Riley Draper is a writer and entrepreneur from Chattanooga. He is the co-founder of WeCounsel Solutions, and the former editor-in-chief of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga’s literary journal, the Sequoya Review. In 2013 he received a grant from the Mozilla Foundation.
I get asked a lot about what it’s like to be an entrepreneur living in Chattanooga and if I’d be happier living somewhere else like San Francisco or New York.
Truth be told, I had never given it much thought until I visited the bay area last May. By the time I had fought my way through the crowded aisle of the airplane and escaped into the terminal I had already met close to 10 entrepreneurs. Before returning home a week later, I would meet dozens more — each one hailing from a city they had outgrown in pursuit of something bigger, the way actors flock to New York City for a shot on broadway. Whether any of them had considered Chattanooga as an option before leaving, I could never know for sure, but here’s a few reasons for the ones that didn’t:
Unsaturated: As wonderful and dazzling as the Golden Gate Bridge is from Crissy Field at twilight or the way the Painted Ladies line the streets of Alamo Square, unless you’re Mark Zuckerberg, in San Francisco you’re just another entrepreneur. And that’s fine for some people. But if you’re like me, you want your startup to have as much exposure as possible and that means clear visibility for mentors, investors, and the community. This way, when your startup does something exciting people will actually hear about it. Launching in a city that isn’t saturated with entrepreneurs and big ideas affords your startup the opportunity to get the attention it needs to grow into something truly remarkable.
Inexpensive: Chattanooga is perfect for entrepreneurs (especially for the majority of us who are poor) because it’s the one place you can get the resources you need without being forced to salvage your money on excessive salaries or expensive rent. The office space I share (which is filled with Smart Furniture) has been paid for since last fall by the Company Lab and GigTank, accelerators funded by state programs such as LaunchTN and technology enterprises like Alcatel-Lucent.
GigTank, the world’s only accelerator on a 1GB fiber optic network, even provided housing for my partners and I at my alma mater, The University of the Tennessee at Chattanooga, for the entire duration of the summer. I haven’t driven my car in two weeks thanks to Bike Chattanooga, which provides me with 24-7 access to a bicycle for $75 a year. The list goes on. When push comes to shove, it’s a lot easier to grow a lean startup if you’re living in a lean city.
Drop Dead Gorgeous: Year after year, this city becomes more and more beautiful. So beautiful, not even Walter Cronkite could muster up the words to describe it. Whether it’s the meandering trails that run through Lookout Mountain or the the way the Delta Queen looks from the Walnut Street Bridge as it illuminates the Tennessee River, Chattanooga is a place for people who love to be outside. In San Francisco you’d have to be an executive at Sales Force or Ed Lee to have a backyard big enough to take the dogs out. In Chattanooga, the entire city serves as a backyard: Hiking, Climbing, Kayaking. You name it.
Local Support: A little over a year ago I was looking for a developer’s office when I walked into a place called the Company Lab to ask for directions. Little did I know I was walking into what would become the greatest education I could ever hope for. As a young and naive entrepreneur there were plenty of reasons for them not to take me in. I had no customers. I had no product. All I had was a business plan, some sketches, and two partners who wanted as badly as I did to turn our idea a living, breathing product. Two accelerators later, we pulled it off. Since my first day at the Company Lab I’ve kept a list in my Google Drive of all the people who have helped my partners and I grow our startup, and I’m proud to admit that with the passing of each day this list grows longer and longer. We might not have a billion dollar investment pool or a lofty entrepreneur center, but what we do have is a very large group of intelligent and willing individuals that are eager to help you build something intrinsically valuable.
So when people ask me if I’d prefer to be in San Francisco or New York, my initial response is, “How could I?” For the past twenty-three years I’ve been living in a city that keeps on giving me reasons to stay.