Silicon Prairie: Startup Homes on the Range
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It’s been said that one of the most difficult aspects of starting a business is communicating what, exactly, your company plans on doing. How can you get funding if you can’t succinctly, articulate your business model? In New Orleans, the annual Pitch NOLA competition helps local entrepreneurs solve that quandary, working to develop their business plans and hone their messaging so they can effectively sell their innovative ideas to venture capitalists and the community.
Pitch NOLA is an offshoot of Propeller, a New Orleans-based nonprofit that was founded in 2009. The organization helps fledgling entrepreneurs grow their companies through its various programs, which include an incubator, an accelerator, and its namesake pitch competition. Over the past few years, Propeller has given away tens of thousands of dollars in cash prizes to people like David Young.
Young is the founder of Capstone, one of an increasing number of New Orleans organizations that are helping the city recover from the devastation that Hurricane Katrina left in its wake in 2005. Since it was formed, Capstone’s mission has been to reclaim previously blighted lots in the particularly hard-hit Lower Ninth Ward area of New Orleans. Under Young’s watchful eye, the company has transformed formerly vacant parcels into productive gardens and orchards that supply much-needed food to city residents—all at no cost thanks to his revenue-generating mini-farms.
A serial entrepreneur, Young was an experienced businessperson prior to his starting Capstone. Yet he credits Pitch NOLA, and a handful of the other programs Propeller offers, with helping him get his untested idea off the ground. Backed by the organization’s largesse, Capstone has been able to incorporate beekeeping into its arsenal as it has expanded further in the Lower Ninth Ward.
“I’ve actually won an award from Pitch NOLA twice,” says Young. “When Pitch NOLA came around, I presented my idea for a fruit and citrus orchard and won first place. We were able to buy two larger lots and we got 30 fruit and citrus trees that we planted there. This year, for Pitch NOLA 2014 Living Well, I came in second place, and our presentation for that was to expand the honeybees and help them continue to survive.”
New Orleans isn’t the first metropolis to recognize the importance of fostering its innovation economy. It is, however, among a group of cities that are vying to reverse their recent economic misfortunes by attracting business-minded thinkers with big ideas and even bigger ambitions. The city is already seeing results from its bet on entrepreneurs: Since Katrina, the New Orleans metropolitan area has recovered more than 90% of its population and 85% of its jobs, a report from the Brookings Institute concluded.
Propeller, and a host of other incubators and accelerators, are hoping that, with training, capital, and assistance, entrepreneurs can fundamentally reshape the city’s economic future. These sorts of organizations aren’t merely focused on technology. Rather, they’re casting a wide net as they help entrepreneurs develop business plans, shape their messaging, and sell themselves and their companies to investors. The latter was particularly valuable for Young, who knew how to grow a business but struggled to articulate his company’s mission.
“I had quite a bit of experience to start with because I had started a lot of businesses on my own so I didn’t need as much mentoring as the other groups,” he says. “I still benefited from the experience and learning different techniques and methods that I hadn’t utilized before. From a more practical sense—and this is the whole thing that Pitch NOLA is based on—I learned a ton about how to pitch to investors, as they help you come up with a three-minute presentation to help get your entire idea across.”
Thanks to the funding, mentorship, and networking opportunities he’s been afforded, Young has been able to steer Capstone toward growth, which, he says, has proceeded at a breakneck pace. Given this kind of success, it’s no surprise that Young is a strong advocate of Propeller and plans to continue working with the organization in the future.
“I’m looking into is applying for a fellowship next year,” Young says. “One of the big benefits of Pitch NOLA is the exposure that I got, which also led to a number of opportunities for us. Things just keep expanding: We only had one lot two years ago, and now we’re operating 26. I’m very excited for the future.”