July 8, 2021
In Richard Florida’s book, Who’s Your City?: How the Creative Economy is Making Where to Live the Most Important Decision of Your Life, he argues that the most important decision you and I will make is choosing where to live.
“The place we choose to live affects every aspect of our being. It can determine the income we earn, the people we meet, the friends we make, the partners we choose, and the options available to our children and families. People are not equally happy everywhere, and some places do a better job of providing a high quality of life than others. Some places offer us more vibrant labor markets, better career prospects, higher real estate appreciation, and stronger investment and earnings opportunities. Some places offer more promising mating markets. Others are better environments for raising children…The stakes are high, and yet, when faced with the decision of where to call home, most of us are not prepared to make the right choice. If you ask most people how they got to the place they live now, they’ll say they just ended up there. They stayed close to family or friends, they got a job there, or more commonly, they followed an old flame. Some don’t even see that there’s a choice to be made at all.”
Kevin Kelly, co-founder of Wired Magazine said this about Florida’s book:
“It’s a monograph of 21-century urbanity disguised as a self-help book. The advice — to choose your location deliberately—applies to everyone. The insight—the economic engines of the world are not nations but mega-city clusters—has changed my idea of the future.”
This book landed on my desk at work in 2009, and it changed my perspective on the importance of place.
I was a newlywed working for a nonprofit in Atlanta, Georgia. It was my first job post-college, and I loved it. Every year we would host a national event curating 40+ speakers to discuss the tensions of faith and culture. In 2009, amid recession and a wild housing market, my boss and his family decided to transition the nonprofit’s headquarters from a northern suburb of Atlanta to New York City. Katie (my wife) and I seriously weighed the opportunity of making the move to New York. But the possibility of calling somewhere else home caught our hearts and imagination.
After most workdays, my former college roommate (Taylor) and I would dabble in the world of web design and development. At this moment, there was no intention of starting a business, no business model, or long-term plan. It was simply a hobby that allowed us to stay connected and help our friends with their digital efforts.
The only thing we had was a name: Whiteboard.
Sidenote: It’s important to remember that during this time the iPhone was two years old and Facebook was still years away from going public. Responsive design, a web development approach that creates dynamic changes to the appearance of a website depending on the screen size and orientation of the device being used to view it was a serious debate. It’s mind-boggling to think about how much the internet and its tools have changed over the past decade.
Dabbling in the world of web design and branding began to capture all of my attention, and Katie had a front-row seat into this newfound passion.
A few months after declining the opportunity to move to New York City and still weighing what to do next, she looked at me one night in our apartment and asked, “What would happen if you took this Whiteboard idea seriously?”
In short, I did.
Truth be told, it was a column in Next American City (now Next City) that inspired our move to Chattanooga. Although I went to college not far from Chattanooga, I barely spent any time in the city. From a distance, I loved reading the narrative of restoration taking place there.
But it became something I wanted to experience.
It has been a little over a decade since Chattanooga became the place we chose to raise our family and begin our entrepreneurial journey.
Travel+Leisure recently named Chattanooga the ultimate WFH destination for remote workers stating, “Chattanooga, Tennessee, offers everything remote workers need for the perfect WFH [Work From Home] experience, including some of the fastest Wi-Fi in the U.S.”
As true as this statement is, Chattanooga has a lot more to offer.
We must consider the broader features and value propositions of our community post-pandemic. In Scott Galloway’s recent book, Post Corona: From Crisis to Opportunity, he articulates:
“The COVID-19 outbreak has turned offices, pitted young against old, and widened gaps between rich and poor, red and blue, the mask wearers and the mask haters. Some businesses-like home fitness company Peloton, video conference software maker Zoom, and Amazon woke up to find themselves crushed under an avalanche of consumer demand. Others like the restaurant, travel, hospitality, and live entertainment industries-screamed to escape obliteration.”
The question I’m asking myself lately is: what will this new world look like for Chattanooga?
I believe there are three immediate opportunities to make our city and the neighborhoods that make it flourish.
Recognize High Connectivity is a Significant Value-Add
In the Spring of 2011, our time at the kitchen table and perusing random coffee shops was coming to end. Whiteboard needed an office.
Before looking into some real estate options, we decided to go to one of our favorite breakfast joints, Bluegrass Grill off Main Street. Upon entering the restaurant, we ran into a friend from college, Nick Macco. He was also in the early days of his startup, Southtree (now known as Legacybox).
What we thought was a serendipitous moment was really just a Chattanooga norm.
