LIVE from Nashville Entrepreneur Center: What We Can Learn from Nashville Startups
What do you picture when you think of Nashville? Live music? Hot chicken? How about tech startups?
Nashville is a natural fit for a thriving tech community. “I think there’s a real hybrid vigor in Nashville,” says serial entrepreneur, investor, and mentor Stryker Warren. “It’s a little bit country, it’s a little bit rock-and-roll, it’s very hip, and it’s very cooperative.”
Innovation has long been part of the city’s culture. Consider all the creative energy generated by Nashville’s music and fashion scenes. Add to that established business sectors such as healthcare and evangelical publishing, and you can see a community teeming with ideas—and people with the grit to realize them.
We toured Nashville’s startup scene this summer to see what resources here really help tech companies grow. Here’s what we learned.
“I think Tennessee has its own unique culture and its own unique system. It’s very relationship driven, and I think it’s really easy for people to come here and fall in love with this,” says Anca Pop, partner and COO of Adela Investment, and founder and CEO of Striker Advisory. “I think we’re also seeing Nashville emerging as a tech hub, especially in the software development space, which you wouldn’t necessarily expect, but that’s primarily driven because of health care.”
Nashville Business Journal: The journal delivers comprehensive coverage of business news happening in and around the city, as expected. But it also intermingles stories on Nashville tech startups, treating them as a valued part of the business community.
Venture Nashville Connections: Owner-publisher Milt Capps works tirelessly to advocate the Nashville tech and startup community. He churns out posts from breaking news to under-the-radar developments. He also maintains a calendar that snapshots important tech events.
Nashville Post: The Post’s coverage of Middle Tennessee includes a robust business section splashed with headlines about local corporate innovation, nonprofits, and startups. Its snazzy, clean design makes navigating the site a breeze.
“It’s very clear is that Nashville is not skipping a beat on anything. There is nothing that I read in my daily news feed that’s happening elsewhere that is not being discussed, contemplated or executed in Nashville,” says Warren.
“If we can create a statewide network where an entrepreneur anywhere in Tennessee can stay wherever he or she is, build their business and have access to resources from across the state, that’s a winning formula,” says Charlie Brock, director of Pinnacle Financial Partners and CEO of Launch Tennessee for nearly six years. “I’ll often say, really across the state, the way that we win in Tennessee is by collaborating. It is a huge competitive advantage for us.”
Launch Tennessee: A public-private partnership, Launch Tennessee exists to make The Volunteer State a premier destination for entrepreneurs. Its efforts include improving access to startup capital, attracting and retaining tech talent, and helping the state government understand how it can best support the entrepreneurial ecosystem.
Nashville Entrepreneur Center (The EC): The Entrepreneur Center’s mission mirrors much of Launch Tennessee’s, but narrows its focus to the Nashville area. The EC has been so effective at helping entrepreneurs, it’s among only a handful of organizations in North America picked to join the Google for Startups network.
Nashville Technology Council: In 1999, a few local business leaders saw a need for better-paying jobs and more investment in Nashville’s tech startups. Today, the NTC connects, develops, and promotes the Middle Tennessee tech scene to help it compete on a national scale. Its annual NTC Awards show has grown into a must-attend local tech event.
“When we first started the Entrepreneur Center in 2009, [it] was the website, one room in a Chamber of Commerce, and I think about 10 mentors, and that was it,” says Jeremey Raley, membership lead at Nashville EC and founder of Bohnd. “The core concept of the EC is built upon connecting you with someone that’s done it before, that knows what they’re talking about, that can help illuminate the path and guide you down to success alongside you right.”
Like many emerging and maturing tech hubs, Nashville presents a unique funding landscape for entrepreneurs to navigate. “I think a lot of good investors at our stage, we’re investing in people. We’re not investing in technology, we’re not investing in ideas, we’re not investing in markets,” says Andrew Goldner, co-founder of GrowthX. “I find that people and how they were raised here in the state of Tennessee, in the South, and in the Midwest, make for better entrepreneurs.”
