The Everywhere Else startup conference that kicked off at the Memphis Cook Convention Center earlier this week has turned the city into ground zero for technologists, startup founders, investors and entrepreneurs.
Startup America CEO Scott Case was on hand. He held “office hours” for entrepreneurs, and he spoke to an audience about building companies outside of the technology hotspots on the coasts, after which audience members got to submit questions to him through Twitter.
Case told attendees to be proud of where they’re from, never mind that it’s not New York or Silicon Valley, and to celebrate “things that happen in your community.”
Meanwhile, plenty of investors were on the hunt for reasons to open their checkbooks.
“There are a couple of companies we’re looking closer at,” said Steve Repetti, managing partner at RadWeb Technology Partners.
The law firm of Baker Donelson Bearman Caldwell & Berkowitz PC announced it would hold free half-hour legal clinics for startups at the conference.
Nibletz.com is the tech blog that spearheaded the event, and Sunday, Feb. 10, marked the launch of the conference. On Sunday, early stage venture investor Vic Gatto tweeted to his followers that, if they’re within a five-hour drive of Memphis, they needed to get in the car and come to the conference.
Sunday was a day of settling in, of introductions, of welcomes, attendees taking in the Memphis Grizzlies game and the inevitable exploration of the city’s culinary delights.
Scores of them were out in force Sunday and Monday night, marveling at Memphis’ nightlife and taking in the experience of Downtown’s clubs and bars.
“So far, it’s a blast,” entrepreneur and new media specialist Tony Monteleone said. “I am quickly falling in love with Memphis.”
Memphis accountant Jimmy Dickey helped judge pitches from startup teams on hand to present their ideas and products.
“There are some very impressive teams participating,” Dickey said. “I think the organizers have done a marvelous job in pulling this together. It is a feather in Memphis’ cap.”
Controversial West Memphis 3 figure Damien Echols took part in a fireside chat without the fire, apart from the baggage of his story. His Monday afternoon presentation was one of the conference’s big moments – one that attracted ink from outside Memphis when FedEx announced it was pulling its sponsorship because of Echols’ appearance.
Echols, who spent 18 years in prison and almost a decade in solitary confinement, wasn’t in Memphis Monday to talk about that part of his story, though. He was a key presence at the conference to talk about how for almost 20 years he was frozen in time, disconnected from the world’s rapid pace of technological innovation.
And how disconcerting it was to be thrown back into it head first after his release from prison in 2011.
He and the other members of the West Memphis 3 were released in late 2011 after agreeing to make so-called Alford Pleas. From there, Echols immediately went into warp speed.
First culture shock: he moved from solitary confinement to New York City.
“Everything there is a million times faster than it is anywhere else in the world,” he said. “Everything was so amazing.”
He recalled telling himself he’d rest after he’d explored and seen everything in a certain part of the city, a bargain that’s difficult to keep in New York.
Right now, he’s working on a new book, one that he’s writing longhand.
“The Kindle feels empty to me,” Echols said of Amazon’s e-reader tablet. “It doesn’t give you that great feel when you hold a book.”
He’s given iPhone games a try – “Angry Birds was interesting for a while.”
And he loves Twitter, which his book editor encouraged him to sign up for to help promote himself.
“Twitter feels like poetry,” he said. “You have to count out everything you’re doing, every letter, make it all count.”