A few weeks after catching Nick up on the agency, we had started and our hunt for our first office location, he dropped us an email on May 9, 2011:
We’re looking at potential options as our lease is up next year. Even tossed around the idea of going in on something with another local business, and any other cool companies (like Whiteboard) that may need it. We are also interviewing with InnovateHere (part of Lyndhurst Foundation) to help get a grant to relocate. Until then, you guys just bring some desks over here and share some space.an, we got everything you’d need. We even have a pool table. – Nick
With a handshake, rent, and two desks – Whiteboard moved into Legacybox’s office space. Four founders, four desks, and two companies – all in the same room.
It’s commonplace in Chattanooga to meet people who are willing to help you.
Some of my dearest and longest friendships here began while sitting at adjacent coffee tables.
In 2016, Whiteboard’s Creative Director, Kody Dahl, helped start the Chattanooga chapter of CreativeMornings, a lecture series that takes place once a month in cities all over the world. The thesis behind CreativeMornings is two-fold:
Creating community isn’t easy.
Cultivating deep and meaningful relationships is hard work.
As a mid-sized city, Chattanooga is accessible and this is a feature not every city can offer.
Let’s not take for granted how significant “high connectivity” is in a world that often feels disconnected.*
*In this context, high connectivity has nothing to do with how fast our internet speeds are.
Reclaim our Entrepreneurial Narrative
After moving to Chattanooga, I was enamored with venture groups like Lamp Post Group, Chattanooga Renaissance Fund, Company Lab, and CO.STARTERS. EPB had just installed their Fiber network which paved the way for Chattanooga to create the fastest internet in the world, and “Gig City” was born.
Whiteboard’s first office was shared with the founders of Legacybox, the best and easiest way to preserve your priceless home movies. We spent 4+ years in the same room constantly editing our operating models, revising our product offerings, and collaborating on the next steps of our businesses. I remember the days when their team would digitize a few thousand items a month, and today they preserve more than 700,000 items a week.
Sharing the daily lessons of entrepreneurship alongside Adam Boeselager and Nick Macco in the early days of our ventures is something I’ll always cherish.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve felt the entrepreneurial conversations fade. Not that these conversations weren’t taking place, but it felt like our city’s priorities had shifted.
But don’t sleep on us.
A couple of weeks ago, Dynamo announced that the venture capital firm closed $43.21M for their Fund II to double down on pre-seed and seed stage, supply chain, and mobility startups.
Brickyard, co-founded by Bellhops founders, Cam Doody and Matt Patterson, is a fund and founder-club in Chattanooga that helps founders go faster with a lower relative burn.
Proof Bar & Incubator offers programs and resources for entrepreneurs in the food beverage space, including consumer-packaged concepts, restaurants, and other food-service businesses.
Steam Logistics is setting a whole new standard for the freight and logistics industry with its recent relaunch in the domestic market.
Text Request is helping businesses increase profits through its powerful text messaging software.
Skuid continues its mission to help businesses create Salesforce apps faster and with less custom code.
FreightWaves provides benchmarking, analytics, monitoring, and forecasting of the $9.6T global logistics industry.
The Edney serves as the connection point, support base, and catalyst for Chattanooga’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.
Bellhops is moving made modern.
There’s plenty more to mention, but none of these ventures existed a decade ago. If you’re considering a future venture, the most important decision you will make is the city you will launch from.
It’d be amiss to not consider Chattanooga.
Remember our History when Shaping our Future
One of the first people I met when I moved to Chattanooga was brand designer and fontographer, Robbie de Villiers. He’s a legendary designer who’s shaped iconic brands like Canada Dry, Orange Crush, Maxwell House, and many more. In the early days of starting Whiteboard, he was one of our greatest advocates.
Robbie is one of the co-creators of ChaType, a font that made Chattanooga the first city in the United States to have its very own typeface. The project was featured in publications such as The Atlantic, TIME, and Fast Company.
Robbie has lived all over the world, in some of the greatest cities including Oslo and New York City. He moved to Chattanooga around the same time as my family and we’d meet frequently to discuss design trends, agency work, and faith.
I’ll never forget the conversation I had when he told me, “Of all the places I’ve lived, I’ve never been able to create with the clarity that Chattanooga gives me. This place is a sanctuary.”
I think about that conversation often and it reminds me of how special this place truly is to live, work, and play.
May it always be a sanctuary.
Or better yet, may you find your sanctuary here.
With all cities come blemishes, deep wounds, and cultural norms needing to be course-corrected. Chattanooga is no exception.
But part of calling a place home is measuring our contributions to it.