GrowthX: GrowthX may list as a Bay Area company, but Goldner and his team are high on Nashville and Tennessee. In fact, their community involvement goes far beyond investing: Goldner serves on boards at Venture for America and Nashville Children’s Theatre. “What brought me out here in the first place and around America was a belief at GrowthX that we should be enabling our founders where they are,” he says.
Nashville Capital Network: More than 100 professional investors, many with backgrounds as highly successful founders and executives, partnered to form the NCN. Together, they nurture high-growth companies not just with funding, but also experience-backed mentoring. NCN manages multiple investment funds, too, including several angel funds.
Angel Capital Group: In 2007, entrepreneur-turned-investor Rachael Qualls saw an opportunity. Entrepreneurs and investors alike were frustrated by economic stagnation, and so the Angel Capital Group stepped in to connect these groups and help them create high-growth business ventures. What started in Nashville and Knoxville has grown into seven chapters around the country and counting.
Access to capital has improved dramatically in Nashville and throughout the state thanks to work done by Launch Tennessee, The EC, and other organizations over recent years. There’s still room for improvement, though. “We need some industry education here,” says Josh Wingstrom, president and partner of East Five. “It’s been difficult finding investors that really understand how to invest in technology. They come from more traditional businesses and they don’t really understand the new technology. The technology is not the product. The technology is a factor. It makes the product in most cases.”
Coworking spaces do far more than give startups a place to start up. Because they brim with innovative energy, coworking spaces attract tech talent that entrepreneurs need to grow and scale their businesses. “Startups can benefit immensely from finding young talent and helping to cultivate it,” says Cassie Fleming, vice president of operations at MEDarchon. “That’s not always an easy thing to do, but I think that there’s an abundance of it here in Nashville.”
Industrious Nashville: Industrious’ three Nashville locations—Downtown, Gulch, Cummins Station—demonstrate how well the company understands what a coworking space needs to deliver. It’s now up to 55 locations across the country and counting.
WeWork Nashville: WeWork also has an impressive national footprint that includes two Nashville spaces, plus locations around the world. That can be a huge asset to entrepreneurs looking to build a global customer base or international remote teams.
INK Building: Nashville has plenty of locally owned co-working spaces, too, like the West Coast-inspired INK Building. These are great places for those who value staying connected to Nashville’s native entrepreneurial energy. Creative vibes from the local music, fashion, and arts scenes tend to collect and linger in these spaces.
The accessibility co-working spaces give local startups plays into the city’s competitive advantages. “Yes, it is less expensive to do business here and to live here than many places in the United States, but really, if you want to expand your team to an affordable place with a great quality of life where they can get plugged into a creative ecosystem that’s really second to none in the country, then Nashville is where you want to come,” says Brian Moyer, president and CEO of Nashville Technology Council. “Your team will be better because they’re here.”
For local tech leaders like Brock, showing established markets what Nashville’s startups are capable of is critical to successful incubation and acceleration. “We’ve run an accelerator program at Launch Tennessee,” he says. “We meet with Silicon Valley investors. We take them up to New York. We know there’s risk in that, but we also think the upside overall outweighs the downside because we’re showing quality deal flow.”
Jumpstart Foundry: Technically, Jumpstart Foundry is a seed-stage healthcare innovation fund (here’s a well-detailed article by The Tennessean on that). So why are they here? Because Jumpstart integrates many of the best practices it learned from its days as an accelerator. Companies receive much more than capital. They also receive support ranging from strategic advice to Jumpstart’s resource network.
Nashville Business Incubation Center: The NBIC uses an academic, measurement-driven approach to help entrepreneurs flourish in its tiered incubation program. Along with their education in structured and sustainable growth, participants get access to 1:1 mentoring, roundtables, business loans, and more.
Vanderbilt Accelerator—Summer Business Institute: Vanderbilt’s summer accelerator program caters to college undergraduates and recent graduates. Anyone from around the world can apply. Students get to work on four projects for four real companies during the four-week program, meaning everyone gets hands-on, real-world innovation experience to kick start their careers as entrepreneurs.
