published Tuesday, August 20th, 2013

Chattanooga tech businesses line up to hire payday workers who lost jobs

Carey V. Brown
Carey V. Brown
Photo by Contributed Photo /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Minutes after Carey V. Brown's payday companies announced massive layoffs on Friday, Twitter lit up in response to the unexpected shutdowns that have cost Chattanooga 300 high-paying jobs.

For the most part, the tweets reflected neither condemnation nor consolation. In fact, they were mostly job offers.

"Send some resumes this way," tweeted Nick Macco, co-founder of Southtree.

"Send them my way," tweeted AudiencePoint, led by former Brown official Andy Perez.

"Quickcue is always looking for talented people," said Jeff Cole, who heads up marketing for the young firm. "Come by and see us or give us a call."

Then, Papercut Interactive hit on an idea:

"Let's hold a tech mixer to get them back working," the company tweeted. "[Direct message] us to get involved!"

That's just what happened. Without any involvement from government officials, a movement quietly started.

The sense of urgency is driven in part by the tight-knit tech community here, and in part by the knowledge that any potential brain drain will hurt the tech businesses that remain, cutting them off from the talent they need to grow, executives said later.

"It speaks volumes about how far Chattanooga has come that when something like this happens and a company goes under and folds that the economy and market here is so hungry for talent," said Jack Studer, a partner at startup incubator Lamp Post Group.

Though Brown's businesses primarily worked to support a handful of payday lending websites, his companies were known throughout Chattanooga for hiring the best and brightest from across the U.S. The companies paid above-average salaries for the area, and as a result they attracted some of the best workers, business leaders say.

Brown's businesses employed hundreds of developers, programmers, designers, writers, editors, analysts and people with jobs too complicated to describe in a single sentence. And they were good at their work. Or were, until their positions were cut due to a New York regulator's decision to stop what he called "illegal" payday loans from being processed by the nationwide banking system.

But rather than debate the moral or legal merits of Brown's business, tech leaders saw an opportunity to do some good, said Jon Moss, head of the Social Media Club in Chattanooga.

"Obviously, the news hit everyone differently," Moss said. "We just took a step back and started thinking about what the impact was to the community, with so many employees being displaced. Behind the headlines, there are real people who are impacted in a number of ways."

Over the weekend, the tech community put their heads together to put employers hungry for talent in front of employees who need the ability to pay their mortgage. For instance, on Monday a handful of Cloudswell engineers met with officials at Modis, an IT staffing agency. Today, about a dozen tech companies will meet at Enzo's Market after hours to informally recruit the laid-off Area203 workers. On Thursday, the American Advertising Federation in Chattanooga will hold its own job fair built around workers with advertising backgrounds.

"The question is, are these people going to be able to secure employment within the local area, or are they going to have to move out of the area," Moss said. "Looking beyond just this implosion of companies here, I've often heard of talented people who couldn't secure the right type of employment and had to move out."

Moss is the driving force behind SocialPour, a weekly event that today at 5:30 p.m. will introduce Brown's ex-workers to employers interested in hiring people focused on web and tech. He's already connected with the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce and Chattanooga Technology Council, which also have sent out messages alerting their members.

"It's a very rich job fair because there's a lot of loaded talent there," Moss said. "You didn't work at these companies if you were wishy-washy in terms of your skills or abilities."

Casey Knox, who heads the local American Advertising Federation chapter in addition to her duties at now-defunct Area203 Digital, said Thursday's meeting at the Flying Squirrel at 5:30 has turned into yet another hiring event for the laid-off workers.

"The event was originally just our annual kickoff, but given recent events we're trying to find positions for these people," Knox said.

While she's hoping to place as many ex-workers as possible with local companies, she's not limiting herself to a local search, she said.

"I'm reaching out regionally, I'm reaching out everywhere, because these people need to find jobs at the end of the day," Knox said. "Yes, we want to keep them in Chattanooga, but I want them to be in front of opportunities."

They may not need to look that far, said Studer, who plans to have representatives at all the hiring events. Thanks to events like the Gig Tank, 48-hour launch, Hackanooga and Will This Float, the Scenic City has begun to look like a mini-Silicon Valley, he said.

"This is honestly one of those things you talk about that's magic in Silicon Valley, that you can go out there and work at one startup and if it doesn't make it, you don't have to leave, you work at another job and find another startup," Studer said. "Three hundred people is more than a startup, but the fact is that Chattanooga is getting to the place where when one company falls apart, people are chomping at the bit to pick them back up."

Contact staff writer Ellis Smith at esmith@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6315.

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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