The Challenges of Building a Startup Ecosystem in a Small Town

The town of Jackson, Tennessee, is known for it’s gorgeous Cypress Grove Nature park, Casey Jones Museum and baseball. Within the community Lisa Garner, executive director at theCO, is hard at work building a tech ecosystem and encouraging people to bring their startup ideas to fruition.

This time for the #StartupsEverywhere series, Lisa talks with me about the challenges of building an ecosystem in a small town, who is rolling up their sleeve to help and her theCO entity.

Lisa Garner is the Executive Director of theCO in Jackson, TN

Lisa Garner is the Executive Director of theCO in Jackson, TN

What’s your role in your ecosystem?

I am theCO’s Executive Director. My role has a number of facets—I manage the space and our employees, plan and organize our events and programming, and do the initial mentoring for entrepreneurs at theCO, among other things. I also run my own company, Garner Blue, making and selling hand-dyed indigo textiles and accessories. This has been especially helpful in my role at theCO, because as a business owner myself, I’m able to offer our founders a unique perspective.

Can you tell us a little more about theCO?

TheCO is the front door for innovation in West Tennessee. We are a resource, collaborative community, and support system for everyone from the serial entrepreneur to those taking their first plunge into business ownership. TheCO provides a place to design, prototype, and physically build that idea in your head via our makerspace (there’s robotics, woodworking, an electronics lab, metal working tools, lasers and 3D printers).

We also have a coworking space that serves as a great alternative to working from home, providing a modern, professional space to meet with clients. Programmatically, theCO hosts community meetups, workshops, and business cohorts. We also help to grow coding talent locally through our Dev Catalyst program for high schoolers, various workshops, and much more.

Overall, we work to support entrepreneurs, makers, creatives and tech enthusiasts, and providing access to space, mentors, education, and community.

What is the biggest challenge you face in Jackson?

Our biggest challenge is getting people to step out on a limb to start and develop their ideas. While being in a small community has its advantages, it also means that we haven’t had the record of success seen in Silicon Valley, Nashville or Memphis. There’s a common mindset that: “I’m in West Tennessee, sometimes I don’t even have access to the internet, how could I create a successful startup here?”

But that’s one of the things theCO is trying to change. Last year we transformed an old school bus into a Mobile Innovation Lab (casually known as theCO:mobile), which we drive around western Tennessee in an effort to remind folks in our community that there is no reason they can’t start the next big company right here at home. This spring, we’re planning to take theCO:mobile to several colleges in our region to engage with students. The bus houses our 3D printer, virtual reality stations, and other equipment, as well as a computer lab so that we can teach coding skills on the road.

TheCO also facilitates a business bootcamp program called CO.STARTERS to help bridge the gap for aspiring entrepreneurs, or even founders who are working on a second or third company. The CO.STARTERS program was developed right across the state in Chattanooga and is a 9 week bootcamp that helps aspiring entrepreneurs to hone their idea, identify potential customers, develop a business plan, and turn their business ideas into action. Over the past two years, almost 50 different companies have gone through the program at theCO and their companies are continuing to grow.

What are some of the other inputs that have helped your ecosystem grow?

Being part of the broader LaunchTN network has been incredibly helpful. As background, LaunchTN is a network of seven regional entrepreneur centers (of which theCO is one) that was created by the Tennessee legislature in 1998 to provide resources to entrepreneurs as they build their companies around the state. It is incredibly helpful for connecting founders in Jackson to mentors and resources in other parts of Tennessee.

We also have a very supportive local corporate community. For example, West Tennessee Healthcare, one of the largest employers in our area, partnered with theCO and the Global Center for Medical Innovation (GCMI) out of Atlanta in 2015 to create a program for doctors, nurses, and anyone else working on a medical device to pitch ideas and move forward on prototypes for devices with the help of GCMI.

Garner meeting with an entrepreneur at theCO in Jackson, TN

Have you had interactions with local or national policymakers?

Yes—at the local level, our city and county mayors have been incredibly supportive of theCO’s work and regularly attend our events and engage with our startup community. The Governor has also hosted an event in our space and we drove theCO:mobile up to the Governor’s conference last October. There is awareness and appreciation of the work that we’re doing across Tennessee, and the state government has even discussed replicating theCO:mobile to create a number of buses that will travel around more rural areas of Tennessee to encourage innovation and entrepreneurship.

What are some of the startups to watch coming out of Jackson?
  • Lighting Bug, which produces a device that plugs into vehicle headlights to act as an auxiliary light;
  • iShipdit, which allows small businesses to utilize the unused space on independently owned freight trucks; and,
  • KlickGo, which provides ride sharing services in Jackson and the surrounding area.

Read more about ecosystems around the country at TechCo

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Written by:
Emma Peck is a policy analyst at Engine, a nonprofit that supports the growth of technology entrepreneurship through economic research, policy analysis and advocacy on local and national issues.
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