RVA entrepreneurs discuss the future of startups

April 21, 2021
Panelists agree, the future of entrepreneurship in RVA is in relationships.

Leading entrepreneurs in Richmond shared their excitement for the future of startups in RVA in a panel hosted by Richmond BizSense and sponsored by the University of Richmond’s Robins School of Business.

“Richmond has really been on the rise, there’s more front doors than ever before that startups can find an opening,” said Eric Edwards, co-founder and chief executive officer of Phlow Corp. “Richmond’s on the radar screen from other sources of capital outside the city. The environment is right for a robust entrepreneurial ecosystem.”

The panel included John Failla, ’15, founder of Trilogy Mentors and Founder-in-Residence at University of Richmond, Laura Markley, managing director at NRV, Dr. Eric Edwards, co-founder and chief executive officer of Phlow Corp., Aaron Montgomery, chief strategy officer of Mission Lane and co-founder of CarLotz, and Erin Powell, executive director at Lighthouse Labs, founder and CEO, Ginger Juice, and a graduate of the Mini MBA certificate program.

Failla explained how much the Richmond startup landscape has grown since he started Trilogy Mentors as a student at the Robins School.

“Seeing the growth of the Richmond ecosystem is outstanding. The ecosystem as I define it in Richmond includes people, infrastructure, and funding,” Failla said.

He is in the midst of an additional round of funding as the global education system was turned on its head, and he said investor feedback is crucial to success.

“It really is the investor’s job to give that hard feedback because as a founder you need to learn how to manage contradicting data points,” Failla said. “Make sure you can get in front of a relevant investor who can open doors. As the days go by, I’m starting to learn, it’s much more about dollars. It’s about dollars, advice, council, and connections.”

Erin Powell joined Lighthouse Labs in April 2020, and has been navigating accelerating new startups amidst COVID-19.

“We saw more applications this spring than we ever had,” Powell said. “In a time of a pandemic, people get creative about problem solving and excited about jumpstarting a business. We see Lighthouse as a beacon to attract business into the city. For the most part, a change in the economic climate and landscape creates a big opportunity for first-time entrepreneurs.”

Powell also said they have received a more diverse group of applicants than ever before.

“Everyone is making sure we have a DEI component, making sure we have a diverse candidate pool, to create diversity in thinking,” Edwards said.

Laura Markley of NRV said the pandemic caused the venture capital and consulting company to pivot ensure its startups could stay afloat.

“We had lots that needed to go virtual, but we have lots that had to stay in-person, particularly food-based companies. We had to go one by one and see how the pandemic would affect them, so we’ve engaged differently with companies across the spectrum because they were hit so differently from COVID,” Markley said.

Aaron Montgomery of Mission Lane and CarLotz, said success is determined by the relationships entrepreneurs build.

“Build as many relationships as you can because it’s going to come down to somebody buying you and your idea,” Montgomery said.

Panelists agreed one of the ways to grow the Richmond market is to amplify the successes of local entrepreneurs.

“We need to market and amplify. We need to show investors the wins,” Edwards said. “We’re just getting started, I’m excited to see what happens in the next 10 years. Everyone just wants to take what they’ve learned and help others take that next step. That collegiality exists today and will continue to exist in the future.”

The panelists each shared advice for budding entrepreneurs:

“You have to find virtue in all things. The best time is now. If there’s a problem that you’re working on, find the motivation to tackle it,” Montgomery said.

“Richmond has a great landscape, and there’s a lot of opportunity here. Find something that the market needs solving, it doesn’t have to be in a tech focused or super specific area, and dive in,” Markley said.

“View it as a learning experience, and it’s way less intimidating. Just start it, simply going through that process is going to help you feel more comfortable,” Failla said.

“Know your customer. When you’re a startup, unless you talk to your customers and know them intimately, the business models are just numbers on paper. Never separate yourself from who that customer is,” Powell said.

“Now is a great time. There’s more access to capital right now than ever before. Take a leap,” Edwards said.

Michael Schwartz, editor of Richmond BizSense, moderated the panel. Find out more about entrepreneurship opportunities at the University of Richmond here. Looking to support Richmond grown entrepreneurs? Click here.