Zack Miller is a roller coaster fan, which is good. Because over the past 10 years, he’s been up and he’s been down.
Yet through all the twists and turns, he’s built a reputation as an honest advisor, community builder and leading voice for small business and entrepreneurs.
- Left a promising career in journalism to become an entrepreneur.
- Started multiple successful startup and entrepreneur events. Tried throwing a national conference and lost $50k.
- Launched a downtown accelerator from scratch. And then closed it.
- Talked to a Shark on his weekly business TV show.
- Created a blueprint for other communities to empower local business & entrepreneurs.
- Still loves wrestling.
Meet Zack: who doesn’t love a montage?
Community: Zack delivers the annual State of the Startup address.
Starting from scratch
In 2008, I arrived in Norfolk, Virginia to work in TV news. By 2010, I was growing a technology company focused on emerging things (at the time) like mobile apps and marketing automation campaigns. But like most small business owners, I struggled to know what to do next to take my business to the next level.
I was probably like a lot of you. Unsure about things like where to network, how to get more clients or even how to convince prospects that I knew what I was talking about. But as much as I didn’t know, I was inspired by my new career in business after leaving the world of journalism. My degree wasn’t in business. I didn’t come to town with a three page resume either. But I was willing to work hard to be successful. And so I threw myself head first into the local business community.
My business network basically started at 0. But by putting myself out there, I’ve built meaningful relationships with all kinds of people in the community. Still, I was drawn immediately to people with needs like mine, other startups. By hosting my own events and meetups and raising my hand when any opportunity arose, I was making a name for myself. And It paid off when I became the youngest person on the Inside Business Power List and was featured in Entrepreneur Magazine.
Building a community
Many people have helped build momentum for the the startup community in Norfolk over the last 10 years, and I’m glad to be mentioned for that list as well. But our success getting companies going sometimes left a bitter taste as a lot of the best companies and talent in Hampton Roads were leaving for other cities.
So, I started traveling around the country other small business communities to see what they were doing to help facilitate entrepreneurship and growth for young companies. What I learned turned into several meetups with different groups of people so that they could learn from each other and hopefully facilitate some growth in their perspective areas. One for entrepreneurs, one for designers, one for developers, etc. Then I thought, “What if we got all of these people into the same room, and held a business competition.” And then, Start Norfolk was born.
My hope was the first event would bring in 50 people. To my surprise, 180 people showed up, and 40 different ideas were pitched. Over the course of the next few years, I organized 5 of these events. In that time, the event had thousands of people show up and hundreds of businesses pitched, some of which are still alive and thriving today.
Creating (and closing) an accelerator
As great as Start Norfolk was, it – and other programs like it – have the same problems. First, they usually turn out to be poor predictors of long-term company success. Second, all of the energy and excitement was focused on just the few days the event was being held. Come the next Monday, I didn’t have a way to help the businesses that were born over the weekend.
So I took on a daunting task: create a startup accelerator from scratch. While accelerators were still a new idea around the country, they were especially new in Norfolk, VA where I began working on the idea. I raised money from dozens of investors, and invested in five companies in the first round of the accelerator. In order to help the companies grow, we started putting together a library of resources the companies could use to help solve certain problems along the way. Things like:
- Validating your idea
- Creating a minimum viable product
- Bootstrap marketing
- The sales process
- And a whole lot more
And the resources were certainly helping, as many of the companies were showing traction and growing rapidly. Therefore, I decided to bring in another round of companies. Not long after they started at Hatch, they were showing the same growth as the original companies by using the resources we had assembled. The combination of community, education and growth that Hatch delivered drew other people, not in the accelerator program, to Hatch. Most noteworthy, many wanted access to the resources the cohort was receiving. But at the time, only Hatch cohort companies could use the resources.
Ultimately, a culmination of events inspired me to make another bold move (it probably won’t be my last) when I decided to close the cohort based program that had previously propelled Hatch. I set a course to transition Hatch from being an exclusive organization to one that would serve anybody and everybody in the community looking for effective help growing their business (or even just learning about entrepreneurship).
1000 Four Communities toolkit:
Expert Insight: Zack gets it for his clients everyday by sitting down and talking with people who have been there and done that. All kinds of great tips, tactics and trends are at your fingertips in our one-of-a-king online community, 1000 Four.
Celebrating & Publicizing: Zack loves to explore and share the great things going on with businesses and communities he works with on great vehicles like his growing 1000 Four Show.
Community Building: Jumpstart a conversation in your local community about supporting and developing small business and entrepreneurship.
Workshops & Events: energize the small business owners and entrepreneurs in your community with our turnkey solutions.
Developing the 1000 Four Method
Therefore, I set out to respond to the people asking how they could get their hands on the resources Hatch was producing and got busy bundling all the Hatch resources into an innovative membership platform called 1000 Four. In a matter of weeks, Hatch went from only actively helping a couple dozen companies to actively helping hundreds of companies.
And we did it by focusing on providing quality resources to as many people as possible. Eventually, my ideas about quality, scalability, accessibility and inclusion developed into a blueprint I follow and your community can too:
• Stop picking winners and losers, invest in all.
• Entrepreneurship is different. Now. And in the future.
• Density + Serendipity = Success
• Connect. Celebrate. Educate entrepreneurs & small business.
Just like many of the people we’ve helped over the years, I was an entrepreneurial underdog from day one. Raised in a blue-collar family that lived paycheck to paycheck. Perceived as a dumb kid that was never given a chance. And even though most people doubted I’d amount to much, I believed in myself. Ultimately, that’s the most important lesson I can ever give someone else. Believe in yourself.
It all started 23 years ago, when my grandma sent me a birthday check for 100 dollars, the same price of a lawnmower. I sat there holding more cash than I ever had before. Ideas of how to spend the money danced in my mind. A video game system? A new bike?But that’s when I had an itch, an itch to do more with it. And more with my life. At a time when my family couldn’t afford a new lawnmower, I took the money and bought a lawnmower.
But rather than just mow my own lawn, I started asking my neighbors if I could mow their lawns too. In the lawn care world, as soon as you spot an ugly lawn, you’ve identified a potential customer. So, I walked up as a young 10 year old and knocked on the doors of those houses. “Hi, I’m Zack your neighbor, your lawn needs to be mowed, can I cut it for 15 bucks?” For the past 23 years, that’s how I’ve modeled much of my life. Find the problem, do the job, get the cash.
Junior High Business Lessons
If you don’t find the right target customer, you’d be just like I was, listening to my mom when I was in 7th grade. She told me I was a marvelous singer. Taking that comment to heart, I tried out for the junior high chorus. But you know what. My mom lied to me. She just did what all loving mothers do, and gave blind encouragement. And when I went to chorus audition, ready to blow the judges away with my brilliant singing, I was stopped short by one of the judges. “You’re singing is terrible.”
Business is different than a mother’s love. You need the truth. One of the most important keys to business is getting in front of the right people and getting it. Don’t ask you mom what she thinks of your business. Ask someone you want to pay you to use the product or service as quickly as you can. Otherwise, you might as well just hang out with Mom.