A company that college friends founded by capitalizing on an obvious campus need won this year's Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce Spirit of Innovation award.
Bellhops carved a niche for itself by providing manpower to help college students move. Today, small- and medium-sized moves are the company's domain.
"This is awesome!" co-founder Cameron Doody exclaimed Wednesday during a ceremony at the Chattanooga Convention Center.
It also was unexpected, Doody, 28, said. Finalists included PriceWaiter and Variable. The annual competition, established in 2001, honors companies that have launched practices or products with a competitive edge.
Auburn University graduates Doody and Stephen Vlahos, also 28, piloted Bellhops in 2011, then called Campus Bellhops. Reservations booked up. A year or so later, the two tapped Ted Alling, a partner at venture incubator Lamp Post, for advice on scaling their startup.
Family connections linked Vlahos to Alling, who'd logged plenty of startup business experience from his days at Chattanooga-based Access America, now part of Chicago-based Coyote Logistics. Alling did the duo one better, and by October 2012 Bellhops had relocated to Chattanooga from Birmingham, Ala., and Lamp Post was funding it.
"It would be very, very difficult for us to do what we're doing in Birmingham," Doody said.
The "old-school" city isn't tuned to startup culture, the Knoxville native said. When he'd tell people he was part of a startup, they'd respond, " 'Oh, that's cute'," he said.
Bellhops will log about 10,000 moves this year. It's in more than 120 cities nationwide. It has 35 employees -- in addition to 10,000 or so student "bellhops" in nearly every state. It expects to add another 10-15 employees in the next few months.
In late September, Bellhops won $200,000 in a national startup competition, Miller Lite Tap the Future. It was one of 25 semifinalists that pitched in five cities across the United States, and one of five finalists. No strings were attached to the prize. The competition was open to businesses that were less than five years old and had less than $5 million in net income during the fiscal year prior to entering the contest, among other restrictions.
To hear Doody tell it, Bellhops is offering a service that no other company is: secure and affordable smaller scale moving help from workers who are responsible and smart. It costs $40 per bellhop, per hour, with a one-hour minimum. Most people use two bellhops for an two-and-a-half's worth of labor, making the average bill $200.
"We exclusively contract bright, educated college students," Doody said.
So says Bellhops' website: "We aren't just great workers, we're great people ... Every move is an opportunity to impress, because you never know who is watching. Future boss? Future reference? Every Bellhop will be entering the real world in the near future, and we're giving them a platform to prove themselves."
Bellhops recruits its help from student organizations such as ROTC, Greek organizations and sports teams. Applicants have to submit a video application to be considered for the team.
Bellhops respond on their own to moves they'd like to handle, and customers see pictures and profiles of the brawn that they'll pay.
The company is licensed, insured and bonded. It has a 100 percent replacement policy, which means if anything is damaged during a move the customer gets its full value from the company. Bellhops also lets customers cancel or change the date or time of a move without penalty.
Even younger startups were honored Wednesday, as well.
3D Ops, a company that developed 3-D technology to help surgeons operate, won the Early Innovator Award, which highlights emerging tech-based companies that have produced groundbreaking prototypes or beta stage software applications expected to have a significant competitive advantage.
3D Ops was part of Chattanooga nonprofit organization Co.Lab's summer accelerator program.
Finalists for the Early Innovator Award, awarded by the Chattanooga Technology Council, were 3D Ops, Rapid RMS and Beyond Right Now Technologies.
Contact staff writer Mitra Malek at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6406.
This story was updated at 10:10 a.m. The story originally stated that most people use two bellhops for an hour's worth of labor, making the average bill $80. That is incorrect. It should read, "Most people use two bellhops for an two-and-a-half's worth of labor, making the average bill $200."