Eric Mathews sounded a little emotional in early February as he described what was about to happen to the organization he leads that’s at the vanguard of spurring entrepreneurship and startup activity in Memphis.
LaunchLounge, a monthly gathering for professionals, startups and entrepreneurs sponsored by LaunchYourCity, was held recently at Local Gastropub in Overton Square. (Photo: Lance Murphey)
That same day, he’d had final discussions with other participants involved in the developments, which represented the next chapter in the LaunchYourCity story. It came at the end of a typically busy week for Mathews, the co-president of LaunchYourCity who keeps a frenetic schedule and has big ambitions to fill it with even more.
Besides moving fast, LaunchYourCity also is moving itself – its base of operations, to be more specific.
The organization is an umbrella entity that encompasses a family of related programs individually that are focused on different aspects of entrepreneurship and small business life – risk capital, mentorship and accelerators, for example.
And it’s about to move out of the Downtown digs it’s called home for several years, relocating into a freshly designed space in Midtown.
At press time, the goal was to be up and running in its new home inside Playhouse on the Square in a matter of days. So, from Mathews’ perspective, there’s a lot to be excited about.
He said his organization is poised to grow its capacity 50 to 100 percent in the next 12 months. It’s been a Downtown fixture since 2008 or so. Since then, it’s added multiple offshoots, seen a groundswell of interest in business-building, the blossoming of a startup community here and the completion of a major startup conference in Memphis last month.
As part of LaunchYourCity’s evolution, Memphis marketing and advertising firm archer-malmo has been helping evaluate the brand structure and presentation of LaunchYourCity and all the entities related to it. On top of all that, almost as soon as the group moves into its new space, the LaunchYourCity team and representatives of some of its select startups will take a profile-raising trip West.
From March 19-22, they’ll be in Silicon Valley building relationships with investors, accelerators, startup champions and other resources and partners. They’re even hosting the first out-of-town Launchpad – an open, free-for-all work session – and the first out-of-town LaunchLounge – a kind of meet-and-greet session – at San Francisco’s Taverna Aventine.
Along those lines, there’s already a kind of Memphis startup community alumni network in the San Francisco Bay Area. Several of them already network together and meet once a quarter or so, according to Mathews, which is why one of the purposes of the LaunchYourCity trip is telling the Memphis story in the Valley.
2012 arguably was a tipping point for startup activity in Memphis, thanks to groups including LaunchYourCity. Given what all is on his plate, it’s no wonder Mathews had a bittersweet tone to his voice as he talked about why his organization is leaving Downtown.
“This is really personal to me,” he said. “I’ve dedicated a lot of time to this.”
This is how Mathews put it in a blog post in January published by the Wall Street Journal:
“In 2006, I set out to build the Memphis startup ecosystem from scratch. Here, like many ‘flyover’ cities, high-growth entrepreneurship had not been emphasized or supported, especially at the riskiest, idea stage. … Undeterred, my team and I did it anyway. We built accelerators, organized angels and held various startup-oriented experiences to help entrepreneurs take actionable steps toward starting up.”
Mathews’ team includes LaunchYourCity co-president Andre Fowlkes, who has a broad portfolio of experience including working in wealth and money management, government, journalism, the nonprofit world and the small-business community. Among other things, he writes a weekly business column for The Commercial Appeal and he’s managing partner with Wolf River Angels.
Mathews’ team also includes Elizabeth Lemmonds. As chief brand officer, she is passionate about telling the story of LaunchYourCity and its related programs.
“We’re now really on the brink of creating an entirely new era in entrepreneurship in Memphis based around tech, and in order to really put Memphis on the map, it’s about shaping that piece of the city’s narrative,” she said.
After graduating from Rhodes College in 2002, Mathews worked briefly as associate director of corporate research and development at the FedEx Institute of Technology. There, he grew research programs and lead economic development activities including growing strategic business relationships with Fortune 500 companies.
In 2008, he founded LaunchMemphis, the starting point for what would blossom into a startup movement in Memphis. The family of related programs now includes things like Upstart Memphis, an initiative designed to spur more women startup CEOs; Memphis Venture Mentors, a still nascent pool of mentors for the city’s startup talent; and Wolf River Angels, a local base of risk capital from here in Memphis that will be used to fund – and hopefully keep – entrepreneurs here in Memphis.
At the same time, Mathews had been working as the interim executive director of EmergeMemphis, a business incubator with its own facility Downtown and which houses companies that are a bit more established. Mathews stepped into the role after the departure of Gwin Scott in January 2012.
Andre Fowlkes, right, and Jessica Chamberlain look at the interior of the new LaunchYourCity office at Playhouse on the Square. The new space should be ready by the end of March. (Photo: Lance Murphey)
The LaunchYourCity entities also had until now been based out of the EmergeMemphis building.
“Over the past year, we’d gotten Emerge onto solid footing that it didn’t have before,” Mathews said last month, as news of the move became official. “Simultaneously, while making sure EmergeMemphis was firing on all cylinders, the LaunchYourCity platform really exploded in a big way. We needed to be honest with ourselves and diligent to focus on managing that growth.”
The trip to California is an example of the big picture focus Mathews brings to his job.
“We’re always looking at the amount of resources necessary to build an entrepreneurial ecosystem,” Mathews said. “Our local community is not the sole source and can’t be the sole source for that. What we’ve seen from other models in cities like Cleveland is getting money off the coast is a kind of strategic inflection point. So in the first go-round of this, we’re looking at establishing relationships. Many of them may have started with the ‘Everywhere Else’ conference, and this could be our second exposure. Maybe we’ll get some to come back for Investor Day for Seed Hatchery. This trip is about repeat exposure and relationship building.
“So our goals include trying to garner access to resources. We’re also looking at best practices. We’re going to visit with a couple of accelerators and women’s initiatives and things like that so we can sharpen our saw and make sure we’re doing everything we need to be doing right here locally. And the final thing is access for storytelling and really spreading the word about what’s going on in Memphis.”
These efforts all affect more than just a narrowly focused niche in the Memphis business community. In theory, when all the pieces of the puzzle are working perfectly in sync, companies would move through the various startup programs, attain funding and achieve success, then return as mentors to train the next batch of entrepreneurs.
“This is the kind of thing that’s going to increase the amount of accelerated companies,” Mathews said. “That’s going to increase the need for risk capital. That’ll serve to grow the deal flow pipeline. So our goals for 2013 include increasing the amount of risk capital and making sure the accelerator programs we’ve committed to operate in 2013 perform as designed.”
That growth will manifest itself in a few big ways, including through the creation of a new biologistics/logistics accelerator thanks to funding from the state.
The Memphis Bioworks Foundation and LaunchYourCity are planning to jointly operate a new accelerator.
It would focus on biotechnology logistics and could target concepts in traditional logistics, as well as innovations in the emerging field of biologistics, which provides solutions related to the transportation of time- and temperature-sensitive bioscience materials. More information about that accelerator is being released later this year.
Meanwhile, Mathews and his team regard the true measure of the success of everything they’re building as this – whether it’s still creating value long after they’re gone.
“For us, the question is how do we create the kind of vibrancy that’ll last well beyond our lifetimes,” Mathews said. “And entrepreneurship is one of the strongest if not most important ways to do so for our community.
“So if you want to have the jobs tomorrow, if you want to create jobs rapidly, if you want to create more wealth and more philanthropists, this is a solution that serves many needs in our community. This is the reason our team gets up every day, to make this happen.”