The In(novative) Crowd

By Candice Graham  ::  Photography by Stephanie Garcia

Adam Kinsey

president of the Chattanooga Choo Choo, Co-Founder of  Track 29 & Revelry Room, Partner at Kinsey Probasco Hays

Q What role do innovation and creative problem solving play in your everyday business operations?
Innovation hits two sides: the product that you offer the customer, and the way your team works to deliver that product. People are always evolving in what they are looking for, and I believe that hotel guests are craving local, authentic, and historic offerings rather than typical chain concepts. There is endless creative problem solving that goes into our businesses, but it all comes back to getting your team together to find the best solution and moving forward to tackle the obstacle.

Q What traits do you feel are most important for an entrepreneur to have?
Vision to see the opportunity, patience to strike at the right time, perseverance to weather the storms, and the passion to do it all over again.

Q What have you learned from your father while pursuing your own business ventures?
I’ve had a great group of mentors, and I’ve learned a lot, but there are a few main things. First: numbers don’t lie. Second: working together works, meaning that talking to and getting input from the community and your neighbors on a project produces a better overall product. Third: hire the best people to do the best job.

Q How do you see the future laying out for Chattanooga?
The one word that I use to describe Chattanooga to folks is opportunity. There is so much opportunity in Chattanooga right now, and it is not limited to one industry. With great resources like CO.LAB, Society of Work, and the Innovation District, I believe that there has never been a better time to go take the leap on a business idea or other concept.
As downtown continues to develop and become denser, you will see the diversity and uniqueness of neighborhoods become more special. A decade ago you really only had the Aquarium District and Jack’s Alley, but now you have vibrant areas of downtown that include Southside, MLK, City Center, NorthShore, and the Arts District. There is also a lot of activity at UTC, and it’s awesome to see the campus spread out more. Our downtown is such a large land mass that we haven’t had the density that other cities have. We are starting to see that now at an explosive pace. It gets me really excited.

 

Cameron Doody

co-founder of Bellhops

Q What led you to believe Bellhops could be a big idea?
When we were in college, no one hired movers, despite everyone moving all the time. When you have 20,000 strong, able-bodied college kids in a 10-mile radius, it was way easier to beg friends for help than to go through the cost and hassle of hiring traditional movers. About 75 percent of Americans move themselves, or, more accurately, they beg their friends for help. There was a clear opportunity to connect communities all over the country with a platform to access a local workforce of ambitious, strong students for moving services at a much more accessible price.

Q Bellhops has grown significantly since it was founded. When looking back, what strategic moves have been key to your success?
Our investment in culture from the beginning has been key. We defined who we were, what we value, and what we believe in. We are a service company at our core, and every one of our employees must be totally committed to both our customers and our Bellhops. Tactically, across all our departments, we’re all serving the same maxims. It’s been absolutely key in building a company that delivers a truly amazing experience.

Q How will you innovate your company’s offerings in order to meet customer needs and continue to grow?
This year will be very exciting with the launch of trucks and transportation. We’re becoming a one-stop shop for moving services, and we will be integrating storage and packing materials solutions into our product offerings through partnerships with industry leaders at some point in the future.

Q How has being located in Chattanooga shaped the identity of Bellhops?
A We’re changing consumer behavior in the moving space by providing a new, stand-alone solution, priced accessibly for everyone, and completely separate from the “traditional movers” category. In order to be successful at that, we have to win over the customer. Being based in Chattanooga gives us a virtually unlimited pool of empathetic, kind-hearted people who want to serve our customers. That is very vital to our core brand. Southern hospitality, as cliché as it is, truly is a big arrow in our quiver.

Matt Hullander

Hullco

Q How do you go about launching new products and services?
A   I want to make sure we’re careful to only provide great products that we’re great at installing. I don’t want to get too many eggs in our basket. We launched a bath division two years ago, and it has been extremely successful because it caters to past customers/our demographic and follows a similar system as our other products.

Q What factors have made Hullco successful?
A   We have a great culture, and I work hard to make sure it stays great. The book Good to Great says “Get the right people on the bus, then figure out what seat they’ll sit in.” That’s what we do. We have employees who started out in one seat and have grown professionally and moved to another seat. Also, our values have been vital to our success. We do what we say.

Q What are some of your ventures outside of Hullco?
My real passion, aside from Hullco, is real estate development. I’m president of Chestnut Holdings and B & M Development, which develop property on the Southside and in the East Brainerd community. I also own an ad agency, Chattamedia. The fact that I have great people running the daily activities at Hullco allows me the opportunity to invest my time and resources into these endeavors.

Q You and your business are highly involved in the community. Can you tell us about that?  
I love helping people. My wife Jenny and I both sit on the Hunter Worley Foundation board and on the Children’s Hospital Council and I sit on the Pat Summit Foundation committee. I want our company and our employees to do the same, so we began the Hullco Heritage Foundation five years ago to provide them a way to give back. The foundation raises money for other local non-profits mainly focused on children.

