Alex Lavidge from Variable Inc. on Chattanooga Start-ups

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Welcome to the "New Tech Cities" series at OSTraining.

In this series we're talking about cities that were rundown but are re-inventing themselves, as using technology to do so. We're trying to get to the bottom of the questions, "What does it take to turn around a struggling city?" and "Can technology help?"

Our initial focus is on the city of Chattanooga, Tennessee. Scroll to the bottom of the post to see links to all the articles in this series.

Speaking personally, this is one of the most interesting interviews we've published on the blog in the last five years. With people like Alex around, you can see why Chattanooga is thriving.

Welcome, Alex. Can you introduce yourself?

I'm an entrepreneur, a community-building innovator and an outdoor enthusiast. During a lot of the day, my thoughts revolve around technology trends; how to expand and improve upon disruptive business models; how to improve the sense of self-determination for everyone in our community; and, what area of the mountains in our region I want to explore next with my fiancée and friends.

Professionally, I'm the VP of Business Development at Variable, Inc. I am also the manager for a small investment fund I founded that is focused on investing in wireless sensor technology companies.

This January I started as Director of GIGTANK 2015, a nationally recognized startup accelerator program managed by The Company Lab here in Chattanooga, TN.

Your website pitches Variable, Inc. as "We Are Your Internet of Things Solutions Partner." Forgive me, but that makes no sense to me. Will smarter people understand what that means?

I still remember in the mid-90s when people first heard the word "Internet." It was confusing and no one knew what was going on. Was this because some people were smarter than others? No. It just hadn't become ubiquitous in our lives, as it is today.

The Internet of Things (IoT) is next. In brief, IoT is about integrating sensors and computing devices throughout wireless data networks to track just about everything.  

With the right strategy, this can help everyone save time and reduce costs. From recording your health data to streamlining the "vibration analysis data collection process for preventative maintenance" on equipment, the possibilities feel limitless to help all of us make smarter decisions faster in just about every facet of our lives. (source: http://bit.ly/1c63eaY)

At Variable, we started using the "We Are Your Internet of Things (IoT) Solutions Partner" tagline earlier this year because we are an electrical design & software development firm riding on the forefront of this technology wave. Since then, it has helped us generate many sales leads and close deals around the world.

One of the founders of Variable Inc., Dr. George Yu, developed highly accurate sensors for wireless devices for NASA and the Department of Homeland Security. Is it true that your company started with a Kickstarter campaign?

In addition to jumpstarting sales for NODE+ sensors through Kickstarter, Dr. Yu, the sole founder of Variable, Inc. (formerly Variable Technologies LLC), also invested funds from his personal savings to get his vision launched. After that, many angel investors and investment firms in the Chattanooga region and nationally saw the possibilities for NODE+ technology.

As a side note, my best advice for anyone who wants to maximize the impact from online crowdfunding is to execute a pre-marketing campaign. In other words, get your supporters signed up first – before you go live online with your offering on either Kickstarter, Indiegogo or whatever online platform you end up using. The sooner you can reach your fundraising goal, the sooner the media will pick up the story. From there, there is a potential to get free exposure in the news that, in turn, can then exponentially boost awareness for your vision.

node-kickstarter

Variable Inc. has been awarded incredible honors. Not the least of which is having NODE named the "coolest gizmo at 2013 CES" by CNN Money. How has that helped you?

There were pros and cons when that story came out. On the surface, we all knew the "coolest gizmo at 2013 CES" sounded impressive.  

We received e-mails from around the world and more articles about NODE+ followed. All of this attention gave Variable a lot of confidence. At times it even felt a little surreal reading the headlines about what we were doing right here in Chattanooga.

The downside was that it served as a distraction from thinking about what our business model needed to be. Even worse, it pegged NODE+ in the close-knit tech community (as well as the public sphere) as a "gizmo" for everyday consumers, which we quickly realized was the wrong niche.

Anyone working in public relations can tell you it is very difficult to get a second chance to make a first impression. This could not be more true. Not all exposure is good exposure.

During my trips in 2013 to tech hubs – Silicon Valley, Austin, Texas, and others – it was an uphill struggle convincing people that NODE+ was more than just a gadget for techies and geeks. In other cases, it was too confusing for people to wrap their heads around all the different things it could do – even for notable tech industry entrepreneurs and celebrities. It wasn't until 2014 that we saw our branding shift into alignment with our public relations strategy and company vision.

