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Calling All Entrepreneurs: Startups Succeed in this Tennessee City

Businesses get off to a great start in Greater Chattanooga, thanks to its affordability, great network, reservoir of skilled talent and a collaborative spirit.

By Kim Madlom on October 6, 2021

Jeff Adkins

With its 10-gig broadband capabilities, effective accelerator programs and incubator facilities, Greater Chattanooga has cultivated a climate that helps startups succeed. Despite the economic upheaval caused by COVID-19, the region remains a hotbed of entrepreneurial activity.

“Thanks to COVID, the whole world changed, but entrepreneurs and small businesses continued to do what they’ve always done – retool and adapt,” says Hurley Buff, executive director, Cleveland Bradley Business Incubator (CBBI) in Cleveland, Tennessee. “You cannot kill the entrepreneurial spirit in this region.”

Resources supporting that spirit include CBBI, the INCubator in the Hamilton County Business Development Center, the CO.LAB accelerator, the Dalton Innovation Accelerator and LAUNCH Chattanooga.

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Sizzling Success

The Hoff & Pepper hot sauce company manufactures “Hoff Sauce” in the INCubator in downtown Chattanooga.

Launch Pads

The third-largest incubator in the U.S., the INCubator in the Hamilton County Business Development Center has graduated more than 500 businesses. Located just across the river from Chattanooga’s Innovation District, the INCubator partners with the Tennessee Small Business Development Center to offer counseling and classes to all small businesses in Hamilton County. In addition to providing competitively priced space, the INCubator hosts a myriad of supplemental support programs and events to increase the visibility of its clients, such as Experience Talks events and the INCubator Open House.

“Our goal is to help INCubator clients develop their strategic vision, stabilize their business and increase visibility,” says Bill Lupia, director, small business & entrepreneurship. Startups that join the INCubator can expect a friendly and supportive environment of fellow entrepreneurs and resource partners.

“Within our mixed-use incubator, every client has a different vision of success, but our goal is to help them achieve their success,” Lupia says. “Our goal is to create a supportive culture where clients can create relationships with fellow entrepreneurs and strategic partners.”

Collaborative Climate

Buff says that a supportive, collaborative environment is an essential aspect of incubator services. “To me, the cheap rent and services are the least of what incubators offer,” he says. “Networking is an important benefit of incubation. The community that exists in this building looks out for each other. There is always a business here willing to help a new entrepreneur.”

Despite widespread economic disruption during the pandemic, entrepreneurship skyrocketed. The INCubator added nearly 30 clients between spring 2020 and spring 2021.

“Incubators give everyday innovators a fair shot,” Buff says. “We level the playing field for people with great ideas who know their service sector inside and out, but they may not be as knowledgeable about how to start and run a business. We can help them with that piece.”

Entrepreneurship can be tough, but Buff says incubators boost startups’ success rate. “People come to us when they want to start the business they have been dreaming of starting,” he says. “Incubation helps them be successful. The chances of a business that’s been incubated surviving are up exponentially compared to a business that did not go through an incubator.”

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Jeff Adkins

Specialized Incubators

Specialized incubator programs are a key part of Greater Chattanooga’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. Proof Bar & Incubator, launched in 2020 in downtown Chattanooga, provides resources, tools, programs and consulting for food and beverage entrepreneurs such as Kendra Elmz, who owns Poppytons Patisserie (shown above).

“In a way we never could have anticipated, a global pandemic became the perfect time to open Proof,” says Mia Littlejohn, co-founder/partner. “Suddenly, the need in our industry was so obvious, and the urgency of finding creative ways for communities to both save and improve their food and beverage scenes became of paramount importance.”

A vibrant food scene is one of the most important elements of a strong community, and Proof has been able to partner with ecosystem builders and Small Business Development Centers across Tennessee to provide sector-specific programs and insights.

Starting Block Chattanooga

The Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce and community partners launched Starting Block Chattanooga, which offers free access to resources designed to help businesses succeed. The website includes information on business planning, preparing for success, registering and licensing a business, and more.

“While the rest of the world locked down, independent restaurant owners and their teams were forced to work harder, adjust to changing guidelines, innovate their business models, and change what wasn’t working,” Littlejohn says.

In the last year, the Proof team has worked with more than 150 entrepreneurs. In June 2020, Chef Kenyatta Ashford launched Neutral Ground, a New Orleans-style Po-boy and Yakamein restaurant, as part of the restaurant residency program.

More recently, Proof worked behind the scenes to help Tiffany Paulson-Banks open Lil Mama’s Chicago Style Hoagy in January 2021. “It has been a huge honor to come alongside the hardworking chefs, owners and operators in our industry during this incredibly challenging season − and watch them not just survive but find creative ways to thrive,” Littlejohn says.

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