Memphis Soul Boosts Startup Economy


Last month, the Engine production team took a trip down South to experience for ourselves the vibrant local startup economy we’d been hearing about in Memphis, Tennessee. We had the opportunity to meet a number of local entrepreneurs, some based full-time in Memphis and some just in town for the summer, participating in an accelerator program at StartCo. Across the board, we found a group of extremely dedicated tech entrepreneurs, many working seven days a week, more than 12 hours a day, to ready their companies for launch -- and a community taking shape that is passionate about building a better future for the city.

Some founders were lifelong Memphians who had chosen to keep their companies there, aiming to bring jobs, vitality, and a new phase of entrepreneurship to their hometown. These founders spoke of Memphis’s rich business history and entrepreneurial spirit. St. Jude, FedEx, and Autozone are among the companies that call Memphis home, and many founders spoke about these companies with an excitement that seemed to inspire their own hard work and dedication. Within the community, we met logistics startups, saw innovation in the healthcare space, and heard about medical device accelerators in the area. These were companies obviously attracted to Memphis for the resources already built into the local economy.

We also found teams from all over the country who had come to reside in the center of downtown Memphis and take advantage of the startup ecosystem that has taken shape there within the last few years. Teams from places such as NYC and Silicon Valley had come to Memphis to focus on building their businesses, looking for a different pace and a less saturated market. They described their year-round homes as having a lot of noise, and they had come to Memphis for the summer to focus on building their product -- finding real benefit living in a place where they could find a little more calm. They were astounded by the abundance of resources at their disposal: talented mentors, investors, and other startup founders -- all ready and willing to help.  


This is not to say that Memphis is lacking a noise of its own -- we were able to meet with entrepreneurs in a variety of backdrops -- from their offices, to blues clubs on Beale Street, to the tops of their tents at BBQ Fest alongside the Mississippi River. The StartCo accelerator uses Memphis in May, an international festival showcasing arts, food, and music, as a networking opportunity for its companies. As one entrepreneur put it, “What better way to build relationships than over beer and barbeque?” By the end of our visit, we had to agree. There was a liveliness and enthusiasm -- at the festival on the river, as well as in the office, that was contagious.


As with the barbeque, startup founders have taken notice, and taken advantage, of the Southern hospitality they have encountered in Memphis. A very common theme in the interviews we conducted was the sense of community, kindness, and the willingness of anyone and everyone to help out. We spoke with the founders of eDivv from NYC, who told us “the best thing about Memphis is everyone knows each other, and everyone is willing to help. They want to see Memphis succeed. It’s a small community within a big city.” Layla Tabatabaie of BarterSugar agrees: “Of all the meetings I’ve had with local residents, professors, and others in the area, they’re all willing to help and they’re all very kind. I think that is something that is sometimes harder to find in places like New York.”

As a Memphian for the vast majority of my life, it was no surprise to hear about the close-knit community as well as the kindness of complete strangers. What I was surprised to hear, though, was how these ingredients of a place I lived for 18 years are fueling a new phase of growth in the local economy. I left for San Francisco without any knowledge of a startup community in Memphis, and it was not until I spent a couple of years involved in the community here that I began to take notice of the activity in my own hometown. It was very exciting to return to Memphis and discover such a vibrant community there -- one so diverse and different than that of Silicon Valley, and one that had not existed in the Memphis I knew.

Whether a lifelong Memphian, or a founder just in town for the summer, everyone we met had a personal interest in boosting the local economy. They hoped to create jobs and bring growth to local businesses, with a heartfelt interest in improving the community they had become a part of. Though the concept of technology startups reviving the local economy may be a fairly new one for Memphis, the passion and dedication of Memphians to make Memphis a better place is not. When we asked locals to sum up Memphis in one word, one we heard quite often was “soul”. It’s easy to see how the history and soul of Memphis are finding their way into a new chapter.  

Watch our Startup Cities, Memphis video here: