Monday, April 30, 2012

Startup City

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to find myself in lovely New Orleans for a Pulitzer family reunion. My grandfather was the oldest of twelve brothers and sisters so there are a lot of cousins as a result; and we thoroughly enjoy getting together regularly.

Before arriving in the Crescent City one of my cousins [Carol Pulitzer] emailed me she was moving back to "NOLA" (New Orleans, Louisiana). She said NOLA was experiencing a renaissance technologically, entrepreneurially and artistically. I was intrigued. I emailed another cousin [Alexa Pulitzer] who's a 3rd generation New Orleanian and she enthusiastically confirmed it. Now I was hooked on finding out more.

Alexa, who has her own incredibly successful brand of beautiful stationery, mousepads, party cups and other items, introduced me to The Idea Village  Co-Founder/CEO Tim Williamson. So, while there, before the reunion festivities kicked-off, I walked a few short blocks from our hotel (the Monteleone, which by the way charges an outrageous $10 a day per device to access the Internet!) to their lofty space.

The next two hours flew by in what was one of the most friendly and interesting meetings I've been party to in a while.

The first 20 minutes or so were filled with "oh so your cousin is..." and "I went to school with your cousin ______ " and "my wife went to school with your cousin _____." I was struck by the similarities of "who do you know" and "what high school did you go to" between this town with French origins and the country where I now live (France). I guess some old habits die hard! Fortunately I had all the right answers. But there is something to be said for Southern hospitality and, of course, Entrepreneurial friendliness.

After introductions went around, Tim provided me with an excellent background and overview on The Idea Village and the city. Next Communications Manager Cameron Yancey offered the point-of-view of a native New Orleanian on the city's new growth. The Idea Village is home to several Entrepreneurs-in-Residence and one of them, Kevin Wilkins, provided insights as a recently relocated Mid-Atlantic experienced business manager.

And without further ado, here are the findings:


The Idea Village was founded in 2000 by five entrepreneurs. The mid-80s were a time of cycling down in New Orleans and the beginning of the Brain Drain. There were no quality jobs being created and the focus was on tourism. After school a lot of the new young professionals moved out of NOLA to live and work elsewhere. In the early 90s those who decided to come back found themselves in a New Orleans with crime, corruption, bad education and the worst football team in the NFL. It was bad from all angles. The entire community was risk adverse and fractured.

The real problem, however, was leadership. Bad leaders don't motivate problem-solving and innovation. In this environment, only the crazy ones would attempt to be an entrepreneur. And yet it is these very entrepreneurs who would attract outside resources, and new networks, and create jobs, and new wealth and then those people would create the change so desperately needed.

So. Tim and four friends decided to change all this by each investing $2K to create a $10K business plan contest. Like so many other startups, their first meetings were in a bar. Thus, they were initially called the Loa Group after the bar in the International House where they frequently met. Utilizing their own network they received $15K donations in free legal services, web design, a launch party and more. Seventy people submitted their business plans and they reviewed them all, narrowing the selection to five. The winners were two guys formerly from Shell Oil. The Loa Group helped them write their business plan and out of this experience, wrote a white paper on why New Orleans could be a business place.

This led to the fateful meeting with the city Mayor, which didn't go well. (Read all about it here:] Next Tim did what any forward-thinking entrepreneur would do. He waged war on the Mayor and went to the Chamber of Commerce. That meeting went so well, the contact in the Chamber was fired within a month! The regional Chamber was collapsing and so they set themselves up as a non-profit in 2002. They kept making noise and they got funding because people wanted to keep their kids, the future of the city, there. On the same day in 2004 Tulane University and the University of New Orleans came on board. They began getting support from local businesses and the community.

Everything was developing in a measured way until the hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in August 2005. After this everyone became an entrepreneur. There was a latent talent in New Orleans; the old networks got fractured and New Orleans became global. New Orleans became a laboratory for innovation and change. New Orleans became a startup city. The people who came there thought they could change the world.

Meanwhile, the now-named The Idea Village was scaling up. They had "Idea Corps" week with six universities and six startups. Jumping forward to 2010, they rebranded as "Entrepreneur Week" and borrowing from two established iconic events already in NOLA, they organized it like a Jazz Fest or Mardi Gras with multiple events going on at the same time. However, like their predecessors, the "festival" was still mostly attracting tourists and out-of-towners.

In 2012 they focused on getting local entrepreneurs and called it "Entrepreneur Season." Running from July to October they received 2100 registrants, proof of the changing spirit of the city when compared to 2700 registrants from the first ten years of this organization. This year they engaged 282 locals to support 697 entrepreneurs with over $2.2 million worth of strategic consulting, resources, and startup capital. Never before had there been local engagement to this extent. 1,500+ people showed up just for the final Entrepreneurial Pitch event, The Big Idea. Google has also announced that they will be deepening their relationship with the City of New Orleans in the coming year - stay tuned for details.

During Entrepreneur Week, The Idea Village also hosted the National Advisory Council on Innovation & Entrepreneurship’s (NACIE) Quarterly Meeting. [NACIE was established by President Obama and the U.S. Commerce Department in 2010 and advises the Administration on developing a broader strategy to spur innovation and enable entrepreneurs to develop breakthrough technologies and dynamic companies.] NACIE chose to hold their quarterly meeting in New Orleans during New Orleans Entrepreneur Week to highlight on a national level the great work happening in New Orleans around entrepreneurship. The White House also hosted a Young Professionals Forum in partnership with The Idea Village and 504ward to engage New Orleans’ young professionals in a substantive conversation with White House and federal officials.

The Idea Village initiative is now viewed for its collaborative entrepreneurial spirit. There is an eco-system in place now. What Tim thinks makes it special is to have it not just a conference but as a season. Today New Orleans is outpacing the nation in the growth of start-ups and NOLA was recently named by Forbes as the "#1 Brain Magnet in the Country," "#2 Best City for Jobs" and the "Coolest Startup City in America" by

2018 will be the 300th Anniversary of New Orleans. There is a convergence of plans for the city. Now is the time for all great new leadership and innovation and entrepreneurial spirit to solidify their roots. Today there is a competent leadership in New Orleans. There is an influx of young talent and wisdom. Tim's final thoughts were "how do we sustain this? There is a whole lot of work to do. Now we're out of the startup phase. We got the funding." Now it's a matter of sustaining and organically growing, like all good startups.