Chattanooga's entrepreneurial ecosystem has launched more than just groundbreaking businesses rooted in the Scenic City over the past decade. It has also produced a generation of startup junkies who are building careers on long days, high pressure, no playbook, and uncertain outcomes — all laced with the tantalizing prospect of changing everything from the ground up.
"Once you start, it feels odd not to be working on some sort of innovation," says Matt Averyhart, co-founder of Onsight Fitness and an early employee of Chattanooga-based startup juggernaut Bellhop. "Once you turn on the entrepreneurial side of your brain and become innovative, you are constantly thinking about innovating things."
* 2014: Bellhop
* 2016: Onsight Fitness
The cultures that coalesce around startups tend to build on themselves, spinning out new ideas and sparking careers across industries, says Marcus Shaw, CEO of CO.LAB, a nonprofit organization that boosts startups in the Chattanooga area and connects founders to resources.
"That's how you end up with people going from one company to another," he says.
The Chattanooga startup culture differs in one important way, however, from similar ecosystems in bigger cities, Shaw adds. "The common theme is that, maybe more so than large corporate ecosystems, our startup ecosystem is incredibly relationship-driven," he says.
For Emily Maxie, the chief marketing officer for Very, the experience of building a strong team under intense pressure has kept her coming back to startups again and again. Since 2012, she's moved between four high-growth, tech-focused employers in Chattanooga.
* Very: 2017-now
* Skuid: 2015-2017
* SIGNiX: 2012-2015
* TransCard: 2012
Very, which has grown from 33 to 60 employees during Maxie's tenure, is an 'internet of things' shop that incorporates online tools with everyday items — from fish tanks to slow cookers. She has spent the last 3-and-a-half years growing the marketing strategy of a company in high-growth mode.
"There is something special about working really hard on something that has no guarantee of success with other people who are working really hard on it and you all believe in it and you also are kind of terrified it might not work," says Maxie, who has also worked for Skuid, SIGNiX and TransCard. "There's something about the relationships you build in those situations."
Her biggest complaint about startup life is that more people don't consider it, Maxie says.
"In college, no one was like, 'You could start your own company and that's a viable path.' Instead, it was, 'You could start your own company and that's really risky.'
ALWAYS STARTING SOMETHING
Ustin Zarubin and his business partners didn't actually have a business to pitch when they applied to high-stakes startup accelerator Y Combinator. But that's not the kind of thing that stops a guy who's on his fourth startup in seven years.
"Y Combinator accepts companies at any stage — but this was just an idea, not a company," Zarubin says. "No customers, no revenue, not incorporated."
They did it anyway, and the idea for Batch, a kind of time machine for corporate data, was promising enough to get them funded for the August 2020, 12-week accelerator program.
"It's a super well-oiled machine," Zarubin says. "You're constantly working with partners to build the company in a successful way, help with fundraising, business introductions, connections to alumni and networks."
But there's no such thing as part-time Y Combinator, Zarubin adds.
* Bellhop: 2013-2016
* Shimmur: 2016-2018
* Community.com: 2018-2020
* Batch: Now
The expectation is you leave your job and do this full time," he says. "It was definitely absolutely insane, but this opportunity doesn't come to anyone, so we decided to take it."
That meant leaving Community.com, a thriving startup he had co-founded that enables influencers and celebrities to communicate with fans through text. That business was born from Shimmur, another startup where he'd worked that created a 'weird' product that allowed teenage influencers to interact with fans directly.
The work is intense and demanding, but there's also some luck involved, Zarubin says. And the key to luck, he adds, is taking your shots.
"How do you generate luck?" he says. "Put yourself in as many positions as you can that have the potential to generate a positive outcome."
Zarubin, another early employee of Bellhop, came to Chattanooga and the startup life accidentally, applying at the last minute for the Gig Tank program through CO.LAB one summer when he was a physics student at the University of Georgia.
After college, he was determined to return to Chattanooga, where his summer experience had shown him the potential of the local tech startup environment. In 2013, he landed at Bellhop, becoming engineer #4, which set him on the path to entrepreneurship.
"I'm very thankful for all the things they did for me and taught me," he says.
Now Zarubin is working around the clock, building out Batch with his partners. During Y Combinator, they built a product in two months and launched it successfully. Batch has scored some big clients, attracted additional investors, and is now in rapid growth mode — which comes with its own challenges and pressures, Zarubin says.
"We have all these investors now, and we have to build this and be successful," he says.
PUTTING DOWN NEW ROOTS
Amna Shah was living in Chicago and had never even heard of Chattanooga when she was recruited to work for international shipping and freight startup Steam Logistics in 2013.
"They wanted me to come and interview, and I had not a clue where Chattanooga was," Shah says. "I kind of fell in love with the people — how down-to-earth they were."
