| Nov 18, 2014
Guest post by Clark Buckner, online events manager, TechnologyAdvice
The annual NEXT Awards celebrate the entrepreneurial spirit in Music City, recognizing businesses and individuals that are leading innovation in Middle Tennessee.
Many of this year’s finalists gathered for the NEXT Awards Finalists Celebration at the Nashville Entrepreneur Center, where I interviewed them for a podcast about the biggest trends and challenges in Nashville’s entrepreneurial growth.
Nashville’s NEXT Awards
The NEXT Awards ceremony is one of the largest events of the year for the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, which partners with the Entrepreneur Center (EC) in making the event come to life. Corey Davis, the Chamber’s director of business growth initiatives, says it is also one of its most meaningful. “The Chamber wants to help the Nashville business community any way we can. We want Nashville to grow, and partnering with the EC to highlight companies that are the future of Nashville is a great way to help encourage that,” he said.
NEXT Awards are presented to companies in five industries across three categories based on their stage of growth: startup (small companies), growth (mid-sized companies) and market mover (large companies). Davis is excited about the natural progression of the awards, noting that several former NEXT Award winners are finalists yet again, but in higher growth categories.
Jared Marquette, the EC’s director of business partnerships, agrees that the NEXT Awards are “representative of the growth and change” that’s marked Nashville’s tech scene for some time. The awards don’t reveal “where we’re at now,” but rather highlight “what’s new and what’s happening.”
For Marquette, the word “collision” signifies the event as well as Nashville’s technology industry: “There’s so much movement and so many different particles and pieces constantly bumping into each other that things start to stick. You start to not just have these tiny individual pieces, ideas, businesses, entrepreneurs, or investors—but what you have is an actual whole system that's planned and organized that allows for any part of the system to come in and understand how to walk through it.”
The Friendliest Tech City?
According to Marquette, personality has been another key element to Nashville’s tech growth. “There’s a lot of competition here, but I think it’s friendly. People are always willing to offer advice or lend a helping hand,” he said.
Virsys12’s Tammy Hawes has seen that camaraderie firsthand, and agrees that it’s one of Nashville’s defining characteristics: “Nashville is a very giving community. You run across people all the time in Nashville that truly want to help you along your path. And pretty much everybody I meet, they have some kind of golden nugget of advice or experience in the past that I can relate to .... There's always something that they say that makes me think differently about the way the world's changing. I think that's what's drawing people to Nashville -- that sense of people helping each other. I hope that we can keep that. I think we can.”
The Push to Retain Tech Talent
For a number of reasons, tech workers keep flocking to Nashville. Of course, it’s incredibly important for the city to retain the tech workers it is developing, too. Countless local companies and organizations are working together to increase development and improve retention. Many efforts have been directed at the middle and high school levels, including:
- HCA investing in women who mentor girls at Overton High School
- Firefly Logic investing in Stratford STEM Magnet High School
- Nissan investing in the Williamson County school system
- Griffin Technology investing in the Hunters Lane High School Design and Technology Academy (MNPS IT Academy)
Additionally, InternNashville is an initiative from the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce that offers internship resources and opportunities to connect students and employers in Middle Tennessee.
Ben McIntyre, CEO of the startup Internpreneur, understands quite well the direct connection between rapid business growth and the need for talent acquisition and talent retention. He believes Nashville must work hard to keep the talent Nashville’s universities have been incubating. He pointed to Nashville’s relatively low cost of living as one benefit for new tech graduates, but suggested more can and should be done to ensure that Nashville’s young tech talent stays around long enough to become Nashville’s old tech talent.
Channing Moreland, CEO and co-founder of What’s Hubbin’, believes the first steps are already evident. “I have noticed such a strong desire for collaboration with these younger kids. I really think if [experienced professionals] could just remove the stereotypes from our minds and really look at these entrepreneurs, it would be amazing what they could do because they are so willing to work,” she said.
Hawes believes the EC’s focus on collaboration has helped encourage that growth and increase the number of ways people can connect with guidance from peers and mentors, especially when it comes to women.
As a successful woman in Nashville’s technology industry, Hawes is active in the EC, the Nashville Chamber, the Nashville Technology Council and Women in Technology. She believes opportunities for professional development and networking are everywhere, but it’s up to each individual to take that first step. “The main thing is that they just have to put themselves out there. It's not that scary, and if they put themselves out there, great things will happen,” she said.
What’s Next for Nashville Tech?
Although NEXT Award finalists are taking different paths in their businesses, the themes of their stories are similar: growth and community.
Kevin Kazlauskas, founder of Make It Pop Creations, says Nashville is beginning to rival L.A. and New York in many ways, especially on a creative and production level. Floyd DePalma, principal of DePalma Studio, praised the city’s focus on young entrepreneurs, citing the efforts of the Nashville Entrepreneur Center and Jumpstart Foundry to support early-stage businesses and encourage their growth.
Tim Downey, CEO and co-founder of Picd.us, is a product of those efforts. The NEXT Award finalist for Young Entrepreneur of the Year says the people he’s met in Nashville helped him realize he could be an entrepreneur. “I’ve fallen in love with starting businesses. It’s what I’ve always wanted to do, but it was just a struggle to get there. It just took getting involved here and talking to all of these inspired people to understand that I could do it, too,” he said.
A majority of the finalists said Nashville’s core passion and authentic generosity will continue to foster more growth in the future. Moreland believes it’s an incredibly unique place to live and do business, and the best is yet to come.
“It's been the greatest experience of my life getting to be a part of this [entrepreneurship and collaboration in Nashville] and having opportunities to be a part of the events with the Chamber and the EC. None of this was ever what I thought my life would be. I came here as a songwriting major. I came here as an artist. My life has totally changed, but all for the better, and it's because of opportunities like these. It's just so cool that this can happen in Nashville. I'll always come home to Nashville. I'm sure about that.”
Clark Buckner is the online events manager for TechnologyAdvice, a Nashville NEXT Awards finalist that educates, advises, and connects buyers and sellers of business technology. He hosts the TechnologyAdvice Podcast, and also covers news and trends in the tech conference scene. TechnologyAdvice has been a Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce member since 2013.