Southern Growth Studio Helps Companies Think Differently

By Andy Meek

Memphis-based Southern Growth Studio is getting ready to bring some of the spirit of innovation, sunny optimism and can-do attitude to Memphis that its principals found on a recent trip to Las Vegas.

Southern Growth Studio’s founders, Michael Graber and Jocelyn Atkinson, got back recently from a trip to check out the online shoe and clothing retailer Zappos and how its CEO, Tony Hsieh, is spending $350 million of his own money to transform Downtown Las Vegas.

The aim of that project is to make the area a hip place to live, work and play.

Why the findings of their trip are relevant to Memphis is because Southern Growth Studio, which describes itself as a growth consultancy, is preparing to launch a new business lunch series along with a few partners later this month.

Southern Growth Studio principals include Mark Levine, president, left, Jocelyn Atkinson, partner and chief strategist, and Michael Graber, managing partner.  

(Photo: Lance Murphey)

It’s being joined by Otherlands and Optimal Process. “Rethinking Business” will provide key insights and hopefully breakthrough inspiration for business leaders who have professional or personal ties to Midtown or Downtown Memphis.

The first event on March 21 will feature the founders of the Southern Growth Studio discussing the findings from their recent trip as well as lessons the Memphis business culture can adapt to its own growth goals.

“Jocelyn met Tony and some other Zappos folks at a conference in California by happenstance,” Graber said. “From there, we received an invitation to come check it out and come look at their culture, what they’re doing, some of the changes they’re making. And once we got there, we were very, very impressed.

“Zappos has a really one-of-a-kind culture. If you’re wearing a tie on an interview there, you’re supposed to let them cut your tie. People have a considerable amount of personal expression and freedom. And what they’ve found is by having a very open culture, they get a very high-performance culture. Their culture is geared around customer service, and the best customer service is not geared just around vendor-to-client but human-to-human.”

It’s an extension, really, of everything the Memphis consultancy stands for. The studio was founded in 2007, and it works with companies to find sustainable, organic ways to grow their businesses.

That usually doesn’t mean something like a merger, but something that will improve their top-line sales. It could mean coming in and playing a chief strategy officer and chief marketing officer role for them.

“What we saw (with Zappos) is what we consider the antidote to some of the conservative business climate and culture here that doesn’t allow for growth and doesn’t allow for expression,” Graber said. “We want to shake up the paradigm to where the whole business community can learn to better thrive.

“We were approached by Optimal Process and others in neighborhood who wanted to figure out how we could take what we do, things we write about, all that and give people a forum to connect with other people who have an interest in Downtown and Midtown. We said yes, we would love to plant the seeds of innovation.”

Atkinson is co-founder and chief strategist at Southern Growth Studio. She leads business development and oversees Southern Growth Studio’s insight-generating process to build growth strategies.

Atkinson has experience across a wide range of industries, advising senior executives on strategic issues in both domestic and international markets for more than a decade. Her areas of expertise include strategic planning, new product development and market strategy.

Graber is managing partner at Southern Growth Studio. He leads a team with a particular focus on innovation with the goal of delivering high-impact go-to-market strategies and product launches.

“The new lunch series will be held every other month, and it will be about rethinking business and not doing business as usual,” Graber said. “About the studio in general, we’re really here as a resource to make sure companies are living up to their highest and best potential and maximizing their value for everybody.

“I believe creativity is available to every person and every organization, if they’re willing to explore the process. Our intention is getting at the mindset level and letting people explore their business, but in a non-usual fashion. Some of the tips can be very practical. Maybe it’s a different way to run a meeting. Maybe different ways to think about product management. This is all part of what we do. We’re a growth engine.”

Atkinson and Graber author the “Let’s Grow” column that appears weekly in The Daily News and The Memphis News.