published Friday, November 4th, 2011

Chattanooga a good place to start a business

Jonathan Mansfield isn't waiting to graduate college to start a business.

The 25-year-old University of Tennessee at Chattanooga student will graduate with an entrepreneurship degree in December. But he and a friend started D and J Identity, a branding and marketing business, a few months ago.

"Why would we wait?" he said. "Part of the spirit of entrepreneurship is doing what you can when you can. Timing is everything."

That strategy seems to be paying off. D and J already has a couple of clients, with a couple more coming down the pipe.

Stories like Mansfield's seem increasingly common in Chattanooga. Hundreds of UTC students gathered Thursday for the school's 16th annual entrepreneurial forum, where local business owners and startup groups shared tips for running successful startups.

"It's a huge burden. You go to bed thinking about it and you wake up thinking about it," said Jim Kennedy III, former chairman of locally based warehouse and logistics giant Kenco Group. "It takes a great deal of desire, innovation and, quite frankly, a little bit of luck."

Entrepreneurs on hand called Chattanooga a particularly startup-friendly town. For example, Chattanooga's unique gigabit Internet speeds make it well-positioned for technology startups.

"There's a lot of stuff going on out there that doesn't usually go on in a small town like Chattanooga," said Jack Studer of Lamp Post, a local business incubator.

Lamp Post's leaders have taken 12 startup businesses under their wings, investing money and their own business savvy into ideas as varied as military arms trucking and social media aggregating.

Over the next year, Studer sees few limits to the group's ability to add a number of new companies.

"If we find 10 good ideas, we'll add 10," he said.

But ideas are only part of the equation. Studer said when he considers business plans, the people behind them are as important as the actual ideas. If he can find hard workers, he said, he's often happy to invest in their ideas. If they pan out, great. If not, he'll shuffle the people around to different projects where he expects they'll succeed.

"No entrepreneur could be successful by themselves," said Taylor Monen, owner of Taco Mamacita and Urban Stack. "My growth is fueled, really 100 percent, by my people."

Isaiah Smallman, co-founder of the Lamp Post-sponsored Fancy Rhino video production company, said he and his partner have been successful up to this point largely because of their drive and the way they balance one another.

Smallman is able to keep a foot on the ground and keep in mind the bottom line. His partner tends toward the other extreme, pushing the duo to focus on going after big clients and making innovative videos.

But all their commitment to their business wouldn't lead to success if the timing was wrong, Smallman said.

"If we had the idea 10 years ago, we wouldn't have had a market for it," he said. "If we started 10 years from now, there would have been too much competition."

Most every entrepreneur who spoke recommended aspiring business people pursue their ideas, particularly young college grads. Worst-case scenario, Studer said, they'll learn what needs to happen to make a business work, and how to keep an eye out for pitfalls that lead to failure.

"Starting a company from scratch is not something you do if you want a stable life," he said. "You're jumping off a cliff, but it's the best cliff you can jump off."

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