#StartupsEverywhere Profile: Christopher Lomax, Founder and CEO of The Mantle. City Club + Incubator
This profile is part of #StartupsEverywhere, an ongoing series highlighting startup leaders in ecosystems across the country. This interview has been edited for length, content, and clarity.
The “Hospitality State” of Mississippi is home to a network of innovators and entrepreneurs who are working to build a high-growth startup ecosystem there. This week we spoke with Christopher Lomax, one of the individuals driving the development of the digital economy in Jackson. Christopher cited Net Neutrality protections, tax incentives to retain Mississippi's top talent, and pro-STEM education reform as policies that could carry forward the progress the state has witnessed in recent years.
What’s your personal role in the Jackson startup ecosystem? How did you get involved working with startups in Jackson?
Several years ago I set out to start a retail social network app company in Jackson and decided to stay here instead of heading to a more traditional technology startup hub. I worked from home because there were no coworking spaces in all of Mississippi. I was an attorney by schooling so I had no idea what I was doing, so I looked for an incubator next - but I couldn’t find any of those here either.Several incubators were attached to universities but you had to be a student in order to access them. As we scraped along, we started looking for capital after developing our business plan. Finding venture money in any market is not easy, and while it isn’t impossible here, capital can be very hard to come by - for technology companies especially. There just aren’t that many VC’s who see a lot of these tech deals.
I soon ran out of time and money pursuing an app deal. I didn’t want my entire experience with Aimlistly to be for nothing so I looked back on my experience wondering, what was missing for me and how can I provide it for the next group of entrepreneurs to come down that same road. I started concepting Mantle., a coworking space and incubator that is now 2 years old.
Can you tell us more about Mantle.?
We’re still the only tech incubator in the state. We don’t have venture capital yet so we provide free space and mentorship alongside the incubator.
Since starting Mantle., we have been forced to rebrand from co-working to Mantle. “City Club”. Our goals have remained the same, however. Essentially, we’re creating a toolbox for the Mississippi startup ecosystem and ecosystems in other middle markets that don’t have the networks, the spaces, the capital, or the tools in general to help seed and grow entrepreneurs. The physical space with the City Club is just one of the tools -we’re starting to add to the toolbox and give people in our community greater access to the resources we’re building here like a digital network and city wide discounts so they can save money to reinvest in their businesses.
What’s the most exciting or important development that has happened to the Jackson ecosystem in the last year?
There are several cool companies based out of here. The Jackson ecosystem is different. While we’re a town of 500,000 people, Mississippi is small in terms of population and we look at servicing the entire state as a result. A big problem of ours is holding onto startups and individual talent. Entrepreneurs tend to leave because of the lack of venture capital. There’s a really cool startup that came out of Ole Miss in Oxford called Curtsy, a peer to peer company who made it to Y Combinator and left Mississippi for Silicon Valley. We need to be holding onto those companies, not sending sand to the beach.
Another example of this is one of Mantle.’s own, the Keto Doctor. John Limansky was one of our original office members and is one of the country’s top keto lifestyle voices. He just packed up to head to San Francisco, too.
I’m a big believer in Steve Case’s Rise of the Rest theory. Everything in the traditional hubs is becoming so expensive and cities like Jackson are about to see all of these companies and founders come back. Mantle. wants to facilitate this return and to welcome them back into the community. Curtsy is a huge example of why we need policies that work for everybody and don’t just help the coasts.
What makes Jackson an ideal place to start a company?
Cost of living. We’ve had a few ideas start here at Mantle. in the software space and they can operate with as little as $200,000 and do what the same exact company in Silicon Valley would need $600,000 to $1 million to do.
Jackson, Oxford, and a few other cool municipalities around the state are becoming really connected. Everyone in the Mississippi ecosystem seems to know each other with two degrees of separation. We have a young but emerging startup ecosystem that the governments and universities are getting involved with as well. Our universities have great, growing entrepreneurship and engineering programs that are helping encourage students to start the next big thing. We just need to take the next big step and provide some risk capital to help finish what “we” as a state started.
What is the biggest challenge the Jackson ecosystem still faces?
Our trouble is holding onto these talented idea generators after they graduate from these top universities. We need to provide aspiring entrepreneurs with the tools and access to capital that will enable our ecosystem to retain them.
What industries have historically thrived in Jackson? How has this shaped the ecosystem there?
Traditionally, we’re an agriculture state and we have seen some AgTech startups spring up. What some people don’t know is that Jackson - pre-WorldCom/MCI implosion - was on the verge of being a telecommunications leader for the country. In that communications vein, we have the countries largest privately held cell phone service provider, CSpire. CSpire is doing some unbelievable things in providing Fiber internet to our state when maybe our small state may not warrant investment in the eyes of some board rooms. CSpire is also stepping up to the plate and planning great technology events like their MVMT event, and providing coding education from the private sector.
On the startup front, Mississippi’s nickname is the “Hospitality State” and I think you definitely see a lot of startups that reflect that. Whether it’s my own company, Mantle., which is all about meeting and connecting with people or helping assist each other in growing together or Curtsy, that I mentioned above, that is about dressing others out of your own closet, these companies are living up to the state’s motto. Another startup that has seen some funding traction is EdgeTheory whose founder Joe Stradinger’s theory is based entirely around the art of front porch conversation.
Are there specific public policies or government initiatives that have enabled startup growth in Jackson?
When we see something we like in terms of policy, we always speak out. Net Neutrality is very important for the growth of our software businesses, which depend on a low cost of entry into the market. In a place that is really young in creating a startup ecosystem, we need to prevent the costs from entering the market from going up. Other ecosystems have already benefited from the low cost of entry, Mississippi does not need to be playing from behind with these other, established companies.
There’s a state senator who has put forth a bill that encourages new graduates of state universities in Mississippi to start a new business by granting them at least two years of state income taxes waived. As someone who’s two years into starting a business, this could have been hugely helpful. This could definitely help retain the top talent coming out of Mississippi. I applaud legislators that can think outside the box whether through incentive or regulation to keep a fair but competitive environment for startups here in Mississippi and across the country.
How involved are your government representatives in the Jackson startup space?
A bit. Sometimes I feel like our politicians focus on bringing in large, multinational companies by giving them sizable tax breaks in order to create jobs. However, many of these jobs run the risk of being automated away and losing money in the long-run but these deals look good on paper. However, the same amount of money could have been used to help hundreds and maybe thousands of entrepreneurs start their own companies.
It’s portfolio theory, right? While many will fail, the several that are successful would then reinvest their windfall into the next round of companies. We need a couple of those big wins for our ecosystem to really get cooking. The founder of a newly exited company based out of Oxford - FNC - said he wants to turn Oxford into the next Austin, TX. We need some of founders like this who want to get back into the game and make this a reality. The government could be helpful in providing some of the initial investments for this process on a smaller scale.
From a policy perspective, do you have any wishlist items for your startup ecosystem?
Our biggest problem is education. There have been some small, successful initiatives around expanding coding education that have worked but we need a broader education funding reform at the K-12 level. Our higher education can compete with anywhere in the country but we need the majority of our population to get to the level where they can get on a laptop and create the next great company.
Are there some startups to watch coming out of Jackson?
Capway - Financial education and assistance for underserved markets.
Cicayda - Legal services software company. Provides an analytics platform to increase productivity.
Golf on the Go - Essentially ClassPass for golf.
Myra Mirrors - Oxford-based company that manufactures smart mirrors and is developing an operating system that they can run on.
School Status - Data storage and analytics for schools, educators, and parents.