By Sheldon Grizzle

Just over four years ago, I sent a tweet as a challenge to fellow Chattanoogans:

“Chattanooga needs to find ways to restart the entrepreneurial machine it once was in the early 20th century! Let’s do it together #rallycry”

There are few places in the world that can rally the way Chattanooga does. The community here is collaborative and scrappy. We just figure out how to get stuff done. When we needed to clean up our air, we rallied. When we wanted to make our riverfront something to be proud of, we rallied. And when our best and brightest were leaving the city in droves…when startups couldn’t find mentors or capital…when it looked like Chattanooga was going to maintain the status quo of a midsized American city, we began rallying again.

Six years ago, while I was a fellow at CreateHere, there were not many people or organizations thinking or doing anything about startups. As Chloé Morrison recently referenced in an article on Nooga.com, there were, as I saw it, only “crickets.”

During those early days at CreateHere, our team spent a lot of time talking with over 200 business, community and philanthropic leaders about what was needed to make this city a great place to launch a new company. One of the things that struck me was that there were a lot of people who were actually interested in supporting entrepreneurs, but they were all disconnected from one another.

In addition to the lack of relational connectivity, the culture towards startups was toxic. There were many reasons for this, and one of those was rooted in a few startup disasters from the early 2000s. Ellis Smith from the Times Free Press recounted some of these issues here in a recent Edge Magazine article.

We realized this lack of understanding about the importance of startup activity was the biggest roadblock preventing Chattanooga from having a truly excellent entrepreneurial ecosystem. Helping Chattanoogans recognize that startups – not just small businesses and big corporations – are essential to healthy local economies became the cornerstone of my team’s work. In looking back through some old pitch decks from mid-2009, I found some original proposals for what eventually became The Company Lab. In these proposals, we laid out our beliefs about the importance of entrepreneurial activity:

  • We believe that entrepreneurs are vital to economic, civic and cultural prosperity.
  • We believe that the existing models for developing seed-stage and early-growth stage firms are incongruent with the needs of these companies.
  • We believe that innovation occurs at the intersection of business acumen, creative excellence and technological distinction, yet these three parties are rarely at the table together.
  • We believe that post-recession economics of how we earn, consume, create, share, invest and save will be vastly different than their pre-recession brethren and that this creates a fantastic opportunity for investment.

It seems almost laughable that these beliefs weren’t as widely held back then as they are now (in fact, there were only find a small handful of people at the time who didn’t think we were crazy for wanting to see a proliferation of local startups). These are principles that have become part of the foundation of creative and economically healthy communities.

A lot of The Company Lab’s efforts over the last few years have been geared towards generating awareness and educating people about the importance of startups, setting tables to connect people who wanted to support startups (investors, entrepreneurs, service providers, community partners, foundations, etc) and guiding startup founders on launching new businesses.

It is evident that Chattanooga has made a lot of progress toward embracing entrepreneurial principles and culture throughout many aspects of community life. Recently, our team at The Company Lab spent some time mapping the entrepreneurial landscape to show the progress over the last four years. It is so encouraging to see how dramatically different it looks today than it did in 2010 (if we overlooked something, please let us know!).

We all know that Chattanooga has not yet “arrived.” There is SO much work left to do. But one thing we know for sure is this: it takes a community to support a startup (community), and we have one heck of a community! Let’s keep doing this together!

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A Moment of Personal Gratitude

While I have your attention, I’d like to publicly give some shout outs to a few people who forever changed Chattanooga (and my life!) simply by investing their time, energy, relational capital and financial capital to jumpstart our city’s entrepreneurial engine. Though there have been literally hundreds of people who have contributed to Chattanooga’s emergence as a startup hub, these are the people who were champions for building a startup community back in 2008…way before startups were “cool.”

  • Josh McManus and Helen Johnson – Thank you for hiring me as a failed entrepreneur back in 2008 at CreateHere. Your vision was way ahead of its time, and Chattanooga is just beginning to realize the fruits of your efforts.
  • Krue Brock – Your wisdom, guidance and ability to connect on deeper levels with every human on earth has been a gift to me and to this community.
  • David Belitz – I will never forget our first meeting when I was dressed up as a thug for Halloween…I’m glad you agreed to meet with me a second time (and a 500th time for that matter!). You have been a rock for our entrepreneurial and investment communities.
  • Charlie Brock – It has been an honor and pleasure to get to work so closely with you over the last five years. When you finally agreed to be The Company Lab’s CEO (after two years of pleading!), it brought instant credibility to what we were trying to do, and Chattanooga has not been the same since.
  • Sarah Morgan – We are blessed to have your tireless energy, your creative spirit to do things differently and your relentless pursuit of what’s best for our city. Chattanooga would not be the place it is today without you.
  • Stephen Culp, Jonathan Bragdon and Andrew Kean – All three of you spent way more time with me than anyone ever should. In addition to the people above (minus Krue), you met with me every other week for three months to help envision what eventually became The Company Lab.

Thank you all!