Entrepreneurship | February 13, 2018

Charlie Brock: Building a startup ecosystem for Tennessee’s entrepreneurs

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New Revivalists is a series from ImpactAlpha and Village Capital profiling the people, places and policies reviving entrepreneurship — and the American Dream.

New Revivalist: Charlie Brock, CEO of Launch Tennessee
Place: Nashville, Tennessee
Mission: Helping Tennessee entrepreneurs connect to investors, mentors and larger businesses that can help them grow their revenues.
Follow: @LaunchTN

Charlie Brock is building in Tennessee what entrepreneurs in California and New York sometimes take for granted: a robust, homegrown startup ecosystem.

After selling his media company in 2008, Brock co-founded the Chattanooga Renaissance Fund. He opened the CO.LAB entrepreneurship center and started hosting events and office hours for local startups seeking access to mentorship and funding. With Launch Tennessee, backed by Gov. Bill Haslam and the state of Tennessee, Brock is taking his Chattanooga-based efforts statewide.

When Brock set out in 2012, Tennessee was short on places entrepreneurs could go to build and test companies. “A number of us got busy with setting up initiatives around key questions on how we help create a community where entrepreneurs can be supported through mentorship, office space, co-working space, investment, access to customers, and introductions,” Brock told ImpactAlpha.

Launch Tennessee now supports six entrepreneur centers across the state, touching about 2,500 entrepreneurs a year. The initiative has convened more than 3,000 events for founders, and estimates it has supported the creation of more than 2,000 jobs. On deck for 2018: connecting entrepreneurs to larger firms in the states. Says Brock, “If we can help them get to revenue faster, everything else will fall in line.”

ImpactAlpha: What were some of early challenges in your work at Launch Tennessee? How did government help with those challenges?

Brock: While we were working on developing infrastructure and support and capital for entrepreneurs, the city and utilities were building out technology infrastructure. The electric power board and others were installing fiberoptic lines throughout our 600-mile surface area so that we could have the fastest Internet and smartest smart grid in the country.

That became an important tool for us; really a marketing tool. We were able to speak to entrepreneurs outside of the city and state about Chattanooga’s quality of life: great outdoor scenes, bike riding, climbing — 20 minutes from downtown to those activities.

As a city, Chattanooga became known as innovative and progressive because we were one of the first cities to have the fastest internet in the country: the only place where you can get ubiquitous gigabit-per-second Internet speed. So the opportunity came to us to market the city to next-generation entrepreneurs and innovators.

ImpactAlpha: Outside of Nashville and Chattanooga, are there any other cities that are integral to the work of Launch Tennessee?

Brock: We financially support six entrepreneur centers across the state doing the heavy lifting on the ground in their respective communities. They report to us on a quarterly basis metrics that we’ve agreed make sense for their area. We get the entrepreneur center directors together on a regular basis and whoever is the host city for that particular meeting will have entrepreneurs from their city present to directors from across the state.

They’re all tasked with helping make intros to help those entrepreneurs, whether it’s introductions to talent, investors, potential customers and researchers. It truly has become a very collaborative statewide network that is designed to benefit entrepreneurs.

ImpactAlpha: How do you share knowledge across Tennessee?

Brock: You have to have people in those seats, not only here in Launch Tennessee, but across the network saying “Okay, I’m willing to expose myself and talk about where we have challenges, and also I’m willing to reach out and take some of my time and help my counterpart over here from across the state.”

We have regular sharing of business challenges through lightning round sessions where we’re quickly throwing challenges on the table and responding to them immediately. And then we also have a Slack channel with other entrepreneur center directors. So we’re communicating on a regular basis.

ImpactAlpha: How many businesses and entrepreneurs are you serving and what are your plans for 2018?

Brock: Collectively, we’ve supported the creation of over 2,000 jobs, hosted over 3,000 events for entrepreneurs, and touch about 2,500 entrepreneurs a year. While we can’t offer programming for everybody, we try to play the role of navigator for how to help the entrepreneur.

A major focus for us in 2018 is market access. We’re asking how do we help more of our entrepreneurs get meetings with existing industry? Because if we can help them get to revenue faster, everything else will fall in line. Investors are going to be much more interested if entrepreneurs are already calling Tennessee corporations clients and customers.

We also want to be touching entrepreneurs everywhere across the 95 counties in Tennessee. This last year, we had participation from 84% of those counties in our programming. From what I hear when I talk to other state organization leaders, that is a phenomenal number.

What Charlie’s Reading:

  1. Startup Way by Eric Ries
  2. Startup Communities by Brad Feld
  3. The Innovation Blind Spot by Ross Baird

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