It’s trailing two o’clock on a Friday afternoon in the Central Business District of New Orleans, a downtown neighborhood that was once quiet and desolate in the years of the city’s rebuilding efforts.
The I.P. or ‘intellectual property’ building, a space that houses entrepreneurs in the city’s startup community, is bustling with people co-working in shared spaces and bouncing ideas off of one another. New real estate developments are emerging on nearly every street surrounding the collaborative space. Local businesses are burgeoning nearby.
It’s a vastly different scene than what Kenneth Purcell, founder of iSeatz an online provider of customized online travel and entertainment, witnessed when he first relocated his company to The I.P. building in 2009.
In an effort to establish an entrepreneurial community and bring back many of the city’s natives who’d left during hurricane Katrina, Purcell and other business players including The Idea Village, a non-profit that engages a global community to identify, support and retain entrepreneurial talent in New Orleans, and Launch Pad, a shared co-working space, set up shop in the building. Now, it has become an entrepreneurial hub, and is home to nearly 80 companies.
Purcell, who started the company in 1999, says at the time it was unusual to start a technology company, but now he’s seeing the benefits first-hand.
« For years, we would fend off the questions about, Why New Orleans? Finally, now it’s, Oh yeah, you’re in New Orleans? I hear there are great things happening there, » Purcell says. « Fifteen years later, people are getting what it is to be an entrepreneur here, and why it’s such a great place for it, » Purcell says.
The entrepreneurial community has evolved since those early years, and in a city that emanates culture, the startup scene has found its own voice in it all.
Diversity on the startup scene
Purcell says that culture is reflected in both the startup community and established companies that exist alongside them.
« We are a diverse group of folks here, which is highly indicative of a company based in New Orleans. It’s not all white males, which is what you see in a lot of Silicon Valley firms, » Purcell says.
4.0 Schools, an education incubator, also housed in The I.P. building recently announced their 2015 cohort, with over 6 of the 9 teams accepted founded by entrepreneurs of color and 7 of the 9 teams founded by women entrepreneurs.
Purcell says part of what also makes the city an attractive prospect to those looking to start their own companies is the affordability.
« What we have here is a uniquely low cost of living for an incredibly high quality of life, » Purcell says.
Still, with its’ diversity and enticing cost of living, there are areas for growth within the startup ecosystem.
Several small businesses are being built, but entrepreneurs agree that it requires larger companies to create a ripple effect.
« A lot of these companies are very early stage with 1, 2, 3, or 4 people running on venture money. It’s a great community of early stage emerging companies, but there aren’t many mid-sized and established companies, » Purcell says. But what I look forward to seeing is the days when we have 25 to 50 10 million dollar businesses that are all tech sector business offering hundreds of jobs to the community, then we become meaningful as a sector, as opposed to the new growing, novelty item in the area, » Purcell says.
Passion for Community
Like any startup scene, it’s an environment infused with energy and passion. But there are elements that make the culture different in each city.
Patrick Comer, CEO of Federated Sample, an online sampling platform, has spent his entire career working for startups across New York, Los Angeles and London. Comer says each city lends itself to a different culture. And when it comes to New Orleans, culture comes easy.
« We don’t have to do a lot of inventing to have culture. We walk out the door, and we got culture, » Comer says. « We wake up in the morning, and we have culture all over the place. It’s one of our assets-a deep, rich, abiding culture. »
But he says what’s unique about New Orleans’ startup culture, is that people share a deep passion for the city and the community, not just their business.
« It’s normal for the folks working in startups to be passionate about the business they’re working for. They get intoxicated with making it work, and it’s powerful. But there’s another passion, another bit of culture that exists in New Orleans; it’s passion for the community, » Comer says.
The size and connectivity of the city allows people to easily create space to get involved beyond just their day-to-day jobs, Comer says. And the people are invested in the city as a whole.
« There’s a sense that by doing the work of the startup, by making the startup successful, you’re positively and directly impacting the community. And that’s not expected or felt in other communities, » Comer says.
Hiring Startup Talent
New Orleans boasts another advantage for emerging companies. The rebuilding efforts post-Katrina brought an array of talent from across the country. Having worked in several different startup cities, Comer says this gives startups in search of hiring, an upper-hand.
« What’s different about New Orleans is that there’s a large number of very talented people with a high-risk profile. These are high-risk, high-engagement, high-talent individuals. And that’s the hiring pool you want for a startup, » Comer says. « The quality level of resumes that we get is much better than I ever had in NY or LA. »
“In New Orleans, that overall pool size may be smaller compared to LA, or NY, but the competition for that pool is also smaller, so therefore I’m able to hire highly talented individuals who want to work for a startup at a greater level in New Orleans than I was ever able to in LA.
In Need of More Tech Talent
However, even with that deep pool of talented individuals, those immersed in the startup scene say there’s a need for more experienced web developers, which is a critical component to a robust startup ecosystem.
Max Gaudin, founding member of Operation Spark, a mentorship program that teaches at risk youth in New Orleans coding skills, says there’s no shortage of good ideas being shared, but they need web developers to build out those ideas.
« We’re lacking computer science programs. The University of New Orleans is the only college here with a computer science program. Tulane University lost their program after Katrina, but is bringing it back next year, » Gaudin says.
Companies are forced to hire web developers from out of state, because there aren’t enough qualified candidates to meet the demand.
But there has been some movement towards developing tech talent. General Electric recently established a new technology center in New Orleans with plans to hire up to 300 employees by 2015. They’ve also started an apprenticeship program with the University of New Orleans training juniors and seniors in web development. And less traditional than a four year college, coding schools are making their way to the city. Tech Talent South, a code immersion program based in Atlanta plans to offer classes in New Orleans.
Laissez faire lifestyle meets business
And while the startup community has matured and grown a lot over the past few years, Gaudin says it moves at a slow and steady pace, much like the city itself.
Gaudin, who also helps organize the local branch of 1 Million Cups, a group that brings entrepreneurs together in cities across the country to engage and network, says in a city where joie de vivre and laissez fare attitude is engrained in the culture, it’s not always ideal for a startup community where long hours and nights are the norm.
« The New Orleans culture is cool, but it’s definitely at odds with the startup culture where you want to move fast and build things quickly, and raise money quickly, » Gaudin says.
It could use a little push, and a big breakthrough company to help define it, Gaudin explains.
« When you have a consumer app and millions of people are using it, or it’s something you can download on your phone, and you can say, _Oh yeah, this is from New Orleans- that will be a big thing, » says Gaudin.
But that big break has yet to come, leaving room for growth, and making New Orleans not just a unique place to live in, but also a prime environment for those looking to build a business of their own.