published Friday, October 19th, 2012

Guiding light: Lamp Post Group nurtures startups

Cameron Doody of Campus Bellhops walks into a cubicle to take a phone call at the Lamp Post Group offices in the Loveman's building in downtown Chattanooga. The Lamp Post Group provides support and helps with funding for entrepreneurs.
Cameron Doody of Campus Bellhops walks into a cubicle to take a phone call at the Lamp Post Group offices in the Loveman's building in downtown Chattanooga. The Lamp Post Group provides support and helps with funding for entrepreneurs.
Photo by John Rawlston /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

There's a pervasive college dorm feel to the downtown headquarters of The Lamp Post Group, aside from the glass walls.

Everything else, when taken together — red brick, young people, white columns, wood floor, lots of computers — could be one of UTC's nicer residence halls. Except the goal here is dollars, not a degree.

The Lamp Post Group itself is somewhat of an enigma. Not quite a holding company, not quite a business incubator, not quite a startup, it's really a hybrid of all three. The partners seek to invest in small companies, then give the entrepreneurs a place to work and help them grow before releasing them into the wild.

For Chattanooga, whose town fathers made their fortunes bending steel and bottling Coca-Cola, it's a startling change that's bringing new talent to the Scenic City, one programmer at a time.

In the former Loveman's department store on Market Street, whiteboards have replaced mirrors. A dog reclines on the 100-year-old wood floor. Across the room, a tandem bicycle is propped up in the hallway, as if someone just rode it to work and left it there.

Dozens of 20-somethings work on computers or rush out to meet someone.

Even the walls are in a state of motion, as construction workers prepare new space for yet another group of entrepreneurs.

Today, a new group is settling in. Appropriately enough, they're Campus Bellhops, three guys who want to build a company that will help college students move into and out of their dorms.

The Campus Bellhops have both a snazzy Webpage and a plan to expand to 60 college campuses this year from eight currently. Recent grads Cameron Doody, Matt Patterson and Stephen Vlahos are looking to hire campus directors across the country who will put the labor together throughout the year, in preparation for those key moving days at the beginning and end of each semester.

It costs $85 to get moved in from home, or $135 if furniture is included.

Welcome to Lamp Post's vision for the new Chattanooga, the rekindling of a spirit of innovation that was battered by economic shifts, the decline in manufacturing and subsequent recessions, says Weston Wamp, communications director.

Though just 25 years old himself, Wamp says his generation has an advantage: They grew up with technology that for many of their older peers is still a mysterious novelty.

"And we're bringing more of them here every day," he said Thursday. "These guys [Campus Bellhops] are all transplants from Birmingham, which really gives teeth to the idea that there's a startup culture developing here."

Lamp Post partners Ted Alling, Allan Davis and Barry Large have startup business experience from their days at Chattanooga-based Access America, which has grown into a leading third-party logistics company expected to generate $400 million in sales this year. Jack Studer and Miller Welborn bring Silicon Valley and banking experience, respectively, to LampPost.

They hope to bring other investors on board as their various ventures succeed on the national stage, Wamp said.

"We're trying to grow from a stable of eight to 15 companies right now to 50 companies within a few years," Wamp said.

Some Lamp Post companies already have experienced some success.

Early investment Fancy Rhino has grown from a handful of Covenant College English majors to nearly a dozen videographers who are moving into their own space in the next few days — and getting two interns.

Others come and go, change names or dissolve, or come back with new ideas, Wamp said.

Retickr has become Akimbo, adapting its news delivery software from the desktop to mobile phones as it, too, grows to a dozen programmers and designers.

"Retickr was our outlet to make 1,000 mistakes," said co-founder Travis Truett. "It wasn't a mainstream success, and we learned from that."

The new app, which is called fireplug, gives readers feedback on the news they're reading, and picks up on topic trends in which they're interested.

"The idea is to track the core concepts behind what you've been reading, and connect people to the next cool thing," Truett said.

Wamp says that Akimbo/Retickr's "pivot," which is an entrepreneurial term for shifting business models, is exactly the type of thing Lamp Post exists to support.

"There's a learning curve in the business world, especially in this regulatory environment," Wamp said.

But even if a few fail, and even if Lamp Post loses a little money on a few of its investments, Chattanooga wins either way, Wamp said.

"Companies are going to be more keen to come here if they know there is a pool of talented programmers," he said.

For now, they're looking for additional partners to expand the enterprise and bring on more startups. Wamp says the partners want to expand the money pot to one that's "tens of millions of dollars."

"If [the late Coca-Cola bottler] Jack Lupton was still alive, he'd be investing in the local startup community," Wamp said. "We feel like we're on the cusp of an Austin, Texas-type environment, but we need more community buy-in."

about Ellis Smith...

Ellis Smith joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in January 2010 as a business reporter. His beat includes the flooring industry, Chattem, Unum, Krystal, the automobile market, real estate and technology. Ellis is from Marietta, Ga., and has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication at the University of West Georgia. He previously worked at UTV-13 News, Carrollton, Ga., as a producer; at the The West Georgian, Carrollton, Ga., as editor; and at the Times-Georgian, Carrollton, ...

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