Big Easy Business

00:00 August 26, 2013
By: David Vicari
Bigger, Easier and Entrepreneur-Oriented

[Where Y'At Staff/Provided Photo]
While the business world out there may be inherently competitive, here in the Big Easy, for now at least, it really feels as if we're all in this together—with a culture unmatched by any other community.

We're friends, we're co-workers, we support each other, and the news is getting out. Recently, Forbes magazine has begun bestowing upon the city of New Orleans a slew of high rankings in business and technology for unparalleled growth since the city was forced to reset in 2005.

The vibrant startup community, which has bled over into a small army of uniquely themed food trucks, restaurants, urban farms, and even goatherds, surprisingly began with the emergence of a tech bubble showing prominence as early as the late 1990s. Since then, even with Katrina's impact, New Orleans has been a surprising frontrunner in the South for tech startups, even becoming known as "The Silicon Bayou" in recent years.

Zach Kupperman, founder of Silicon Bayou News, has been following the wave of tech startups since 2011, growing his blog into one of the best news and tech outlets broadcasting our achievements to the world. He easily adds insight to the current state of the market.

"I think New Orleans is in a good place right now with startups through our technology companies," Kupperman asserts. "I think part of this is because now we're seeing, first off from a marketing perspective, all of the right pools finally in place. The physical clusters of co-working spaces and watering holes are actually allowing people exploring entrepreneurship a way to get together, bounce off ideas, develop a team, to take companies from concept to reality. Many aspects of this grew from government support and tech-influenced companies helping to support other ventures."

Britney Penouilh, voice of Ekistics, the umbrella company facilitating the New Orleans startup community mainstay known as Entrepreneurs' Row, agrees.

"There were a lot of startups coming to New Orleans seeking the tax credits," she explains. "The incentives we have to offer, as well as the low cost of living."

Although the post-Katrina hikes in rent and housing fees are a serious headache to local residents, Penouilh explains that even at our current rates, housing in the city of New Orleans as compared to other major cities is a bargain. Pair that with all the things making tourists from all over the world flock here, and you have the draw of what seems to be a permanent vacation.

"I feel as if there's a gravitational force field that the hospitality industry promotes, but it's not just that. It's the culture of people, the weather; I mean, that's a huge environmental effect," she says proudly. "People tend to be happier in warmer climates, and even geographically, I feel New Orleans possesses an advantage."

Entrepreneurs' Row, one of the premier neo-corporate hot spots in New Orleans, centers around providing work space and resources to some of the city's most promising startup ventures, directly in the shadows of high-rises in the CBD.

Paired up with other trendy locations, such as International House and the Rice Mill Lofts, Entrepreneurs' Row is governed by Ekistics' sound devotion to creativity, environment, and style. Ekistics and Entrepreneurs' Row place prestige in the idea of co-working. And co-working, it would seem, is the glue keeping the New Orleans startup community together. "Business school alone only teaches now for entrepreneurs is inspiring them you the bolts behind it, and you might and allowing them to meet people who and allowing them to meet people who rarely work together as a group," Penouilh explains. "What New Orleans is offering now for entrepreneurs is inspiring them and allowing them to meet people who have built successful companies because the community is so tight-knit. It's really a very valuable resource."

Peter Bodenheimer, one of the partners in Launch Pad, another co-working facility that leases office space to startups and entrepreneurs, agrees: "I think it's really important to be around other people and bounce your ideas off them."

Bodenheimer, a quintessential New Orleans entrepreneur, stays involved with the vibrant New Orleans entrepreneurial community while remaining heavily involved in several other ventures of his own, including a company called Flatstack and a mobile drinksharing app called "Bar Notes".

"It drives me nuts when people say, 'We're going to be the next Silicon Valley,' or something like that, because we're not," he says. "We are New Orleans. We are unique and we have things that are special and different, both good and bad, that we have to accept. I think the celebratory culture we have here is great. People always say, 'New Orleans is easy. Either you get it or you don't.'" While Bodenheimer champions our startup community for its cohesiveness, he also warns of possible drawbacks and pitfalls.

"Now the flip side, I think, is that our culture can also lead to a bit of a downside. There's not as much urgency. We have a slower pace of life—I mean, that's just who we are. I don't think it's a bad thing. But if you go to other places in the country, the pace is much faster, you know? People are breathing down each other's necks, and there's an idea that you have to get it all done quickly. That doesn't exist here as much, and it's an important part of building a company, I think."

Despite these concerns, however, Bodenheimer feels the good outweighs the bad. And as long as "Southern hospitality" continues to bode well with "dog eat dog," he feels at home.

"One of the nice things about New Orleans is you have a supportive community," he champions. "People are engaged with each other, and you get a sense that you're in it together and not off on your own."

If anybody knows anything about how supportive the New Orleans startup community can be, it would be Tim Williamson.

For over a decade, he's been stoking fires as co-founder and CEO of the 501©(3) non-profit, the Idea Village.

"The Idea Village was founded in the year 2000 at a bar," Williamson boasts. "We started talking about our competition, then about New Orleans and why there wasn't more vibrancy in the city. In an attempt to fix this, we started a business plan contest with a $10,000 prize. We each put up $2,000. The purpose was to challenge the community and see if there were any entrepreneurs out there and those who believe in them."

From that initial contest sprang up one of the most expansive projects catering to the New Orleans startup community, working with over 3,000 entrepreneurs over thirteen years. Collectively, this group of entrepreneurs has created 100 million dollars in revenue and over two thousand jobs.

And more importantly, most of Idea Village's services are free to entrepreneurs, contributing to an ecosystem and network that works strategically throughout the year to find and support entrepreneurial talent.

With these numbers, it's safe to say Williamson has had a large hand in buildup, excitement, and national attention creating the local culture of New Orleans garnered by the annual New Orleans garnered by the annual New Orleans startups. One of the biggest contributions to the community is undoubtedly the buildup, excitement, and national attention garnered by the annual New Orleans Entrepreneur Week, which has become known far and wide as the "Mardi Gras of entrepreneurship". The gathering, which this past year saw 826 entrepreneurs and thousands of people who believe in them, had much humbler beginnings.

"Entrepreneur Week got started in 2009, an innovation really from Katrina," Williamson explains. "Volunteers from all over the country and world, and more specifically, MBAs, came to Idea Village to help entrepreneurs. So in 2009, to create some efficiency with these groups, we did it all in one week."

In 2010, Idea Village officially renamed it "New Orleans Entrepreneur Week," placed it at the end of its entrepreneurial season, and opened it up to the public. Amazingly, over 325 entrepreneurs participated that year alone. The last Entrepreneur Week hosted seventy-five different events for local entrepreneurs to learn how to start a business, get direct consulting, and help raise capital.

Williamson, after dealing with so many entrepreneurs and being one himself, has become a bit of a sage to many and is never afraid to offer advice.

"First, know yourself," he says. "Know what you're good at and know what you're bad at. Then surround yourself with people who are good at what you're bad at; because entrepreneurship is a personal journey; the idea is the easy part. Believe it or not, the idea really doesn't matter. You can change it over and over again, and you will."

Bodenheimer tailors his advice specifically to New Orleans.

"There's a saying in Silicon Valley that I feel is becoming more applicable here. It's, 'Nobody really respects you until you ship something.' It doesn't have to be great the first time, but build something, do something. There are plenty of people running around saying what they're going to do. Make it happen. If you produce something, you instantly earn respect from me."

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