Awesome Cities for Entrepreneurs: A Spotlight on Asheville, NC

Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Asheville, NC has a long-held (and well-earned) reputation as a must-see destination. In 2017, Lonely Planet named it the Best Travel Destination in the U.S. Other accolades include being named one of the Best Places to Reinvent Your Life (AARP); Best Small Cities in the U.S. (Condé Nast Traveler); Hippest Cities in the South (Fodor’s); Top 15 Cities in the U.S. (Travel & Leisure); and Top 17 Places to Visit (Harper’s Bazaar, Esquire).

The list of Asheville “top” and “best” rankings goes on, but while most nods tend to focus on the locale, culture, and culinary highlights, the city is beginning to make a name for itself in a whole new category: Entrepreneurship.

Why Entrepreneurs Love Asheville

Business is booming in Asheville, which has become as much a go-to haven for startups as it is for wayfaring tourists and outdoor enthusiasts. The number of new businesses it produces each year is especially impressive when one considers the city is home to fewer than 100,000 residents and lacks a major research university, though UNC-Asheville is a respectable institution. Here are just a few of the things that attract new entrepreneurs to Asheville.

The Resources

Asheville’s emergence as a hotbed for startups did not happen by chance: it was a conscious effort on behalf of the community. This is particularly true of the city’s Economic Development Coalition, which founded an initiative called Venture Asheville, based on MIT’s Venture Mentoring Service. It connects entrepreneurs with the mentorship, talent, and funding opportunities they need to succeed. Another program called the Asheville Angels is a financing and support network designed to help early-stage startups, while Blue Ridge Food Ventures incubates up to 70 new natural food startups each year.

The Cost

Asheville’s business-boosting resources may mirror those available from larger cities, but results come at a fraction of the cost: Forbes ranks the city among the top 15 nationally for the cost of doing business, and in the top 50 for overall business and careers. Meanwhile, Livability, which named Asheville one of the Best Places to Live, period, applauds the area’s affordable housing, among other features. Despite the city’s popularity, the median home price remains less than $200,000.

The Culture

No realistic entrepreneur expects a startup to go global (or even national) overnight: it takes time to establish a marketing plan and customer base. What gives Asheville startups an edge over most is its go-local culture. As Hi-Wire Brewing Co. founder Adam Chanack told Uncubed, residents and tourists “love and respect local.” Chanack added, “If someone is doing local and they’re doing it well, neighbors and tourists will jump all over it,” noting that the willingness of local banks to work with him was “unprecedented.”

Four Asheville Businesses to Watch

Asheville is an equal-opportunity haven for new businesses; no single industry dominates the field. The following startups illustrate just how far an idea can take someone in the Climate City.

Mount Inspiration

Mount Inspiration is a outdoor apparel line featuring adventure-inspiring quotes and graphics. The company’s sustainable manufacturing process is based on recycled materials: three plastic bottles for every shirt. A share of Mount Inspiration’s profits also go to environmentally-focused nonprofits.

  • Founder: Evans Prater
  • How it began: What started as a sudden impulse to travel for “lost” college sophomore Evans Prater evolved into a journey for the ages and, eventually, an eco-savvy clothing line. Prater spent months traveling the U.S. with his dog, Kiser, before finishing college and hitting the road again. It was while hiking the Appalachian trail that he found Asheville and the personal mantra that would grace his very first design: Everything you carry should be light. According to Mount Inspiration’s official website, Prater wants the company’s hand-screen printed apparel to inspire the same sense of adventure and positivity he found in the mountains.

Bellyak

Belly + kayak = Bellyak, the first watercraft made for prone whitewater paddling. According to its official website, Bellyak is to kayaking what snowboarding is to skiing—a whole new way to experience the same terrain. Lying on their bellies lets riders navigate using swimming-like motions, minimizing the learning curve associated with traditional seated kayaks.

  • Founder: Adam Masters
  • How it began: Adam Masters is the son of kayaking guru Bill Masters, founder of the sport-defining Perception Kayaks, which made kayaking more affordable and accessible to 1970s mainstream America. Adam Masters is quick to note, however, that he did not set out to revolutionize a sport the way his father did. He loves whitewater swimming and freestyle kayaking, and Ballyak was his means of meshing the two.

HEALTHeWeather

Anyone with asthma or arthritis knows the significant impact the weather can have on his or her symptoms. According to Venture Asheville, HEALTHeWeather is a software company and creator of DailyBreath, an app that delivers personalized weather insights to patients with pollen or mold allergies and respiratory conditions to help them manage health outcomes triggered by the environment.

  • Founder: Eric Klos
  • How it began: HEALTHeWeather got its start when rheumatoid arthritis sufferer Wendy-Kate Klos asked her brother, founder Eric Klos, to create an app that would keep her informed of weather conditions that could exacerbate her symptoms. After months of research and hard work, HEALTHeWeather released DailyBreath, its first app, designed to serve more than 50 million allergy and asthma patients nationwide.

Wicked Weed Brewing

Being a Saveur-christened “Must Visit” brewery in an city boasting more breweries per capita than most speaks highly of Wicked Weed Brewing’s product, though gold and silver medal nods at the Great American Beer Festival underscore the point. Saveur recommends visiting the operation’s Funkatorium drinking room to try its high IPA ales and brews aged in wine barrels.

  • Founders: Walt and Luke Dickinson; Ryan, Rich, and Denise Guthy
  • How it began: Wicked Weed Brewing is what happened when two families—the Dickinsons and the Guthys—spent an evening sharing homebrews and a vision: a brewery dedicated exclusively to what the founders describe as “forward-thinking, ingredient-focused” West Coast and Belgian ales. The crew set up shop in a former hardware factory where, despite a recent partnership with Anheuser-Busch craft breweries, they continue to operate freely and oversee all recipes and production.

Overall, Asheville, NC offers fertile ground for entrepreneurs in range of industries and a thriving demand for locally made goods.

Aimee Hosler
Aimee Hosler
Writer

Aimee Hosler is a long-time journalist specializing in education and technology. She is an advocate for experiential learning among all ages and serves as the director of communications for a non-profit community makerspace. She holds a degree in journalism from California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo.

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