VOL. 38 | NO. 17 | Friday, April 25, 2014
A Jumpstart toward success: Nashville business accelerator ranks among nation’s best
By Stephanie Toone
On the path to becoming an esteemed psychology professor, Brian Nelson decided to take a sharp turn to a destination much less glamorous than the halls of academia.
His vision led him to the gas pump.
Not as an attendant, but as the tech entrepreneur behind the consumer-facing retail technology that entices casual gas customers to go inside their local convenience market for the .89 cent coffee or the 2 for 1 hotdog deal.
“The average person takes 5 minutes to fill up, and they have nothing to do in those minutes, so it’s the perfect opportunity to market to them,” says Nelson, who is the co-founder of Newsbreak, an advertising platform that utilizes LCD screens at gas pumps and inside convenience markets.
“We started as a media marketing company installing our products at some convenience stores in Knoxville. We wanted to turn our business into something scalable, something profitable, something huge.”
Realizing that the five minutes it takes for the average person to fill their tanks is a perfect marketing opportunity, Brian Nelson and Bob Bradley had the idea of of installing LCD video screens at convenience store pumps, as well as inside the stores. -- Michelle Morrow | Nashville Ledger
Nelson and his co-founder, Bob Bradley, saw some success when they started the company in 2012, but both saw the need to apply for the competitive business accelerator program in Nashville, Jumpstart Foundry.
Jumpstart Foundry, a microfund supporting seed-stage ventures and the start-up entrepreneurs behind them, has graduated 28 entrepreneurs through its annual three-month intensive cohort. The companies have raised more than $10 million since the program’s inception in 2010. Thriving startups like Newsbreak, Wannado and The Skillery have all received tutelage through Jumpstart Foundry.
Nationally, the accelerator program was named one of the top 15 programs by Tech Crunch during South by Southwest. According to Tech Crunch, that ranking is based on the company’s success in securing financing after the program, opinions of venture capitalists, and how participants rate their experience during the cohort.
“I’m incredibly pleased and honored that JSF was included in the top 15 accelerators across the US,” says Vic Gatto, co-founder of JumpStart. “The entrepreneurs, mentors and staff have all worked very hard over the last five years to continuously improve and make JSF the best accelerator in the Southeast US.
“Inclusion in the top 15, and the fact that we are the only Southeastern program, is a great recognition of this work.”
The accelerator boasts a 65 percent success rate for its startups post-graduation. That statistic alone puts JumpStart well above the national success rate of venture-backed firms. According to a 2012 research study by Harvard Business School, three-quarters of startups fail.
JumpStart is currently accepting applicants for its Summer 2014 cohort. To apply, visit www.jsf.co
Beating the odds has much to do with JumpStart focusing on three main innovation areas – health care IT, data services and social engagement tools.
During the three-month intensive program, the would-be entrepreneurs are granted $15,000 in seed funding, access to legal services, a network of 100-plus mentors, access to top-notch angel investors and the opportunity to tweak their products to better serve customers.
In return, JumpStart, a collective of 20 founders, receives 6 percent of the company’s stake and another four percent goes to equity mentors that will serve on boards and support the company beyond the program.
The feedback and connection with experts in various fields was immeasurable, Nelson explains.
“The most compelling thing in the process was the access to the mentors. They knew so much about things my business partner and I didn’t know about,” Nelson adds.
“We were practicing our pitches with people like Michael Burcham (president and CEO of the Nashville Entrepreneur Center) two or three times a week.”
That access and tutelage led to Nelson and Bradley raising sustainable capital in a matter of months. Newsbreak has doubled its reach from 20 convenience stores to more than 40 and will have 10 employees within the next year.
Gatto admits the rigorous programming offered at JumpStart produces results, but like the national statistics prove, not all can handle the pressure of being new entrepreneurs running the gauntlet.
“We push the teams to accomplish unrealistically high achievements in the 100 days of Jumpstart. Not all are successful. We have about a 15 percent dropout rate,” Gatto says.
“We push our teams to learn and improve at a frenetic pace. They make 18 months of progress during three calendar months. When they leave JSF, our alums are prepared for any and all obstacles on their way to building a great company.”
Wannado founder Steven Buhrman also has reaped the benefits from his time at JumpStart Foundry. He describes the app and online engagement tool as an E-Harmony for life in the city. More than 15,000 users download Wannado every day to learn about volunteer opportunities, date night spots, arts, music and other events.
Buhrman, a theologian who had studied at the University of Oxford, moved to Nashville in 2011 with a couple of suitcases and his Volvo in hopes of bringing his app to life through JumpStart.
“The most important aspect for me was the connection with real users who live in the city and would really use this product,” Buhrman says.
“The process is really intended to beat you up and mash up your ideas, but it also makes your stronger and more focused.”
The timing has been right for JumpStart and the entrepreneurs vying to participate in the program, Buhrman adds. Launch Tennessee and the long-running Nashville Entrepreneur Center are some local and statewide stakeholders in Nashville’s tech boom.
“It’s been amazing to be in a city like Nashville that has been intentional about creating a context for entrepreneurs to turn their ideas into reality,” he says. “If you’re struck with an idea, there’s nothing stopping you from being successful.”