During my time at LaunchTN’s 36|86 conference, I had the chance to interview several entrepreneurs and dedicated business owners affiliated with Start Co., Memphis’s first technology based accelerator.
Begun in 2008 by CEO and founder Eric Mathews, Start Co. has three 100-day accelerator programs for diverse companies in the tech field. Seed Hatchery focuses on business to business, or B2B, software and hardware solutions and as Start Co.’s first accelerator, Seed Hatchery has launched 22 companies since 2011, with up to six startups per session. The Sky High accelerator helps launch social impact tech startups and Upstart is an accelerator for female entrepreneurs with six startups per session. August 13th marks Start Co.’s 5th Demo Day showcasing recent graduates from the three.
Some of Start Co.’s best and brightest entrepreneurs attended 36|86 conference last month where they debuted their companies to venture capitalists all over the southeast. Memphis native Jeremy Kendall, founder of Graph Story, a company that turns raw data into easily digestible charts and graphics, talked about the bright future he sees in store for Memphis.
“Growing up as a developer in Memphis, Tennessee, and kind of coming of age there…the tech community was struggling.”
— Clark Buckner (@ClarkBuckner) June 9, 2015
Kendall thought he would have to go to New York or Silicon Valley to be a developer, but he says “That’s not the case anymore. And as the south and the southeast grows that’s a big part of what we want to be a part of…we want to grow Memphis, Tennessee and west Tennessee and the South and the Southeast as a technology destination.”
Kendall sees what he calls a ‘grit’ in the entrepreneurial atmosphere in Memphis that springs from the culture of the city. “There’s a real scrappy thing going on in West Tennessee and people there are willing to fight for what it is they have and what it is they want. You’re seeing a lot of that with Start Co.,. And Start Co. is doing a really good job of kind of leading that and bringing an energy to Memphis.”
At the same time, Memphis hasn’t lost its southern charm and friendliness. Founder of Preteckt truck fleet maintenance app Sasha Kucharczyk was surprised he was “able to walk into different businesses and just talk to the point people by just knocking on their door. Coming from Toronto, there would be delays in doing that and, it wouldn’t be so easy. It really surprised everyone on my team how friendly and nice and open people were that we were actually trying to do something in Memphis.”
Start Co. has been key in fostering creative collaboration between new businesses in Memphis. Managing Director Mara Lewis came to Memphis from San Francisco two years ago. She said the unique atmosphere of the city can only lead to success for young businesses, and expects big things out of Memphis in the next ten years. Lewis made the point that innovation is not dependent upon a certain region.
“I think that what’s happening in Tennessee is that one, your money can go much, much further. With a couple hundred thousand dollars, you can get your company to revenue and to a lot of other milestone points much faster than I think you can in other areas where you’re paying extraordinarily high amounts for salary and for rent, for example, in Silicon Valley…I think that there’s a sense of community and hospitality and support around really growing the businesses there, and I think that’s a big differentiator between some other coastal sub-ecosystems.”
“The entrepreneurship world in Memphis isn’t really well known. Just with their growth with Start Co. alone over the years, I think you can see that we’re putting our spot on the map now. There’s a lot of great companies that have come out of Memphis and they’re getting media recognition from it. So I think there’s a lot of good things to come here in the future.”
Buffington built her company around the idea of building networks with realtors nationwide who have agreed to list at a flat rate rather than on commission, and in return, MLS My Nest assists realtors in finding clients. She says the Upstart program helped her reasses the way she views the industry and taught her how to tailor her company to fit her clients and their needs. Buffington benefitted from the mentors she met through Upstart who offered free advice – mentors she continues to stay connected with.
Upstart has also helped launch 6figure, “the professional shopping app for women,” spearheaded by Michael Wolf. “Upstart is a women-led team set apart of the Start Co. Accelerator Program. So within this, we have a support group and mentors who meet each week and we get to discuss how everything is going within our business, leadership, past experiences. So, it’s very helpful to have other women out there working with us to get to reach our goals.”
The idea of collaboration is echoed by another Start Co. student, Nick Fuller, founder of CareCurrent. His company was already established, but he applied to Upstart to help him navigate the world of investors and business. A native of Maryland, Fuller also commented on the unique collaborative atmosphere of Memphis and the surrounding region.
“I think what’s interesting about Tennessee is that we have these four unique cities: Knoxville, Chattanooga, Memphis and Nashville that are all driving this entrepreneur ecosystem. I think it’s kind of like the volunteer valley, actually.”
On August 13th, Memphis Demo Day will feature some of Memphis’ best and brightest entrepreneurs. This is the first year produced as a joint Demo Day with ZeroTo510 to showcase the entire Memphis ecosystem.
Businesses from the emerging fashion industry to healthcare and everything in between will be featured. This diverse mix of new businesses reflects the changing culture of Memphis to a premier destination for businesses and startups from all over the country.
Want more podcast content from 36|86? Listen to this next on our The Nashville Entrepreneurship Story Podcast: Tennessee Diversity, Support and Women in Entrepreneurship. Podcast brought to you by InvestablePitch.com. Interviews conducted by Clark Buckner.