She also fell in love with the startup experience and, after a little more than a year at Steam, decided to launch her own startup focused on helping companies implement cargo systems that make their processes more consistent and efficient.
* Steam Logistics: 2013
* AHS Consulting: 2014-now
* i-Card: 2015-now
Starting my business was taking my expertise and saying I could do to help more companies," she says. "That's very close to my heart — how do you use technology in an archaic industry like freight forwarding? You want to get them to the next level."
That drive is crucial to surviving the pressure cooker of startup life and building a business that succeeds long term, Shah says.
"The one single skill you need is the passion you have for what you want to do," she says. "You have to day in and day out breathe the business."
The local startup community has been inspiring from the very beginning of her time in Chattanooga, Shah adds.
"Our startup community just brushes off on you its energy," she says.
And the need for what she does at AHS Consulting was clear, she says.
"The company grew exponentially," says Shah, who now has 12-15 employees. "We did a million (dollars) in the second year."
In addition to her consulting business, Shah has launched a product called i-Card, a virtual business card app that eliminates the need for paper cards. It uses QR code scanning technology to share information between individuals, which lets users keep information up to date an all in one place.
Her success as an entrepreneur has put Shah in a spot to give back, and she has founded a middle school in her home country of Pakistan, among other philanthropic endeavors.
"I've kept myself pretty busy," she says.
THE BOUDINET GUARANTEE
Jeremy Boudinet's first brush with entrepreneurship came when he was a political science student at the University of Tennessee, when he gained fame as a talented ghostwriter for people who needed help polishing their papers.
His reputation grew to the point that he developed the Boudinet Guarantee: Earn an A or a B or get your money back. By the time he graduated in 2009, people were calling from hundreds of miles away for help, but Boudinet still hadn't figured out what to do for a career. So he did what so many good writers do when they don't know what to do next: He went to law school. It did not go well.
"I hated law school, hated it," he says. "I was a fish out of water."
While Boudinet was finishing a degree he didn't really want, his college friends had been successfully pitching Ambition, their sales-performance tech company, at startup accelerator Y Combinator. When the funding came through, they needed someone to produce great content to market and grow their new business.
And they remembered the Boudinet Guarantee.
"They had 13 employees and two customers — this was April 2014 — and they called and said, 'Would you be down to come and work for us?'" Boudinet says. "Sight unseen, I moved to Chattanooga. There wasn't a name for my role, but it turned into director of marketing."
* Ambition: 2014-2018
* Nextiva: January 2019 to now
He didn't happen to know anything about marketing at the time, but that was no problem. Boudinet jumped in, read everything he could find on the topic and figured it out.
"One benefit of startups, you learn faster than you would anywhere else," Boudinet says. "You can open doors for yourself and be of service to a company in a meaningful way."
Ambition grew fast, and Boudinet spent 4 years immersed in keeping that momentum going. Then, burned out and ready for a rest, he moved to Florida to start his own media and content company.
One of Boudinet's clients was a voice-over-internet-protocol company called Nextiva — which had also been an early Ambition client. In January 2019, Nextiva recruited Boudinet to come to Arizona to help the 13-year-old company chase aggressive growth.
"My boss was the company's original marketing leader," Boudinet says. "I'm seeing how they manage a big team, how they don't get burned out, how they inspire people and delegate work, and it's fascinating to watch."
But his Chattanooga startup experience has also stayed with him, Boudinet says.
"What an exciting time — the energy was phenomenal, it was the opportunity of a lifetime," he says. "I still have mad love for Chattanooga."
The roots of the economic development ecosystem in Chattanooga and Hamilton County:
* Chattanooga/Hamilton County INCubator offers low-cost space and assistance for startups on the North Shore.
* The Company Lab, also known as CO.LAB, provides counseling, accelerator programs and hosts Gig Tank and Startup Week.
* The Enterprise Center promotes research, facilities, collaboration and programs to aid startup success.
* Tennessee Small Business Development Center offers counseling and courses for startups and growing small businesses.
* LAUNCH Chattanooga offers assistance and accelerator programs for startups.
* Brightbridge, Kiva, Tennessee Valley Federal Credit Union Idea Leap program and the Small Business Administration offer low-interest loans and assistance for startups.
* Dynamo Fund, The Jump Fund, the Renaissance Fund and other venture funds provide seed and equity capital for startups and growing businesses.
* EPB offers up to 10 Gig internet connections citywide, proclaiming Chattanooga “Gig City,” and helps house a local office for Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s commercialization programs.
* At UTC, the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship helps foster startups and internships for local small businesses while the Center for Urban Informatics and Progress, or CUIP, is helping drive the city’s Smart Community Collaborative.