New Entrepreneur Center Aims to Connect, Brand Startups in Dallas

Blame it on J.R.

The traits displayed by the fictional oilman—enterprising, hyper-competitive, a win-at-all-costs mentality—have helped to make real-life Dallas into one of America’s top business cities and home to an impressive list of Fortune 500 corporations.

But that hasn’t necessarily been the best boost to the city’s startup scene. “Historically we are a very territorial city,” says Trey Bowles, a co-founder of the newly opened Dallas Entrepreneur Center. “We did a lot of oil and gas and real estate deals, and those types of deals are very clearly territorial. But because of the now limitless ability that technology and the Internet give us, we have begun to realize that collaboration before competition is the best structure.”

That shift has occurred in the last three or four years, Bowles says, and to take advantage of it, he and two others decided to start the DEC, a co-working space, incubator, and accelerator all in one. “We launched DEC to help aspiring entrepreneurs to build growth businesses and to help create a national brand for Dallas as an entrepreneurial hub,” he says.

The space already is home to one high-profile tenant. VentureSpur, an Oklahoma City-based accelerator, is opening its Dallas hub there, and will start working with its first cohort of entrepreneurs July 29. The 12-week program will focus on edtech, telecom, and finance companies. Each company will receive a $30,000 investment with the possibility of an additional $100,000.

With VentureSpur, the DEC will operate much like an accelerator, but it will also serve as a co-working space to startups for a monthly fee, and will provide mentoring and programming separate from VentureSpur’s activities. Right now, it is located in the data center of SoftLayer Technologies, the Dallas cloud-computing startup that was bought by IBM earlier this month for a reported $2 billion. (DEC is looking for more permanent space, Bowles says.)

In the meantime, Bowles is working on getting the United States Patent and Trade Office and area universities, law firms, and accounting firms to set up on-site satellite offices in order to provide a one-stop-shopping area for entrepreneurs. The DEC has gotten the financial support of Dallas’s business establishment, including the Jones Day law firm and the Dallas Regional Chamber, which will have an office at the DEC.

“We want to create a home base for entrepreneurs to come connect and help push them in the right direction based on what their needs are,” Bowles says. That could mean making introductions to venture capital firms for a big fundraising push, or pairing a struggling entrepreneur with a mentor who can help morph an interesting idea into a business plan that works.

Alexander Muse is a longtime Dallas tech entrepreneur who’s done his share of community-building within the city’s startup scene. Even still, while there was a lot of activity, it was often not connected to each other, he says.

Indeed, Dallas has often sparred with its ambitious suburbs, each of which wanted to be an entrepreneurial hub on its own. Muse says startups were not talking to scientists and innovators at the region’s main universities. “We have all this technology tied up in North Texas universities, all this intellectual property that we don’t know about,” he says. “And they don’t know how to advertise to us.”

Dallas needs what DEC offers, he says, so much so that he became the center’s first tenant with his new startup Haul, a sort of online talent management firm for shopping “haulers,” who are largely teenage girls who flaunt their latest purchases on YouTube videos and become informal, but influential, spokeswomen for retailers.

Bowles, for his part, has jumped around the country a bit, holding executive positions in a number of startups including Morpheus, a peer-to-peer file sharing platform in Nashville, which debuted right after Napster was shut down, and then at Dallas’s Big Jump Media—which owned, the largest Christian video sharing platform. He took a break from startups to teach entrepreneurship classes at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. He also launched the Texas chapter of the Startup America Partnership, founded by Steve Case.

“When I was meeting up with everyone, they kept saying, ‘Great, you’re from Dallas. We didn’t think Dallas had entrepreneurs,’ ” Bowles says. “This was very frustrating to me. There are some experienced entrepreneurs here, a wealth of talent.”

For all the talk of cooperation, though, Bowles can’t help but display a little Texas swagger and take a good-natured shot at Silicon Valley, America’s entrepreneurial lodestar. “Silicon Valley talks about going public,” he says, referring to tech IPOs. “Dallas companies focus on earnings and profit.”

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