Q If you were going to give a new entrepreneur some words of advice, what would they be?
A Do what you’re good at and what you have a passion for. Don’t try to be what you’re not. If you’re not good at something, find someone who is. Play to your strengths.

Stephen Culp

Principal and co-founder of delegator.com, PriceWaiter, Smart Furniture, Causeway, and the Chattanooga Renaissance Fund

Q What makes Chattanooga innovative/a great place to grow a business?
A   First, its strange combination of groundedness and weirdness. Second, we’ve been working for years to create a healthy, diverse, robust entrepreneurial ecosystem. We needed four pillars standing at once – entrepreneurs, capital, mentors, and infrastructure – and a few years ago came a moment when we had all of them up. The community seized the moment, struck fast, and now we’re building on it.

Q How does your own varied background help you in your businesses and overall life each day?
The best lessons don’t come from a classroom or book or social media platform, but from trying real things in real life, making mistakes, learning from the experience, and applying those learnings. This may seem obvious. What’s less obvious is how those learnings often apply to things that seem totally unrelated.

Q Can you give us an example?  
A   Believe it or not, my time in the Peace Corps was one of the most entrepreneurial experiences in my life. You’re thrown into chaos, you’ve got two years to figure it out, people think you’re crazy, and in many cases, no one wants the product you originally planned to sell. Learn, adapt, make it happen, or leave. It was an entrepreneurial crucible. The Peace Corps is also about helping others themselves, and that mentality drives nearly everything I’ve done, whether for-profit or nonprofit.

Q What advice would you give to an entrepreneur who has a great idea?  
A   Try to talk yourself out of it, arguing that your idea is crazy, the risks are too great, it’s been done before, a bigger company could do it better, failing is embarrassing, etc. If you fail to win that argument with yourself, you may be ready.

Q Do you have “lightbulb” moments when developing business ideas?
A The lightbulb moments are constant, like a freaking strobe light, and my challenge is to focus on one at a time, which I’ve failed to do, often. Don’t do that.

Cory Allison

founder and CEO of Rezli, Inc.

Q What inspired you to start Rezli, Inc.?  
A   Meeting people, especially the younger generations, who seem lost and confused about their career paths and don’t realize that they must figure out their passion and turn it into a career. We live in a society that focuses on getting a well-paying job right out of school, and when that doesn’t line up well with a person’s interests and passions, not only does that individual not enjoy their work, but they start to disengage and often fail miserably. Rezli (Rezume Link, shortened) empowers people of all ages to turn their passion into a career by building their digital portfolio/resume, sharing their stories, searching educational and career opportunities, and networking with others in similar fields.

Q Tell me about your involvement with The JumpFund. What are some of the main reasons you feel it’s important to inspire and support other innovative women?
The JumpFund strives to provide not only financial support to women-led businesses but, more importantly, assists female entrepreneurs with desperately needed networking opportunities with business leaders and investors. As a female entrepreneur and angel investor, I’ve met many talented and wealthy women, but they’re not used to jumping in, especially in the areas of startup and angel investing. The JumpFund empowers female investors and entrepreneurs to take a leap of faith and be bold. The number of women investors as well as the amount of funding awarded to female entrepreneurs is very lopsided in that most investors are men and most funding is awarded to them as well.  We need to recognize this gap and play a role in leveling the playing field.

Q Why do you feel that Chattanooga is the right place for Rezli?  What makes it innovative?
Chattanooga is doing an excellent job of competing against large markets by being more efficient and coming up with smarter ways to use less money and other resources to develop scalable startups. We work more effectively with a smaller talent pool. Chattanoogans must be innovative and use our available resources such as the Gig by EPB in order to grow and train our local talent pool.

George Yu

CEO of Variable, Inc.

Q Innovation is clearly an important aspect of your business and life as an entrepreneur. How did you first begin to develop your idea for Variable and your NODE products?
A   The original NODE idea came to me after years of creating sensor hardware and software. I leveraged my professional knowledge. The Chroma color sensor idea began as a challenge I found when visiting a home improvement store. I couldn’t believe people had to use paper color swatches to buy paint and match colors. I thought it should not be difficult to create a color sensor, but as we began developing the color-sensing technology, it proved more challenging than originally thought. We had to drive innovation to overcome these challenges to get to a technically accurate and user-friendly success.

Q How did you gain the financing needed to launch each idea?
A   I funded the creation of NODE using my own savings. I then turned to Kickstarter to gather market feedback and traction to convince angel investors to give me the seed funding needed to make NODE a reality. Further funding from investors was based on milestones we achieved.

Q Since you founded Variable, you’ve grown exponentially. What has changed about the way you conduct business?
We have gotten exponentially smarter in our business. We know which opportunity to focus energy on and what opportunities are wild goose chases. We are better organized and operate more efficiently. It also helps by continuing to be frugal with expenses.

Q When looking back, what strategic moves or initiatives have you made that were key to the success of your NODE products?
We strategically decided to focus our effort on just one sensor instead of pursing every possible idea NODE can support. This decision to focus was critical to our success.

