American Underground

Startup story: From bunker to bustling to breakthrough

In what was once an abandoned cigarette factory, the American Tobacco Campus in Durham, NC has become a hub for world class companies like Burt’s Bees, innovative ideas and irresistible ways to beat the 9-to-5 grind.

But getting there took more than the massive and meticulous remaking of a vintage industrial stronghold. It also required marketing smarts. Especially in the transformation of a former warehouse space into the startup hub now known as The American Underground.

In 2010, shortly after the idea of creating a startup mecca was hatched, GBW Strategies helped organizers announce the news with an attention-getting media event designed as a late night talk show. “Guests” included tenants such as the Council for Entrepreneurial Development, a gaming incubator and a tech incubator.

The Underground’s mix of resources and amenities -- ranging from an arcade to ongoing media relations and events -- attracted a remarkable roster of startups, as well as the attention of Time, Fast Company and The Atlantic.

In 2011, Jeff Immelt, Steve Case and Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg visited the Underground on behalf of the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness. And in 2012, TechCrunch announced American Tobacco as the site for its first visit to the Research Triangle Region.

The Underground is Mark Zuckerberg meets Mark Twain. Geek with a Southern drawl. And, in just two years, a model of success.