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VOL. 6 | NO. 8 | Saturday, February 16, 2013

Startup Ground Zero

Memphis center of action for entrepreneurs, investors

By Andy Meek

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For three days over the past week, Memphis was effectively ground zero for technologists, startup founders, investors and entrepreneurs from near and far.

For that, the city can thank the organizers of the Everywhere Else startup conference who, with help from a collection of sponsors and supporters, took what was initially going to be called “Pitchmas,” happening last December, and refashioned it in a matter of months.

Over the course of the three-day conference, which ran Feb. 10-12, connections were made, funding was secured by scrappy startups and lessons were learned from a panoply of veterans. And, Memphis being Memphis, attendees during down time helped themselves to local fare like pulled pork, downed libations and made the most of what for many of them was a first visit to the Bluff City.

“So far, it’s a blast,” entrepreneur and new media specialist Tony Monteleone said as the conference kicked off. “I am quickly falling in love with Memphis.”

Nibletz.com is the tech blog that spearheaded the event and which bills itself as “the voice of startups everywhere else.”

With that in mind, early stage venture investor Vic Gatto tweeted to his followers on the conference’s first day that, if they’re within a five-hour drive of Memphis, they needed to get in the car and come on down.

Sunday, Feb. 10, was a day of settling in, of introductions, of welcomes, attendees taking in the Grizzlies-Timberwolves game and the inevitable exploration of Memphis’ culinary and cultural delights.

On the conference’s third and final day – later that night, to be more specific – Markerly co-founder Sarah Ware tweeted to her followers one of her last times from Memphis: “My nightcap – homemade fried apple pie served on a skillet … bc calories in Memphis don’t count. Till next time.”

Scores of attendees were out in force Sunday and Monday night, marveling at Memphis’ nightlife and taking in the experience of Downtown’s clubs and bars.

“Two thousand entrepreneurs, investors, roughly 80 percent in tech-based startups, are in Memphis,” said Elizabeth Lemmonds, chief branding officer at Memphis’ LaunchYourCity entrepreneurship organization. “Big, crazy, game-changing ideas and teams behind them.”

Plenty of investors were on the hunt for reasons to open their checkbooks. Angel investor Steve Repetti, managing partner at RadWeb Technology Partners, said there were a couple of companies at the conference that had caught his eye.

Gifts and benefits for attendees ranged from swag bags to free advice. The Memphis-based law firm of Baker Donelson Bearman Caldwell & Berkowitz PC announced it would hold free half-hour legal clinics for startups at the conference.

Startup America CEO Scott Case was among those present for the event.

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.”

Memphis accountant Jimmy Dickey helped judge pitches from startup teams on hand to present their ideas and products.

“There (were) 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.

(Startup America CEO Scott) 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.”

“Over 80 teams were on hand from across the U.S. and overseas to present their ideas and products. The events focused on the teams presenting their ideas to a panel of judges in an ‘elevator pitch’ format, whereby team members were allowed only a few minutes in which to explain their concepts to the group. The participants represented a wide-ranging and diverse group of people and ideas.”

Two companies left with funding from the contest itself. Coyote Case won $25,000 and Care 2 Manage won $10,000.

The Coyote Case product is a smartphone case that lets users press it to sound an alarm if they’re in danger and includes a GPS tracker to their location. Care 2 Manage, meanwhile, is a network being built with a focus on caregivers for the elderly.

Among the other startups that had a presence at the conference was Canada-based Digital Retail Apps. CEO Wendy MacKinnon Keith said her company is about getting the consumer out of the checkout line and getting retailers and brands access to the shopper, with contextual offers right at the moment of purchase.

“Our companion retailer verification app gives the retailer the peace of mind they need to confirm the payment was complete,” she said.

One of the conference’s big guests was Damien Echols, who took part in a discussion, 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 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, at first, to be thrown into it head first after his release from prison in 2011.

He and the other members of the West Memphis Three were released in late 2011 after agreeing to make Alford Pleas. From there, Echols' life immediately kicked into high gear.

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’d 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.

His thoughts about users of the service needing to be mindful not to tolerate any stray characters, letters and words could, in a way, serve as a theme for the conference – something along the lines of not taking things for granted and of working hard.

“Twitter feels like poetry,” Echols said. “You have to count out everything you’re doing, every letter, make it all count.”

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