Kickstart that business heart: Start Co. finds itself fostering a booming startup scene

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Calvin CarterThey listen to him as if a quiz will follow. As he speaks with his hands, attempting to project an imaginary graph on something about “money flow” and “potential costumers,” two women sit across from him. Their yellow notebooks are tattooed with information he’s shared.

“…And this is when you’ll want your company to look at other ways of revenue,” their teacher, Start Co. Co-President Andre Fowlkes said, as he continued his lesson.

It looked like a college lecture. But the two listening to him aren’t students. They’re entrepreneurs.

And this type of scenario isn’t uncommon. In fact, given what Start Co. offers local startups and entrepreneurs, it’s one of many.

Think of Start Co., as a Swiss-Army Knife of resources to Memphis’ startup and entrepreneur scene. They offer mentorships, workshops, and pitch practices. Their workspace, which includes Wi-Fi and coffee, is also open. And if speed is key, the company offers accelerator programs, which Start Co. Community Manager Hillary Quirk described as “three-month long boot camps that cram a lot of business development and entrepreneurship skills.”

Located in the same building as Playhouse On The Square in Midtown, Start Co. started in 2008 to help a growing entrepreneur ecosystem. “If you looked at the growth from 2006 to today, then yeah.” Start Co. CEO/Co-President Eric Matthews said. “It is growing, and it seems to be growing dramatically. Every week, it’s three to five new entrepreneurs that reach out to us and are looking for support or assistance. That’s a pretty large number. “

Growth also includes variety.

For instance, the organization has seen a boom of women-led startups in the area recently. “That number has gone from zero to ten in a year,” Quirk noted. But with unemployment high, why are some residents trading in the alleged stability of a job for the high risk or high gain entrepreneur path? “People aren’t going into traditional jobs, where you work for 40 years but then retire, because jobs have changed. Technology has changed a lot,” University Of Memphis Entrepreneur Journalism Professor Dr. Carrie Brown said. “People have to be adaptable.”

“…Part of that is what the great recession has done, and it has had people reconsider what job security really means,” Matthews said. “And a lot of people believe that systems have shifted to betting on themselves as opposed to betting on employers.”

For Commercial Appeal Business Reporter, James Dowd, a rough economy is often the perfect soil for entrepreneurial growth. “In many of the programs I’ve been to that deal with entrepreneurs, they’ll say that often in the most dire economy, you’ll see more innovative startups,” Dowd said. “People will find that their career is shaky, or graduates will see the job market isn’t so great. People are not comfortable in jobs and careers.”

Whatever the motivations for being an entrepreneur in Memphis, it’s not the ultimate guaranteed fix to the city’s economic woes. In fact, it’s a path that can include a lot of rejection and failure. Last month, Work for Pie, a local startup that tried to find work for developers, shut down. It started through Start Co.’s accelerator Seed Hatchery. While Dowd praises the resources of Start Co. he expresses “We need more wins.” “I’m excited. I see so much talent here, but we have to do more to attract and keep talent here. There’s always more to be done,” Dowd said.

Yet more is definitely being done.

Recently five startups graduated from the UpStart Memphis accelerator. These are wedding shopping platform Wedding Worthy, art-leasing startup Artwardly, the jewelry and earphone combo business GemPhones, discount social shopping site, Stylecrook, and Kids360 which makes accessibility easier between daycares and parents. And all of them are women-led.

In addition, Start Co. has joined forces with the Cleveland Ohio-based JumpStart, a company like Start Co. that has aimed to provide resources to entrepreneurs and startups in their area. JumpStart’s success has meant their companies raising $580 million with $180 million to women and minority based entrepreneurs and startups, Matthews said. The White House’s Start Up America Initiative— an attempt to accelerate high-growth entrepreneurship throughout the nation—took notice, eventually asking JumpStart to help other cities in the nation. Today, JumpStart has been in 15 cities before Memphis.

For Start Co. this means more growth, from getting more capital to also focusing more on post-accelerator work. And that’s just the tip of what they have planned.

More wins could definitely be on the horizon.

“There’s just so much going on with Start Co.,” Brown said. “There seems to be a lot of movement going on in the startup scene in Memphis too. Sort of like a boom.”


Calvin Carter is a former entrepreneurial journalism student at the University of Memphis. Contact him at ccarter567@yahoo.com