Q What advice would you share with other up-and-coming entrepreneurs?
A My advice is to learn as much as you can about your idea and how it applies to customers. Be fair about what you learn. Don’t just look for the information that favors your idea. Identifying early that an idea is not feasible is far more important than any execution of the idea.

Johnny O’Brien

partner and director at Contemporary Healthcare Capital, co-owner of High Point Climbing and Fitness

Q Since 1999, you’ve launched Grace Healthcare, started Contemporary Healthcare Capital, and built High Point Climbing and Fitness. What led you to start each of these companies?
A   I have an entrepreneurial spirit. For 20 years, I had the incredible opportunity to work closely with an amazing visionary, Mr. Forrest Preston, founder and owner of Life Care Centers of America. After receiving my CPA license, I joined him as his personal asset manager, and he gave me insight into every aspect of building a billion dollar company. By age 36, I became president of the company. Forrest was a mentor who gave me responsibilities that no one my age or experience level should have been entrusted with. As a result, I learned a great deal of real-life business knowledge and eventually had the desire to start my own company.
I partnered with Byron DeFoor to build Grace Healthcare, a senior housing company in 1999, and Chuck Jabaley joined us that same year to launch Contemporary Healthcare Capital, a specialty finance company. High Point Climbing and Fitness is a company I started in 2013 with John Wiygul, who introduced me to climbing and has been my IRONMAN training partner for eight years.

Q Is there a point of difference that has allowed each business to prosper?
A There are differences in each company. High Point focuses on the best location for each development, Contemporary looks at the operational excellence and integrity of our borrowers, and Grace remains committed to enhancing the quality of life for our residents.

Q How have you been able to take opportunities when you see them and develop them into successful businesses?
I am a big dreamer and am always looking at opportunities. The challenge is to review the pipeline and narrow down projects that make the most sense, offer the highest return on equity, and most importantly, provide personal satisfaction.

Karen Hutton

CEO of Hutton

Q I read that “Don’t get comfortable” is a key phrase of yours. Can you tell me why you think this is an important reminder?  
A   Someone or some company somewhere is looking to be better and be the best. Just because we did something great yesterday does not mean we are great today or tomorrow. Don’t fall in love with yourself and don’t get comfortable. It’s hard work to stay on top and to be the best. Be a fast follower, listen, and set up a culture that allows each person to be a catalyst in improving the company.

Q Since Hutton opened in 1998, it has helped bring to life 987 developments in 35 states. Not to mention that the Hutton team set company records by developing 36 grocery stores in 24 months. What’s your advice for others who may feel overwhelmed with a similar workload?
A   Breathe. Each person has to get to know themselves intimately and ask for help when needed. I call it “raising the white flag.” We’ve given flags out at company jamborees, and we still don’t get the raised flags soon enough. It eventually shows up by default, but what we as a company are looking for is to know that something is not working or someone is overloaded before it’s too late. Knowing your limitations tells those working alongside you how to support you in a meaningful way. We know that to be successful we must have work flow in a sustainable environment. If something doesn’t feel sustainable, it’s probably not.

Q How do you define the word “innovation”?  
Challenging the status quo and the notion that “it’s always been done that way.”

Q What is your advice for other entrepreneurs?
Be sure the work ethic and appetite for success is present before starting a business. Your support system must be on board. Growing an organization is challenging and takes a great team to be successful. Make sure when you’re hiring that the definitions are clear. Hire great leaders above what you need currently. If you have to talk yourself into hiring someone, they probably are not the right fit. Hire slow, fire fast.

Greg Vital

C0-Founder, president and CEO of Independent Healthcare Properties/Morning Pointe

Q What led you to get into the senior care business?
A Improving the quality of living for seniors was not a new challenge for me. I spent 10 years in the senior living arena at a national senior living management corporation. After learning the operational, developmental, and financial structure of the senior care provider, I left my role as vice president of marketing and professional development to answer a personal calling of entrepreneurship. It was the end of the 1990s, the beginning of the assisted living industry, and I saw opportunity right in front of me. With that vision, my co-founder, Franklin Farrow, and I set out on the road with only an accordion file, a Crown Victoria, and hopes that future investors would believe in a different kind of senior living – one that would promote healthier, happier lives while encouraging personal choice and community pride. We realized that people wanted more options and choices, and that not everyone requires the services of a skilled nursing provider.

Q How have you continued to be innovative and fresh to allow your senior care facilities to grow?
A With each Morning Pointe development, I’ve made it my business to familiarize myself with all of the communities where Morning Pointe is located. Each of our assisted living facilities and Alzheimer’s Centers of Excellence celebrates the history, culture, and conversations of the people who reside there, following suit with our goal to preserve a piece of the past within each Morning Pointe community.

Q What have been your biggest challenges, and how have you managed through them?
A I think the biggest challenge is adapting to the changing senior living industry. More and more services are expected in assisted living and Alzheimer’s memory care communities as seniors live longer. We are constantly evaluating resident and family needs, following industry trends, and putting best practices in place to better serve our aging population. The challenge creates an ongoing need for improved facility design, technology, training, and care services for a growing and changing population.