This year we've seen more targeted articles in publications like Compounding World about how our NODE+chroma technology saves time and money for color referencing and quality control in the manufacturing sector. Manufacturing Global named Variable a "Top 10 Manufacturing Startup for 2014" a couple months ago.

Getting this type of exposure in industry publications definitely has helped us grow our business much, much faster – and more importantly, in the right direction.

Chattanooga appears to have rebuilt itself from, no offense intended, a rather run-down city into one that has the potential to be a significant center for those in the tech industry. What changes have you experienced?

My first impression of Chattanooga was in 2008 and it was overwhelmingly positive. I had moved back to Knoxville from living and working in Silicon Valley amongst the startup scene.

At the time, there was a public/private organization called the Tennessee Technology Development Corporation (TTDC) that made an effort to bring together a variety of entrepreneurs, tech community leaders and visionaries together in Nashville to network and share ideas. Having helped start Knoxville Overground – Knoxville's first entrepreneur community center and community-building organization for the creative class – I was invited to work with TTDC.

It was there in Nashville that I first met Sheldon Grizzle. At the time, he was with an effort here in Chattanooga called Create Here. That was a community-initiative accelerator of sorts that was powered by what I consider to be the most inspiring team of millennials for community betterment I've ever encountered.  

From Create Here came The Company Lab, SpringBoard and an ecosystem of efforts to support entrepreneurship – including 48 Hour Launch. I'm listed as a co-founder of 48 Hour Launch, even though it wouldn't have been possible without the support of Create Here.

I love waking up each morning, reading through the news and seeing articles like the recent The Huffington Post article that declared Chattanooga as being one of the top cities in the US most like Silicon Valley.

This city has come a long way in just the past seven years. In my opinion, a lot is going in the right direction. Yet, in other ways, I feel like we're just getting started. But that's ok. It's important to remind ourselves that "success is a journey, not a destination."

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Image thanks to Company Lab.

Did the tech scene in Chattanooga have anything to do with Variable settling there?

I still remember the first day I met Dr. George Yu. I was visiting The Company Lab on 55 E. Main Street in early January 2012 and Dr. Yu was sitting at this desk with one of the first NODE sensor prototypes, before the famous Kickstarter campaign. At the time, I was conducting a survey of the top tech-based startups in the southeast.

If it hadn't been for the support system here throughout Chattanooga for tech-based startups and the love for innovation and tech, it's very possible that Variable could have been launched elsewhere.

Has Variable Inc. been involved in the city's transformation since you arrived?

In my opinion, the best thing about NODE+ right out of the box is that it provides a way for people to accelerate an IoT startup.  

Our company has created over 20 jobs since its beginning. We're also making it cheaper and easier for Chattanooga-based entrepreneurs and mobile app developers to start building business models that can ride the wave of this "Internet of Things" boom. This has a positive impact on the local economy as well.

We're committed to giving back to the startup community. Variable was a proud sponsor of Startup Week Chattanooga in 2014. This was a campaign that brought together 50+ events across the City to showcase the startup culture and resources here. Chattanooga has already given us so much in return. We owe a debt of gratitude to the city.

As a company of professionals in our 20s and 30s, we care about inspiring the next generation to get excited about the revolutionary possibilities that come with learning about science and technology. I've seen NODE+ capture the imagination of students of all ages and inspire them to want to learn about software development, science, technology and the coming IoT boom.  

I'm hopeful that we will continue to see NODE+ in more classrooms through our partnership with Vernier Software & Technology, a company that sells sensor technology for classroom instruction in more than 130 different countries.

That's probably been one of the primary highlights for me personally since joining Variable.  

True or False: Chattanooga is the coolest city in the South.

True. A day doesn't go by that I don't feel blessed to live here.

My fiancée and I live in an apartment on the top floor overlooking the river in North Chattanooga. I've lived in London, Portland, San Francisco, San Jose, Iowa City and a variety of other places. Never have I lived in a place where everything I needed was so accessible and often within walking distance.

On top of that, Chattanooga embodies the essence of "Southern hospitality."

People here are happy. They're always networking, collaborating and helping each other. Folks value family, a work-life balance and they take relationships very seriously. Add to that there's a work ethic, a love for learning and a fearless approach toward experimentation. It's almost too easy for me to feel right at home here because of it all.

