Chattanooga entrepreneurs, thirsty for talent, subsidize housing for new hires

photo Cameron Rogers, who moved here from New Brunswick, Canada, works for Fancy Rhino. Waypaver, a division of Lamp Post Group, uses creative recruiting techniques to attract talent to Chattanooga for businesses like Fancy Rhino.

Cameron Rogers made the leap to Chattanooga from New Brunswick, a small province on Canada's Atlantic coast, to pursue her dream job.

In the months since she was invited in August 2013 to visit the offices of Fancy Rhino, a Chattanooga-based creative agency that boasts clients from Nike to Samsung, Rogers held out hope that she'd be picked to work at a place she sees as a rising star in the world of advertising.

"I had it in the back of my mind that this was an ideal job, one of the coolest places to work in one of the coolest cities," she said.

Her dream came true when Rogers received a call from Tiffanie Robinson, chief operating officer at the Lamp Post Group, which houses mentors and invests in startups.

Robinson offered Rogers more than a job. She also threw in a subsidized apartment in The 300 Building, just a few blocks from Fancy Rhino's offices in the Loveman's building. She lives on a floor with a half-dozen other recruits to various companies in which Lamp Post is an investor. Rogers receives about $250 per month toward her $685 monthly rent, which includes water and electricity.

"I'm downtown, literally walking distance to pretty much everything," Rogers said.

Robinson's plan to subsidize workers by offering incentives beyond pay and experience is part the Lamp Post Group's plan to boost its recruiting ability and feed talent into a growing portfolio of high-growth companies.

Waypaver, which is styled as an "innovation lab" for Lamp Post's recruiting efforts, is part of a concept proposed by the venture incubator's founders called "indirect investment." Though the return on a housing subsidy or other ideas is more difficult to quantify versus a straight investment directly into a business, they believe that the idea will yield dividends.

"We're building a community here," Robinson said. "All of Lamp Post's portfolio companies are growing, so we're basically trying to figure out this whole talent dilemma."

The basic problem is that Chattanooga companies can't find and retain enough developers, designers and artists to fuel its startups' explosive growth, due in part to the lack of a true research-level university as well as a sub-par K-12 education system. The city also has limited options for advancement in some niche occupations, forcing some talented workers to look elsewhere to get promoted. These challenges force companies, in turn, to look outside Chattanooga to pursue high-level talent.

But by creating a creative community, a district in which staff can live, work and play in close proximity, Chattanooga can put a stop to the brain drain and foster an environment that begins to draw workers organically to the Scenic City.

"Being able to find a place for people from different companies, knowing that they're all super talented people, putting them in one housing unit and watching what happens, it's an interesting prospect," said Joda Thongnopnua, director of communications for Waypaver. "What new ideas could we come up with if people were living in the same spaces and also working together at the same time?"

Waypavers hopes to attract more workers like Graham Bredemeyer, a 3D printing specialist from Fort Wayne, Indiana. Before he came to Chattanooga, he had lived in Indiana his whole life. He had heard about Chattanooga, but wasn't considering a move until he heard about the housing subsidy.

"They said, 'By the way, we can really help sweeten the deal and make your first year in particular more affordable, get your feet on the ground,'" he said. "I honestly wasn't expecting that."

Now that he's here, hooked in with the business accelerator CoLab and assisting with the city's GigTank business boot camp, he's not really thinking about leaving.

"I've got opportunities elsewhere that I'm turning down to stay in Chattanooga, actually," he said. "For the foreseeable future, I plan on sticking around."

Finding affordable downtown housing space for workers is the first challenge faced by the team. In addition to renting out a floor of The 300, Waypaver is also examing nearby vacant office buildings for possible conversion into residential space. There's no timeline on Lamp Post's plan to purchase additional space to create its own innovation district, though the group's Market Street offices are just blocks away from suitable buildings that are underused.

Housing, however, is just one part of the equation. Workers want more than job and a place to live.

"We've lost a lot of single talent," Robinson said. "It would be ideal to have housing a block away, but also we need more restaurants. There needs to be more entertainment, so we're building an environment that feeds more millennial talent."

Another idea under consideration is a framework for workers to easily jump between jobs and between companies in order to learn new things and take on new challenges. Rather than fly to Boston, for instance, to recruit a specialized programmer, a Lamp Post company could simply borrow somebody from another startup in the portfolio.

"It's really expensive to replace people," Thongnopnua said. "When you bring in a ton of people all the time that's a massive cost instead of trying to rotate out and letting people work on what they really want to work on."

Though their task is one that companies here have struggled with for years, Thongnopnua and Robinson have the benefit of millions in dollars in free capital gained by the Lamp Post's partners from their sale of Access America to Chicago-based Coyote Transport. With money and a mandate, they believe there's a lot they can do.

"Right now, Chattanooga is an interesting place to go if you're well into your career or just starting , but there's that middle part that people feel uncomfortable about," he said. "But I think it's a manageable task: let's bring smart people who are a good fit here and try to keep them here."

Contact staff writer Ellis Smith at 423-757-6315 or with tips and documents.