“Bunker Labs was really created as a startup incubator, or a way to connect veterans with other entrepreneurs and business leaders and really just be dot connectors,” says Robert Wynkoop, Marine Corps veteran and founder of Patriot Technology. “That’s exactly what they did in the city. The business networking focused with established businesses, access to funding, investors, you name it.”
Tennessee is nicknamed The Volunteer State, and that spirit of volunteering and helping infuses tech communities across the state. “What’s really special and unique about Tennessee, and not just Knoxville, but all of the major metros in Tennessee, is this very genuine spirit of collaboration and reciprocity, like a very genuine interest in seeing others succeed,” says Courtney Jones, CEO of MomSource Network. “I would say we call that the volunteer spirit.”
36|86 Entrepreneurship Festival: Launch Tennessee’s annual celebration of startups, entrepreneurs, and innovation has become one of the biggest events of its kind in the Southeast. 36|86 packs in so many speakers, guests, and special events that it spans multiple venues around downtown Nashville.
TechFed Nashville: Short for Technologist Federation of Nashville, this nonprofit takes a grassroots approach to developing tech talent in Middle Tennessee. That includes talent with tech skills (e.g., software developers) and talent that understands the unique needs of tech companies (e.g., marketers). TechFed also facilitates Nash Hack Weekathon, giving local talent a chance to showcase their skills.
Music City Tech: Taking place on Vanderbilt University’s storied campus, Music City Tech is actually three conferences that happen at the same time: Music City Code, Music City Agile, and Music City Data. The event lasts several days, plenty of time to visit each conference.
Nashville Entrepreneur Week: For those who want to be immersed in the local startup scene, NEW brings in speakers and organizes workshops that highlight what’s happening in the tech community.
“What I love most about the Nashville tech community is when we first started, everyone we talked to was very welcoming, and we were pounding the pavement,” says Zach Hendrix, co-founder and CTO of GreenPal.
Mel Taylor, president and CEO of splitsecnd, describes the foundation of Nashville’s tech community as a three-legged stool. Its legs are the flourishing healthcare industry, an innate entrepreneurial nature, and quality education. “We’ve got two amazing universities, both Vanderbilt and Belmont, as well as Lipscomb and others,” she says. “We have a number of young students who come to this city to learn and what we’re trying to do, as a community, is to help them to stay. How do we get them to come here? How do we teach them? Then, how do we get them to stay?”
Nashville Software School: Software development. UI/UX design. Data science. Nashville Software School (NSS) prepares students from all walks of life for these and similar fields through hands-on training. Students do much of their work on project-based teams, replicating the kinds of professional environments they’ll likely work in.
Apprenti Tennessee: Launched through a partnership between the Greater Nashville Technology Council and NTC Foundation, Apprenti Tennessee exists to help fill the rising demand for tech talent in Middle Tennessee. It does so through paid on-the-job training and education, too. Also noteworthy: Apprenti actively recruits women, minorities, and veterans to help diversify the tech workforce (but all are welcome to apply).
The Wond’ry: Vanderbilt’s program fosters a “maker” culture. That is, it develops and refines students’ entrepreneurial drive by challenging them to find innovative solutions to real-world problems. In the Innovation Garage, for example, corporations sponsor student teams to work on select projects with potentially high visibility.
“Software development talent is always going to be tough,” says Tom White, founder CEO of iQuantifi. “Nashville Software School is just in its infancy, so building it locally here is going to take a while. Nashville has a huge demand still to be filled for people with the talent.”
Despite some gaps in tech talent and education, most in Nashville are optimistic for a surge in the quality of talent over the coming years. That applies not only to talent maturing within the local ecosystem, but attracting talent back that left for the coasts. “You may have been from Tennessee, you’ve been out at work on the coast at a big tech company in Silicon Valley, but we have a lot of opportunity for you here in Tennessee if you’re ready to come back home,” says Brock.