UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School


Unmasking entrepreneurship’s biggest players


A startup venture needs not only money but people—well-connected players in the startup community who can quickly put their hands on expertise, connections and, yes, cash.

In 2009, not long after the U.S. economy had slowed to a halt, Ted Zoller, director of the Center for Entrepreneurial Studies at UNC-Kenan Flagler, saw that new ventures were needed more than ever. “But everyone was ducking for cover,” he said. “I thought, ‘How do we get things moving again?’ I decided we needed to hearken back to those people who have brokered multiple ventures. We needed to find those people and motivate them to get involved again.”

So Zoller began developing his “dealmaker’s algorithm.” It’s software that mines from Standard and Poor’s data to find people who are involved in multiple privately held, high-growth companies. “I wanted to unveil who’s who in making entrepreneurship happen,” he said. To do that, Zoller first identified those who were involved as equity holders in three or more high- growth companies, either through investment, membership on a board or serving in an operating position, such as CEO. Then he mapped their connections to each other via their positions in those companies. What materialized was a picture of the “social network” of entrepreneurship showing the most serial entrepreneurs and investors.

Ted Zoller Profile

Zoller has mapped networks all over the country, including in such hotspots as Silicon Valley, Boston and Research Triangle Park (RTP). It allowed him to easily identify the big players, some of whom intentionally keep a low profile. One well-connected RTP angel investor who showed up on Zoller’s map asked him: “How did you find me? I don’t even have a business card.” But he was just the type of person Zoller was looking for. “If you want to influence a network, you need to influence the people who have the most bearing, the people who do the most deals,” Zoller said.

Jimmy Rosen (MBA ’06), a life sciences partner with the venture capital firm Intersouth Partners, said that Zoller’s work illustrates the catalytic impact individuals and small teams can have on entrepreneurial communities.

“Instead of trying to effect incremental institutional change, entrepreneurs have the ability to drive rapid and sustainable growth in their respective regions and business sectors,” Rosen said. “Ted Zoller’s research has provided particularly interesting insights into this capability.”

Zoller also found some surprises. Some of the most populous regions, such as Phoenix, were not heavily networked; the number of dealmakers with multiple connections was relatively small. But some of the smaller regions, such as RTP and Austin, were highly connected. The most well-connected network? Silicon Valley, with 264 entrepreneurs who had ties to seven or more entrepreneurial firms, suggesting that regions with more highly connected serial entrepreneurs and investors are considerably more vital ecosystems.

In short, Zoller has created a tool that can be used to analyze and strengthen the entrepreneurial fabric of a region intentionally rather than waiting for it to happen by chance. And people are taking notice. For a conference on energy innovation organized by the White House, Zoller mapped all the alternative and traditional energy entrepreneurs nationwide. He’s also testified before the National Advisory Council on Innovation and Entrepreneurship chaired by the U.S. Secretary of Commerce and AOL’s founder, Steve Case. Now he’s begun working with one of the founders of Groupon, Brad Keywell, to analyze Chicago’s entrepreneurial community and help them build a cluster of entrepreneurs.

Zoller hopes that his work not only will influence public policy but assist networks of entrepreneurs in building high-performing regions.