Tim Williamson, Co-Founder/CEO of The Idea Village, talks with the Opportunist’s Managing Editor Leslie Stone about how his nonprofit is helping business startups and why other U.S. cities should consider adopting his mission to identify, support and retain entrepreneurial talent.
Tim Williamson’s nonprofit organization has helped raise more than $3.1 million in funding for 1,654 startup companies over the past decade.
Opportunist: What’s your background Tim?
Tim: I was born and raised in New Orleans and graduated from Tulane University. About the time I received my B.S.M. [Bachelor of Science in Management] in Finance in 1987, it was, in my opinion, the beginning of the decline in New Orleans. The oil industry had just burst and everyone was leaving the city. So, when I was accepted into an 18-month program for recent graduates to train on Wall Street in every department of investment banking, I jumped at the chance and moved to New York City. Two months later, the stock market crashed.
Opportunist: How did that impact your entrée into Wall Street?
Tim: It ushered in a new cycle. Three times in my life I’ve seen different cycles and Black Monday, Oct. 19, 1987, was the ultimate bottom of the market—but also the beginning of a whole new upside. After completing my training program, I left New York for Boston and worked at Bear Stearns for five years.
Opportunist: What was your role there?
Tim: Well, 1987 to 1993 was the beginning of the next up cycle in the market, and we became very active and successful. Cable TV was expanding from three to 500 channels and cable distribution networks were launching. As a result, companies with content were very valuable and we were buying them. I like to tell that story because we thought we were smarter than we really were. [Laughs] The idea of content was something we also became interested in and so, sometime between 1993 and 1994, I left to produce business TV shows. We were naïve enough to hope a cable channel would buy us out. I eventually moved to Atlanta and got involved in the TV and video business there and I started to dabble in and experiment with using some of our content on the Internet. By 1995, when Cox Media was introducing its Internet business, I was working on an Atlanta city site. I eventually helped build Pittsburgh.com, and in 1999 I returned to New Orleans.
Opportunist: Were you homesick for New Orleans?
Tim: As a New Orleanian, it was hard to see the city externally. I was involved with five different businesses during my time away. That was my journey around the country. [Laughs] And when I returned it was another tough time for the city, which was in yet another downward spiral. I wondered how I could make a change. “
Opportunist: Is that when you came up with the concept for The Idea Village?
Tim: Long story short, when I moved back and found myself as an entrepreneur starting a tech company, I met four other individuals who shared my story. Each of us had moved away and found ourselves back home in the ‘90s. In a way, we were competing with each other—in a new industry—and, collectively, we thought New Orleans is in a downward cycle. How do we reverse that cycle? We were just five guys drinking Scotch and brainstorming on a beverage napkin about how we could change things for the better. [Laughs]
Opportunist: What did you decide to do about it?
Tim: Each of us believed that entrepreneurs were a catalyst for change and decided if we could identify and support them and, more importantly, retain them in New Orleans, those individuals would attract new resources, new talent and create revenue while taking on education, economic challenges and such. The Idea Village was essentially our first client.
With $10,000 to invest, we began to gather investors and host roundtables and built a network, day-by-day, of people who believed in entrepreneurs.
Opportunist: Did you face any obstacles?
Tim: I decided to do this full time after we, as young entrepreneurs, tried to convince the local chamber of commerce to take this on and work with us. They said they didn’t have any money to contribute. We said, fine we would raise the money if they would just back us through an endorsement. They said they needed to think about it first. When we asked why they needed to think about it they said, “What if we endorse it and it fails? That was the day The Idea Village started. They were closed-minded and driving away talent because they couldn’t say, “We believe in you.” We found the problem: Never should a business leader ask: “What if it fails?” “What if it works?” is what we say!
Opportunist: What happened next?
Tim: We sent emails out and created a new network and culture because the current one was risk averse. We sparked a conversation that attracted support from individuals and corporations. Looking back, the early supporters of our movement are now the existing leaders. Twelve years later, New Orleans has become nationally recognized as a significant center of entrepreneurship. Forbes recently named New Orleans the “Biggest Brain Magnet” of 2011 as well as the No. 2 “Best City for Jobs.”
Opportunist: What happened after Hurricane Katrina?
Tim: The day after Katrina everyone became an entrepreneur—whether they were business owners, university students, running the government or simply helping their grandmother with her house. The ethos of entrepreneurship was extracted from New Orleans because we had to figure out how to rebuild this city. We essentially became a startup city and individuals stepped up to become entrepreneurs and innovators with very little money.
Opportunist: Can you tell us about some of the noteworthy startups discovered during your Entrepreneur Week?
Tim: Naked Pizza is one of the most successful. After Hurricane Katrina, two guys on Claiborne Avenue wanted to change the fast food industry by creating “The World’s Healthiest Pizza.” We partnered them with DePaul University, who provided strategic advice, and since then they have sold over 500 units—some overseas, including Dubai—and are the Top 7th social media brand in the country. Pizza is the last thing you’d think would come from New Orleans, but Naked Pizza proves this city is a launching pad for global brands.
Kickboard is another good one. It’s a software system that helps teachers manage student data. A Connecticut teacher who came to New Orleans after Katrina started it. About $800,00 in seed funding was raised, and nearly 200 schools in the country are interested in using it. Ten local programmers were hired.
Cordina Frozen Cocktails, one of our Entrepreneur Week winners two years ago, had $5 million in revenue last year. They sell margaritas and daiquiris in a pouch—similar to those Capri Sun uses for their nonalcoholic juice beverages.
Opportunist: Has your vision changed since the early days?
Tim: Our vision now is How does New Orleans become a model for the world? That probably wasn’t our original vision, but if we could instill entrepreneurship as part of our culture and create a rhythm around that. Our competitive advantage here in New Orleans is that we are a seasonal city. Everything is centered on the rhythm of calendars and seasons.
Opportunist: What is your biggest ongoing challenge?
Tim: Sticking with it and being committed to seeing this vision through. Early on it was tough. Entrepreneurship also means change and people resist change. I’m glad we didn’t give up on it. The tipping point came when others began to see our vision as well. I work with the most engaged, incredible teams in the world.
Opportunist: What lies ahead for The Idea Village?
Tim: I see an entire Entrepreneurship Season becoming a regular part of the calendar. That’s the final link. If we had 2,000 people attend Entrepreneur Week this year, why can’t there be 10,000, 20,000 or even 50,000? We get that many people on average at the Tomato Festival. [Laughs]
My hope is that New Orleans will be viewed as a laboratory where the world can learn how to build entrepreneurial ecosystems. The entrepreneurs we are working with now will be the next generation of civic leaders who will lead reform in education and economic development and community involvement. What if it works?
Opportunist: Where do you stand on the U.S. economy?
Tim: I’m very optimistic because I think entrepreneurship is becoming validated as a focused effort to drive the economy in our country. We need to look at entrepreneurs as a catalyst to creating new jobs because that’s where new jobs will come from. Cities must be able to build vibrant ecosystems that are able to attract, support and retain entrepreneurs. Those who don’t will lose talent. If New Orleans can become competitive that means anyone can. I think we’ve identified an ecosystem and model to grow on and I hope other communities pick up on this so we can connect our ecosystems and build a strong entrepreneurial ecosystem for our country. It all starts locally.
The Idea Village - http://ideavillage.org/
Leslie Stone is an award-winning writer/editor with more than two decades of experience covering business, finance and lifestyle issues for newspapers, magazines and online publications. Originally from Virginia, she currently resides in the Orlando area.