As crazy as it sounds, it's almost as if Chattanooga has taken all of my favorite aspects of where I've lived around the world and combined those best features into one walkable, progressive, entrepreneurial-friendly city.

Silicon Valley is a mecca for start-ups. Atlanta's tech community has grown significantly in recent years. What are start-ups and techies missing by not coming to Chattanooga?  

Lower cost of living, lower cost of doing business and a community culture that takes your success in tech personally. That about sums it up. That's Chattanooga.

When I lived in the SF Bay Area, it was a challenge saving money. I was comfortable, but I never felt like I was getting ahead. Admittedly, many of my friends that lived there said they felt that way, too. Unless you're a brilliant engineer or a rockstar developer making over $150,000 a year, it's impossible to feel like it's a place where you can settle down and plant roots. The cost of doing business was no different.

Honestly, looking back I think a lot of great startup ideas in places like New York City don't make it because the rent is too high or the service providers charge premium rates. On top of that, you have to pay market-competitive salaries just to keep your people content. With all of the job opportunities in a dense metropolitan area, it's harder to build loyalty and keep talented people focused on doing what is best for the company, not just for their career. High turnover rates are expensive on several levels.

But really, it's the selfless, collaborative and generous culture here that gives Chattanooga its competitive edge. The only thing moving faster than the Gig is the rate at which people come together to help startups succeed.

No matter what your age or what categories you fall under, Chattanooga welcomes you. It's a place where – if you're willing to work hard, be coachable and dream big – you're going to be amongst friends.

Do any Chattanooga success stories come to mind?

From an entrepreneurial perspective, from Access America Transport being acquired by Coyote to smaller exits from startups like QuickCue getting acquired by OpenTable, it's great seeing the success stories begin to surface. The track record here isn't perfect, but it keeps improving.

There are a lot of stories underway of startups coming to Chattanooga from elsewhere because all the conditions here were what they needed to succeed. Check out noogastartups.com for an overview of our startup scene.

Aerial Chattanooga

What's next for Chattanooga and what would it take hit those goals?  

For the startup community, if we're going to continue to grow we are going to need more startup investment capital in the region. That's going to come, as we continue to improve our accelerator systems for startups and put them on a path where their growth is scalable. If we can do that, there are a myriad of venture capital firms that want to offer "expansion capital."

As the saying goes, we can't reap the harvest until we first learn how to plant the seeds. Such foresight and leadership has to continue to come from both angel investors and foundations that have deep ties to our community.

If we don't feel vibrant, healthy and confident about ourselves personally, nothing else we do as a community will ever reach its potential.

What I'm most excited about is the dialogue that I keep hearing about the importance of health and wellness being a top priority for everyone. There's a rapidly growing holistic health movement in Chattanooga that I think is at the foundation of all good things to come in the future.  

How do you hope to contribute to that achievement?

I've accepted a position as Director of GIGTANK 2015.  

This is an exciting opportunity. It will allow me to draw on more than a decade of connections and experiences I've made with startups internationally. The goal this year is simple: we have to keep improving upon the model to accelerate companies through a process that afterwards makes them not only fundable (because they're scalable), but in a position to choose to stay in Chattanooga to create opportunities for Chattanoogans.

As a part of GIGTANK 2015, I want us to create more programs that emphasize the importance of helping the next wave of entrepreneurs develop the emotional, physical and mental stamina needed to be successful. Startups take a lot of focus and hard work. Burnout is likely unless you take time out to learn how to take care of yourself properly throughout the process.

Any final thoughts?

Growth and progress are two different things.

May we all be wise enough to know the difference.

Here are all the articles published so far in our Chattanooga series

  1. Introduction
  2. Ronna-Renee Jackson from the Chattanooga Technology Council
  3. Alex Lavidge from Variable Inc.
  4. Andrew Rodgers from The Enterprise Center
  5. Travis Truett from Ambition.com
  6. Tia Capps from Company Lab and GIGTANK
  7. Dr. Leslie Jensen­-Inman from Center Centre
  8. Mike Bradshaw from Company Lab
  9. Jack Studer from the Lamp Post Group
  10. Beau Moffatt from Open Sky Web Studio
  11. Kim White from River City Company
  12. Cameroon Doody from Bellhops