What’s that blowing along the breeze? Is it Bradford pear petals? The music from a downtown concert? The scent from one of Chattanooga’s many delicious food trucks? No, it would seem to be the infectious spirit of ingenuity that has several of our city’s businesses going full throttle.
By Meghan O’Dea
This spring, Chattanooga’s business community is blossoming with exciting mergers, heightened profit margins, office moves, big ideas, and even bigger goals. With so many companies doing incredible work, it seems a shame to only cover just a few. But for purposes of time and space, we narrowed our list to just eight. The following companies have experienced rapid growth in just a short amount of time, gaining recognition not only regionally, but across the country and around the world. The prospects for their continued success are great and their leadership is poised and ready to take them to the next level.
If you’ve heard enthusiastic howling on the streets of Chattanooga recently, it’s probably Coyote employees celebrating their recent merger with Access America. As one pack, the companies are a $2 billion dollar transportation industry powerhouse with almost 2,000 employees and 40,000 contracted carriers – and there are plans for even more growth.
Despite Coyote’s massive employee growth in recent years, it has the close-knit feel of a smaller company – no doubt, the product of its strong on-boarding program that teaches new recruits, often just out of college, about its unique approach to transportation logistics and customer service. Chicago may be the one and only “Second City,” but Chattanooga will soon be the second city to feature a dedicated Coyote training center.
Coyote plans to make an impact outside of the business world too. “Philanthropy is central to our mission,” says Chad Eichelberger, Coyote’s president of brokerage. “It is our intent to continue to be a good steward of the Chattanooga community.” And they already have a head start in the region: last year employees raised over $235,000 for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
This people-focused company has hit the ground running in 2014, and it will be exciting to see where that momentum takes them.
Airnet Group, Inc.
Airnet has received plenty of accolades in the past several years, earning spots on Inc.com’s list of the “5,000 Fastest Growing Companies” and CRN’s “Fast Growth 150” list. In many ways, the company’s rapid growth mirrors Chattanooga’s transformation from a manufacturing dynamo into a 21st century tech hub—both success stories are the result of forward thinking, adaptability, and ingenuity.
Airnet started as a staffing firm in 1994, but by 2002, it had transformed into a political telecommunications business. Now the company offers data management, hosting, and colocation among other internet services – and runs some of the largest nonprofit, corporate, and political marketing efforts in the country.
Part of the company’s success is due to its massive investment in Chattanooga’ technology infrastructure in the past several years. Company leaders say EPB’s gigabit network has only enhanced Airnet’s ability to develop new software and communication models. And with the support of that hefty infrastructure, Airnet was able to accommodate a 150% increase in contact data during the last election cycle.
This year they will enter the world of smart custom-hosted phone systems that will greatly enhance phone technology and data collection – just one more great leap in a long line of savvy innovations.
Chattanooga Whiskey Co.
Chattanooga Whiskey has always been about more than mash and spirits, instead focusing on asking simple questions that can create change. First, they inspired a movement to overturn a nearly 100-year-old law that prevented whiskey from being made in Hamilton County. Now they’re transforming a long-vacant building in the heart of Chattanooga’s tourist district into a beautiful new distillery: the Tennessee Stillhouse.
Once the Tennessee Stillhouse opens, the company plans to continue developing new products. But true to form, it’s not just about products, portfolio, or even profit. “I want us to be a company that is about people development,” says new President Andrew Kean, who joined the company in December after serving in city government.
Chattanooga Whiskey co-founder Joe Ledbetter explains that “people development” includes creating a unique company culture for Chattanooga Whiskey employees – but it doesn’t stop there. “It’s about the company culture embracing the city and challenging the status quo of the people who live here,” he says.
If that’s the goal, then the past two years have certainly been a success. No one would be more surprised to see how whiskey and community go together than the lawmakers who prohibited distillation in Tennessee a century ago.
Bellhops isn’t your typical college campus success story. In just two years, it has graduated from a freshman-level startup to a national moving juggernaut with over 10,000 contracted employees in 119 cities. In 2013, revenue grew by 1000% and it’s expected to do so again in 2014. Co-founder Cameron Doody isn’t sure what the numbers will be for 2015, but guarantees that “it is going to be out of control.”
Bellhops is essentially a moving service. It employs college students and offers moving services to the community within a 15-mile radius of their campuses. When asked how the company achieved such rapid growth, Doody responded with just two words: “Software developers.” He explains that the Gig City’s preexisting human capital, as well as IT infrastructure, made it the perfect place for the young startup to put down roots. “There is a movement here and everyone wants to play a part. Just keep those developers coming,” he says.
