Leading a successful business – and inspiring new startups to do the same – isn’t a simple task, but Huntsville entrepreneurs Larry Lewis and Glenn Clayton make it look easy.
Although they have different backgrounds and areas of expertise, Lewis and Clayton share a lot in common. Both have started new Huntsville companies from the ground up and given back by sharing their experiences with the local entrepreneurial community.
Lewis, president of PROJECTXYZ, became CEO at Huntsville’s BizTech three years ago after purchasing the once-struggling incubator with his wife and business partner, Kim Lewis. Since taking helm at BizTech, Lewis said multiple groups are working together to support the startup scene across Huntsville.
“Before, we all knew of each other, but everybody had their own mission,” he said. “I think it was more of a friendly competition.”
Step 1 – Innovate Huntsville
In May 2016, BizTech came together with other organizations to host the inaugural Innovate Huntsville Week, a collaborative project designed to educate, inspire and engage the local entrepreneurial ecosystem. The weeklong programming was a turning point for BizTech and others whose mission is to help area startups succeed.
“As we worked together on the first Innovate Huntsville Week, we all began to realize that there was strength in numbers and we should all start meeting together on a regular basis,” Lewis said. “A virtual organization called Innovate Huntsville was the result.”
Innovate Huntsville is now a coalition of several groups, including BizTech, The Catalyst, Cyber Huntsville, UAH, Energy Huntsville, GEO Huntsville, HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology, Huntsville/Madison County Chamber of Commerce, Urban Engine, Rocket Hatch and RISE. Organizers are busy preparing for the next Innovate Huntsville Week to be held February 23 – March 2 in the Rocket City.
We’re getting better at recognizing that a tech company with 10 developers is just as valuable as the big manufacturing facilities.”
Step 2 – Develop an urban hub
Lewis said they recently signed a lease for a new coworking, incubation, and acceleration space in the old Huntsville Times building in downtown Huntsville. Although they’re still working out the details, Lewis hopes the structure will be ready to launch in March.
“Our plan is for it to become a physical representation of Innovate Huntsville – a place where all organizations will have ownership in the new facility,” he said.
Step 3 – Connect people to jobs
Clayton also has his hands full with Spur, which launched a smartphone app in 2017 that connects hospitality workers and businesses to help fill positions and shifts that may ordinarily go unfilled. Formerly known as Appleton, Spur is active in 10 states and will open an office in New York early this year.
Clayton, who started Appleton when he was in college, said he plans to triple Spur’s business volume and number of employees in 2019. The company currently has 2,000 workers, with hopes of reaching 6,000 by the end of the year.
Local startup organizations have stepped up in making Huntsville friendlier to nontraditional companies, Clayton said. Well-known for government contracting, manufacturing, aerospace and defense-related industry, Huntsville is gradually becoming a hub for a wide range of businesses.
Clayton hopes Huntsville will do more to recognize established and emerging technology companies, which may not employ hundreds of workers but still contribute significantly to the local economy.
“Sometimes we don’t do a good enough job of celebrating their successes and wins as much as we should, but we’re getting better at it,” he said. “We’re getting better at recognizing that a tech company with 10 developers is just as valuable as the big manufacturing facilities.”
Step 4 – Startup and stay
Although Huntsville has made great strides in promoting workforce development, Lewis said more work is needed to help advance businesses of all types. He would like to see an app development firm move to or launch in Huntsville to support the infrastructure needed for the next generation of local companies.
Clayton said there’s a tremendous amount of development talent in Huntsville because of the space and missile defense industry, but many people who start technology companies leave the area for larger cities like San Francisco and New York. While Huntsville’s GIG City initiative has been a positive step in the right direction, Clayton said the area needs more investment capital and infrastructure around workforce development for design and development talent.
“We have to very intentionally figure out as a community how to get startups to stay here,” he said. “You can build a lot of economic value off of technology companies, but we end up losing a lot of really smart people and big ideas to bigger cities.”
For aspiring entrepreneurs with a good startup idea but no formal business plan, Lewis recommends finding like-minded individuals at popular events like Coworking Night, a free weekly conference at Huntsville West where professionals learn, connect and collaborate.
Once their idea is more established, Lewis said The Catalyst, BizTech or Urban Engine can provide the next level of mentorship to help entrepreneurs move from concept to successful launch.
“Once a company is ready, we’ll sit down and work with them about how to structure their business,” he said.
The City of Huntsville’s economic diversification strategy also includes big plans for entrepreneurship and innovation. For a complete report on Huntsville’s entrepreneurial ecosystem and the organizations supporting this effort, click here.