By: Rob Lalka, Professor of Practice at the A.B. Freeman School of Business and the Executive Director of the Albert Lepage Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at Tulane University.
When I became the executive director of the Albert Lepage Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation just over two years ago, I sought out advice about how to best fulfill Mr. Lepage’s vision:
“There is a real need for research in the best practices of entrepreneurship and growing a business. But it is also important to bring that expertise back into the wider community — both the underserved and well-served — to help entrepreneurs and innovators in New Orleans and the Gulf South achieve their goals and thrive.”
Startup founders, economic developers, and faculty alike agreed that there was an immense opportunity and potential for the Center. They encouraged me to find creative ways to bring additional resources from Tulane, and the research and rigor of this great academic institution, to support our startup community. I’m thankful to many friends and colleagues for their help during that period, but one conversation stands out. I still remember what Adam Zuckerman told me.
Don’t believe the hype. Trust in data.
Adam is a dear friend from when I worked in DC, and he brought a valuable perspective from his work as the Founder of Fosterly and former Director of Ventures and Innovation at Discovery. He also brought good bourbon.
One midsummer night, we talked for hours about other markets across the South and around the country. Many other cities enjoy higher rates of high-growth exits, such as Birmingham-based SHIPT (which sold to Target for $550 million in December 2017), or Lake Charles-based WAITR (which exited for $308 million in May 2018). That’s not even to mention hubs like the Atlanta Tech Park, which has created multiple companies with exits of $1 billion or more over the past decade and a half. During that same period, New Orleans hasn’t had one.
All the while, the national media has marveled about an entrepreneurship boom in New Orleans – in large measure as part of the narrative about post-Katrina revivalism – but many startup founders confided that their reality doesn’t match that ideal. They talked a lot more about increasing revenues and creating jobs than ostentatious headlines or splashy cover stories. It became clear to me that if we hope to create the right conditions for these ventures to thrive, we first needed a better understanding of the numbers and facts that really undergird our region’s innovation economy.
New Orleans should stop believing our own good press about startups. We deserve a more unflinching take.
A few years ago, Adam’s firm, Fosterly, carried out a regional inquiry of startups in the Washington, DC, area and subsequently analyzed more than 32,000 data points to produce a summary report about the DC entrepreneurial ecosystem, which it provided free to the community. We wondered if it could be possible for us to do something similar in New Orleans. Could we learn more about what our region’s startups actually face, on a day-to-day basis, by gathering hard data from entrepreneurs themselves?
Our team got to work (and they have worked very hard) starting just over a year ago, when we brought on Ann Marshall Tilton as the Lepage Center’s Community Engagement Manager and Emily Egan as our Director of Strategic Initiatives. Six Tulane faculty and the Tulane Institutional Review Board helped to develop our survey; Fosterly served as consultants; and we collaborated with twenty-two community partners to help us reach respondents.
Last January, we distributed nearly 400 survey invitations and collected over 200 responses in six weeks. All data have been anonymized and displayed in a way that protects the privacy of respondents and the proprietary information of participating companies, and eighteen contributors have provided commentary that is interspersed throughout this sixty-page report.
The community support has been overwhelming. We are grateful for the many hours these very busy entrepreneurs put towards something when, until today, they quite honestly didn’t know what it would become. Even so, they shared our vision for a clearer understanding about our collective work. I’m thankful for their trust and hope that it will be well rewarded.
As you flip through these pages, you’ll find a detailed portrait of the size of the average startup, industry sector, founder demographics, revenue, whether they’re growing, if they’re seeking investment, and more. Based on extensive research that two of our Lepage Student Fellows conducted this summer, and interviews our team conducted with economic developers nationwide, we feel confident that there is no survey in any other city our size with this comprehensive of data.
For the very first time, we now have ecosystem-wide data that should offer new insights on revenue and hiring needs and provide clues as to what it will take to help our companies grow.
I hope that this inaugural GNO Startup Report will shed light on new facts like these about New Orleans area startups. But the Lepage Center really just ignited the spark; the fire that resulted was truly a collective effort. This was a community-wide project, which we hope will lead to more informed decisions regarding policy and investments that impact our region.
With old-fashioned hard copies being handed out at an event we are co-hosting with the National Venture Capital Association and Cal Berkeley, and digital copies now online and free for everyone, today we gratefully debut the Greater New Orleans Startup Report.
I hope you’ll join the conversation about this year’s Report using #GNOStartupReport and we look forward to working with all of you on the 2020 Report starting in January.
Learn more, and download the report, at http://www.GNOStartupReport.com.