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Mentors help startups weather COVID-19 pandemic

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When the inaugural cohort for the Riot Accelerator Program got started in February, navigating a global pandemic wasn’t part of the curriculum.

“A lot of the conversations we were having once COVID-19 hit were how to adapt and stay alive,” said Rachael Newberry, Riot Accelerator Program director. “Overall our philosophy was handling the immediate concerns like adapting to remote work, sales cycles and taking an empathetic approach to customer conversations, but the whole pandemic situation will fundamentally change a lot of things. We won’t really go back to normal, so the conversations we had were about how to run a startup in the new world we’re in. I think it was valuable for the startups to have this built-in community and support network as the onset of the pandemic hit.”

Shyft Auto Technology founder Marcus Aman said he hoped the 12-week program would help grow his Greenville-based startup, which is a tool that manages pickup and drop-offs for automobile service companies.

“Being around other startup companies is important as well as you share similar passions and maybe learn from one another in different aspects of business,” said Aman, adding Shyft Auto recently received a $50,000 NC Idea Seed Grant and signed a partnership with a major global oil company. “I’m confident in saying that if we hadn’t been a part of the RAP program that we would easily be a month or two behind where we currently are at.”

Newberry said about four weeks into the program, COVID-19 forced the group to switch to a virtual format.

“Overall, we are really happy with how easy the transition to a virtual program was and the engagement from the cohort was very high,” she said. “We were able to still deliver a high-quality program and experience for the startups. We missed the in-person value and networking some and involvement in the Wilson community, but we were able to dig into each business and mentor, so we made the best of it.”

Originally, cohort members were scheduled to compete for prize money in a pitch night as part of the Gig East Summit, but the pandemic put that plan on hold.

“One of the biggest values that we provide is a built-in support network, so in a situation like this with huge market shifts, they had a sounding board in Riot mentors to strategize through very immediate challenges and looking forward into the future,” Newberry said. “Shyft Auto founder Marcus had recently made the leap to go full-time with his startup and when the pandemic was hitting, they were getting into an intense sales process. They had prototypes and were already hitting the pavement with a naturally social distant solution where they pick up consumers’ cars, take them to a dealership for service and return them. They continued to move ahead, but adapted their message to be supportive of dealerships to not only stay in business, but digitize some of their services, which is where the future is going anyway.”

The first cohort’s program concluded Friday and while a second cohort is planned, Newberry said it’s unclear when it would start. Visit riot.org/startup-accelerator/ to learn more about the program.

EXTRA! EXTRA!

The city has launched Historic Downtown Wilson Bounce Back Bucks, which rewards customers making purchases of $10 or more through June 15 with $5 in funds to use at businesses in the municipal service district after July 1. Also, each $10 purchase enters shoppers in a drawing for $1,000 Downtown Dollars and the business earn a chance at a weekend vacation getaway.

Visit www.historicdowntownwilson.com and follow Historic Downtown Wilson on social media for more information.

Got an idea for news to include in next week’s Main Street Minute? Don’t hesitate to reach out to me at 252-265-7821 or bhandgraaf@wilsontimes.com.

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