Start Me Up

by Maggie Heyn Richardson for 225 Magazine (after a site redesign, the link to this article is currently not working)

March 1, 2012

 

Red Six Media co-founder Kristen Morrison earned valuable assistance from the Louisiana Business and Technology Center as well as established ad agency Diane Allen in the early stages of her company’s development.

Late one night before she graduated from LSU in 2009, Kristen Morrison faced down a bout of insomnia.

“I was lying in bed thinking about what I wanted to do with the rest of my life,” recalls the advertising major from Pollack, La.

Morrison and her friends from LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication were entering a job market compromised by the credit market crash, sending many into jobs they didn’t like—or even hasty decisions to enroll in graduate school. Morrison’s experience in media sales at the Daily Reveille student newspaper had helped her secure a couple of offers, but none seemed right.

“I had an epiphany,” she recalls. “I was thinking about my friends in similar situations, and I thought, ‘What if we started a business?’”

It was radical thought, says Morrison. The well-worn path of hopeful college seniors is to land the perfect employer through the four-year accumulation of resume blurbs. In an eleventh-hour strategy change, Morrison figured she could be her own employer and keep those resume blurbs to herself.

Red Six Media co-founder Kristen Morrison earned valuable assistance from the Louisiana Business and Technology Center as well as established ad agency Diane Allen in the early stages of her company’s development.

She shared her idea with twin sister Kayla, a fellow LSU senior, and four friends from the Manship School. Over a meal at the Chimes the next day, the team discussed forming a new Baton Rouge-based advertising company that would offer edgy graphics and keen social media strategies. Red Six Media, a reference to the six original founders, was born in June 2009, a month after graduation.

The team knew more about graphic design and ad sales than they did about business basics, but they quickly found a local environment friendly to budding entrepreneurs. Red Six Media set up shop at the Louisiana Business and Technology Center (LBTC), a nationally respected business incubator on LSU’s South Campus, where start-up expert Jennifer Fowler helped the group sharpen their business plan, establish an operating agreement and pinpoint target markets. They networked with existing advertising agencies, like Diane Allen and Associates, who were forthcoming and encouraging, says Morrison.

“When you hear entrepreneurs from around the country talk, a lot of times they’ll say how everyone told them not to start a business, but they went ahead and did it anyway,” says Morrison. “That wasn’t our experience at all. Everyone told us we could do it.”

That may be because Baton Rouge’s pro-startup environment has only intensified during the two and a half years Red Six has been in business.

LSU engineering student Logan Leger’s app developer NewAperio placed in the top 30 at the 2011 Global Student Entrepreneurship Awards in November.  

LSU engineering student Logan Leger’s app developer NewAperio placed in the top 30 at the 2011 Global Student Entrepreneurship Awards in November.

Local economic developers claim the city is well on its way to creating an entrepreneurial ecosystem that supports and fosters new businesses. Elements found in celebrated startup hubs are now flourishing in the Capital City, including pitch nights, collaborative workspaces, business incubators, tax credits, a major research institution, grassroots gatherings and an umbrella group determined to grow the startup culture.

“There is tremendous energy and a strong entrepreneurial vibe here now,” says Terry Jones, executive director of the Regional Innovation Organization (RIO), formed by the Baton Rouge Area Chamber (BRAC) to accelerate and coordinate entrepreneurial development. “Not only do we see it from those on the ground, but more significantly, from those who are moving in from out of state and talking about it.”

Morrison says that, as a business owner, she needs to know her company is operating in the right place at the right time.

“It feels like entrepreneurship is on steroids in Baton Rouge right now,” she says.

Louisiana cities like Baton Rouge have long struggled with how to retain young people. Demographers have cited the state’s “brain drain,” or the exodus of enterprising twenty-somethings to dynamic environments with high-paying jobs and pulsing nightlife. It’s what helped create the tuition assistance program, TOPS, a generous carrot that made it harder for intelligent high school seniors to leave the state for college.

Young people might have bemoaned Baton Rouge in the past, but the current conversation about the city has changed dramatically.

Loftus and College District business partner Josh Ford (far right) received $2,000 and seven hours of free legal and accounting services at last fall’s SeNSE Pitch Night.  

Loftus and College District business partner Josh Ford (far right) received $2,000 and seven hours of free legal and accounting services at last fall’s SeNSE Pitch Night.

“We’re on the cusp of being a model for other communities,” says Baton Rougean Derek Fitch, 30, president of Vision City Development Group—a partner organization in Springboard, the new downtown co-working space for entrepreneurs on Third Street. “There’s been a culture change. More young people are seeing things the way they could be, not by what’s missing.”

Several converging factors are contributing to the Capital City’s advance as a startup hub, says Jones. Organizations that have laid the groundwork for entrepreneurship, like the LBTC and the Louisiana Technology Park, have incubated a number of companies, especially those focused on emerging technologies. Meanwhile, plans are under way for the LSU Innovation Park, a 200-acre development at the South Campus that, like other university research parks nationwide, will corral science and business under one roof.

Louisiana’s generous digital media tax credits—called the “best in the U.S.” by Forbes last year—have also helped propel the state’s identity as an affordable gaming and digital media hub. Indeed, since 2009, EA Sports has relocated its North American testing center to Baton Rouge, followed closely by Firebrand Games and BitRaider at the Tech Park.

LSU students interested in entrepreneurship are now finding plenty of resources on- and outside of campus. The E.J. Ourso College of Business’s Stephenson Entrepreneurship Institute includes a fellows program. And the LBTC formed a student incubator specifically for current students with solid business ideas.

