Startups and BBQ – The New Memphis

May 29, 2014

BB King. Elvis. Graceland. Jerry Lee Lewis. Beale Street. Cotton. Shipping. Martin Luther King. Civil Rights on the national stage. All of these things come to mind when you think of Memphis, Tennessee. You can now add one more to that list: Startups.

Yep. That’s right. Startups.

Memphis has a long history of economic success. From the early days of its settlement, it was a shipping and trading hub for the early United States thanks to the Mississippi River. It progressed into one of the world’s largest cotton producers, even having a cotton exchange similar to the stock exchange on Wall Street. As our country grew, so did Memphis’ value because of geographic location. Today, more than 60 percent of the U.S. population is within a one-day drive of Memphis. It has grown into a logistics hub and houses several North American railway companies, as well as FedEx.

What’s awesome to see on my second stop of our 2014 small-market tour, is that there is an undercurrent happening in Memphis that is shifting the landscape of the economic success of the region to technology. And it’s happening through the leadership of folks like Eric Mathews and Patrick Woods. Mathews heads up StartCo, a regional accelerator with 20 startups, all of which have come to Memphis to develop their companies. Woods is in charge of a very unique program, started by A>M Ventures that helps early stage companies get the right message out about their products, who they are, and where they are going.

Our team met Woods at SXSW in 2013. Over the past year, we have worked together to help Woods’ outreach efforts by building a bridge from Memphis to Silicon Valley and through other early stage startup communities. We connected with Mathews at SXSW this year through one of our strongest partners, the Global Accelerator Network. Mathews was very convincing. He not only showed me a startup community that was thriving, but he also fed me world-class BBQ at the same time.

Did somebody say BBQ? You don’t really have to ask @KelleyHilborn or me twice. Our Pavlovian response kicked in and we had our flights booked before you could flip a coin.

Last week marked the annual celebration of Memphis’ BBQ Fest – one of the largest festivals of its kind in the world. It also marked the first week for the StartCo teams, and we were there to welcome them with some SoftLayer Catalyst goodness (as a side to that BBQ).

We met with all of the teams and were greeted by folks from all over the world. Teams from NYC, Europe, Silicon Valley, and even local Memphis were made up of entrepreneurs who were eager to hear about Catalyst and how we could connect them to our community. From big data companies, to analytics companies and even a company that manufactures a chip for your dog, these teams definitely have the smarts and character to disrupt and succeed.

Our office and mentor hours provided us a strong foundation to connect with the startups one-on-one. BBQ Fest and events with A>M Ventures, StartCo, and our friends from Keen.io gave us an opportunity to spend two full days with the entrepreneurs, getting a higher sense of where they hoped to take their businesses.

The teams in Memphis are just as hungry, innovative, capable, and smart as any we work with in our startup ecosystems around the world. What we loved most about our time in Memphis was how welcoming the local leaders were, and further how open-minded they are to making a positive impact on this world. The leadership that is building this tech ecosystem from the ground up is doing so in an open, communal, and giving way, which all tech ecosystems need to be built upon.

Because of this philosophy, they are ensuring their success. They’re creating a community based on collaboration and mutual success. It reminds me of cities like Boulder and Portland. These cities were built on the same principles, and they enjoy greater success than many other larger markets.

And SoftLayer was there at the beginning. We’re excited to watch this ecosystem grow, and to continue collaborating to help support people like Mathews, Woods and many others in Memphis who see the forest through the trees.

Next stop on the small market express…Kelowna, British Columbia. Our very own @gkdog will be delivering a keynote and sitting on a panel, instilling our community and strategic philosophies on his home Canadian turf.

-@JoshuaKrammes