage more locals to stay put.
“As I’ve been on campuses throughout the last year, it’s really obvious when I go into a classroom that the students just don’t understand the opportunities, both lifestyle and professional,” Burcham said. “I think just making them aware of the opportunities and engaging them in our communities is going to be our biggest focus.”