Stephenson Entrepreneurship Fellow and LSU engineering student Logan Leger, 22, is the founder of app developer NewAperio, which placed in the top 30 at the 2011 Global Student Entrepreneurship Award finals held in November in New York City.

Leger’s startup path began when, as a computer engineering major, he figured it would be more interesting to work for himself than for someone else.

In December <em>Forbes</em> named Loftus "College Football's Biggest Entrepreneur."  

In December Forbes named Loftus “College Football’s Biggest Entrepreneur.”

“I didn’t want to just sit in a cubicle programming for someone else all day,” he says. “I decided I should start a company.”

Leger admits he didn’t know about business basics, but he believes engineering was the perfect launch pad to entrepreneurship.

“They teach you how to come up with creative solutions for problems you didn’t know existed under ridiculous time constraints,” says Leger. “It’s been incredibly valuable.”

NewAperio’s 2011 clients included the Capital Area United Way, which hired the company to create an event-based app for its annual Jambalaya Jam, a fundraiser and jambalaya cookoff held every October. Red Six Media designed the ad campaign. The app enabled attendees to access event info and to post comments. The effort likely drew a new segment of participants, says Leger.

Among its current assets, Baton Rouge claims “unbridled creativity,” says Leger.

“It’s got this flavor and flair that’s unique,” he says. “It fires me up when I travel, because we have an amazing culture here. Creativity is in our blood.”

And according to the new organization Creative Louisiana, which Leger helped found in 2011 with LSU Continuing Education Assistant Executive Director Wendy Overton, creativity is instrumental to entrepreneurs. Creative Louisiana is based on the international concept Creative Mornings, in which successful artists and entrepreneurs share their processes in free one-hour monthly lectures. It’s another thread in Baton Rouge’s startup tapestry.

Among the city’s new class of entrepreneurs, few are better known than Jared Loftus, who was named “college football’s biggest entrepreneur” by Forbes in December. The Mississippi native’s diverse enterprises include Ninja Snowballs and Taco de Paco, two food trucks that helped pioneer the local mobile eatery scene. But it’s his online t-shirt business, College District, that is earning him national exposure.

Loftus opened the brick-and-mortar clothing shop Tiger District in 2004 in Baton Rouge but shuttered the space last year to focus on an online business model. The company now averages up to 2,000 orders a week. It employs 12 and saw $1 million in sales last year.

Loftus says he’s seen a palpable shift since he arrived in Baton Rouge eight years ago.

“It’s night and day different,” Loftus says. “There are all these different groups and meetings of entrepreneurs. There’s probably something happening once a week. As entrepreneurs, we can feel like we’re out there alone, so this is really valuable.”

Incubators like the Louisiana Tech Park continue to attract and foster the growth of young companies like Espion International. The tech company’s senior analyst Viswa Adusumilli (right) is pictured with Tech Park communications director Jesse Hoggard.  

Incubators like the Louisiana Tech Park continue to attract and foster the growth of young companies like Espion International. The tech company’s senior analyst Viswa Adusumilli (right) is pictured with Tech Park communications director Jesse Hoggard.

Loftus has participated in Pitch Nights, hosted by the organization SeNSE, a grassroots organization created by then-LSU student Sean Simone, entrepreneur Michael Trufant and Jones. Pitch Nights enable new or existing entrepreneurs to present business plans to a panel of business leaders who provide instant feedback.

Moreover, Loftus, Leger and Jones all participated last year in a major national event for entrepreneurs, the StartupBus, which challenges “buspreneurs” to come up with viable startup plans on a bus in 48 hours. This year, Jones says, he’s hoping to recruit even more Baton Rouge entrepreneurs to participate, hopefully on a bus that originates from the Capital City. The bus route ends in Austin, where participants present their business plans to judges at South by Southwest.

Technology may drive the experiences of young entrepreneurs, but it doesn’t minimize their need for face-to-face interaction. Co-working spaces are a big deal today for startups, because they give fledgling outfits an affordable place to work and the opportunity to build bridges between potential partners. EHQ South in Perkins Rowe is one such location. Springboard in the Kress Building on Third Street in Baton Rouge is another.

Vision City Development Group principals Derek Fitch (left), Trey Godfrey and John Schneider launched their new co-working space Springboard inside Kress at Third & Main in January.  

Vision City Development Group principals Derek Fitch (left), Trey Godfrey and John Schneider launched their new co-working space Springboard inside Kress at Third & Main in January.

The 12,000-sq. ft. space has 20 private offices, bullpen space, meeting rooms and reception services. The idea, says Springboard founder John Schneider, is to create a menu of options for entrepreneurs of all stripes.

“We want to give startups all sorts of options to ensure they can succeed,” Schneider says.

After leading the restoration of the historic Kress Building with the late Brace Godfrey, an attorney and civic leader, Schneider is now working with Fitch and with Godfrey’s son Trey to see the co-working project flourish. The first tenants arrived in January, and an Internet café is under way next to the building where entrepreneurs can plug in for the day. Schneider ultimately wants to expand to about 20,000 sq. ft. Springboard has multiple local partners, including the Center for Planning Excellence and John Jackson’s Baton Rouge-based Launch Media.

“I think what we’re seeing now is the belief that we can really make things happen in Baton Rouge,” says Trey Godfrey, 32. “The word that springs to mind is ‘possibilities.’ Look at the possibilities.”