Throughout that rapid growth, a strong emphasis on a fun, friendly workplace culture has kept the sweat and long hours from getting too heavy. With weekly company “bonding nights,” fun videos for the movers and new recruits, and a community pontoon boat, Bellhops is always finding new ways to motivate and celebrate as they snowball their way to success.
Long before Chattanooga became the Gig City, TransCard was pushing the envelope in software development. Their custom platforms are designed for financial institutions using pre-paid products, like the increasingly popular pre-paid cards (think gift cards, debit card, payroll cards, etc.). EPB’s gig has only opened up further possibilities for TransCard, helping the company to grow rapidly in the past two years.
Last year, the company grew from servicing 90 financial institution clients to almost 300. Now settled into a new office on Riverside Drive, the company plans to spend 2014 and beyond expanding into new business sectors including hospitality, insurance, and lottery – and they’ve already been named a Breakout Company of the Year by the 2014 Paybefore Awards.
TransCard has long been a big supporter of the Chattanooga Young Professionals Association, and with good reason. “In an ever-changing world of technology, young professionals help to create an innovative culture,” says marketing manager Lauren Carter.
Carter says that as the company continues to grow, it will further explore just what businesses can do with gigabit speeds, dedicated development, and passionate, committed people.
Sometimes big ideas start out small. Like South
tree, which preserved 100,000 home movies and 600,000 photos last year, turning them into more than a million DVDs for customers all over the country. One of Chattanooga’s most successful startups, it all star
ted with the simple idea that memories matter.
The impulse to breathe new life into tapes, film, photos, and audio has led Southtree beyond home videos to major undertakings like archiving never-before-seen footage from The Rescuers Down Under for Disney to preserving first-hand accounts from Holocaust sur
vivors for the William Bremen Jewish Heritage Museum in Atlanta.
Southtree co-founder Nick Macco explains that the company has had to blaze trails to get where it is today. “Scaling, particularly by reinvesting only your own profits, is the biggest and most rewarding challenge we’ve faced,” he says. “Turnkey solutions don’t always work. We had to design many of our own systems from scratch.”
Those initial challenges – and solutions – could turn into future rewards, as many of the new systems are attracting interest from competitors. Like the film they preserve, Southtree is sure to have a long and interesting legacy, starting with plans to double growth in 2014 for the fourth straight year.
Software startup Ambition hustled hard enough in 2013 to start 2014 with serious national recognition. The company just graduated from the world’s most prestigious tech incubator, Y Combinator, where they pitched to a room full of distinguished venture capitalists – investors who previously backed well-known startups like Dropbox and Airbnb. Ambition, whose software platform applies game principles to motivate sales teams (“think of it as Fantasy Football for your sales force”), was recognized as one of the top three startups in the class. Just before the trip out west, construction was wrapped up on their spacious new office at Lamp Post Group.
Co-founder Travis Truett says that with 2014 off to such a strong start, it’s only further motivation to keep up the hustle. “It’s realistic for us to grow revenue 1000% this year,” he says. “We’ve brought on-board some of the best investors in the world. We’re going to take some big risks this year and push ourselves to do what people say can’t be done.”
One might say that Ambition has already accomplished that by putting Chattanooga’s tech scene on the map in an industry that historically, hasn’t always been on the leading edge in our region. However, with a name like Ambition, the company seems unlikely to rest on its laurels anytime soon.
Like the song goes, it’s a small world. Local cloud-based translation company Sovee is making it even smaller by translating videos, websites, instant messages, documents, and more into hundreds of different languages at almost instantaneous speeds. Supported by EPB’s ultra-fast fiber optic internet and propelled by a “sharing philosophy to help make the world a better place,” the company currently works with small businesses to Fortune 500 companies around the globe.
Unlike many of its competitors, Sovee doesn’t charge for sharing market intelligence – a strategic move that has helped it quickly become an industry thought leader in the crowded international marketplace. “It tends to start some really great conversations,” explains Sovee President Scott Gaskill.
In 2014, the company plans to add hundreds of new languages to their services, including some that will help them tap into the newly lucrative Asian, Arabic, and African markets. They have released proprietary technology, too, that eliminates buffering time, making online videos “stickier” and therefore more lucrative for publishers. (“Stickier” is an industry word meaning “more likely to attract and retain online viewers.”) In five years, they hope translation will be fully integrated in everything the world does online, from road maps to online shopping.