Entrepreneurs Choose Chattanooga

Why Chattanooga?


It’s no secret that Chattanooga is a great city for anyone who wants to get their business off the ground. With beautiful views, lightning-fast internet, and plenty of resources for aspiring entrepreneurs, the Scenic City has become a hot spot for those looking to establish themselves in the business world, as well as a thriving new city to call home. From 3D printing to hand-poured candles, these local businesses all began or grew in Chattanooga and have become part of the long list of entrepreneurs that have chosen Chattanooga.


By Anna Hill | Photography by Rich Smith

Emily Warr, The Rustic House


The Rustic House, a small business specializing in hand-poured candles, was a true passion project that started at home between Emily Warr and her childhood best friend, Chelsea Cash. In the beginning, they sweated through hot Tennessee summers to make their candles and take them to the Chattanooga Market every Saturday. “We started out making candles in our garage with recycled glass and a used wax machine we bought for $500,” Warr shares. “We were able to build our brand one weekend at a time.”

In the following years, Warr and Cash began to take advantage of the great resources Chattanooga has to offer, including a space at the Hamilton County INCubator, as well as counseling services from the Tennessee Small Business Development Center. “We knew how to make candles, but having business professionals guide us as we grew was something that really put us on a solid path to success,” says Warr. Now, though the candles are still poured in small batches, they’re sold in more than 400 stores across the country.

However, the Chattanooga advantage didn’t stop with the small business support system. One of The Rustic House’s newest products, a CBD massage candle, was created in partnership with local hemp grower FarmToMed. This new candle line will be sold alongside their current catalog of candles, which ranges from their signature Scenic City scent to others like ‘barn wood’ and ‘apples + honey.’

Thanks to their dedication to hand-pouring and small batch production, Warr and the rest of The Rustic House team are able to maintain high product quality. While they’ve always placed an emphasis on natural ingredients, they take it one step further regarding sustainability. “Our philosophy is that every part of our candle is made to be 100% recyclable,” Warr explains.

Warr also feels that part of running a business is giving back. Their philanthropy line, called This Little Light, uses half of its proceeds to support nonprofits in Chattanooga as well as Guatemala and the Dominican Republic. “We believe we are all lights in this world, and it is our responsibility to help others shine,” she says.

Ji Hoon Heo, TesBros


For Ji Hoon Heo, his business, TesBros, began with a ‘lightbulb’ moment.

“It came to me one day while I was sitting in traffic, and it just went from there,” he says.

Heo brought the idea – to manufacture accessories for Tesla vehicles – to his longtime friend and fellow Tesla enthusiast, J.P. Ermitanio, who already had half a decade of experience in e-commerce. Soon after, Heo left his job as a professor at the University of Mississippi, which freed up his time and energy to start working with J.P. Between the two of them, TesBros went from a craft store experiment to an entrepreneurial reality.

Since its inception, the company has rapidly grown; just this year, sales have been boosted by 400%. The company started out selling small vinyl stickers for Tesla interiors, but has now expanded to blackout kits, DIY interior vinyl wraps, and more. “All of our products are focused on the maintenance, customization, and protection of Tesla vehicles,” Heo says. One of their latest ventures has been opening a wrap studio, where TesBros will provide custom vinyl wraps and window tinting for any vehicle.

The nearest purchase center for Tesla is in Alpharetta, Georgia – over two hours from Chattanooga. So, what was it that brought TesBros to the Scenic City? Heo and his wife had visited the area back when they were dating, and the couple had great memories of their time here. Heo also notes how much support he’s received from the community, including advice from CO.LAB and networking with other local startups. “Not only that, but the access to talent has been great. We’ve built most of our team with Chattanoogans, and we’re so proud of our team as we grow,” he explains.

Looking toward the future, Heo hopes to venture back toward an educational space. His goal is to create programs that support and empower children in underserved communities by providing them with the tools to succeed in their own business ventures. As TesBros expands, Heo is optimistic about reaching that goal someday. “We’re still trying to figure out exactly what that would look like, but we’re working on it,” he adds with a smile.

Doug Lee & Chris Wood, Be Caffeinated


Despite its unassuming size, Be Caffeinated, a drive-thru coffee shop in Red Bank, packs big flavor, and it certainly draws a crowd. Even late into the morning, a steady stream of cars circles the building. Many customers order one of the shop’s popular signature drinks, such as the Gig City Mocha (a chocolate and caramel coffee) or the Chattahooligan (the same drink made with white chocolate).

“Doug and I both knew we wanted to start our own business. We actually started out with a sno-cone trailer,” co-owner Chris Wood tells of the early days with his business partner, Doug Lee. “We learned a lot, but we wanted to do even more.”

After working for a while at a drive-thru in southern Mississippi in order to learn the nitty-gritty of operating one of their own, Wood and his wife moved to Chattanooga. Lee followed soon after, with intent for the two of them to open their own drive-thru location with a focus on convenience and high-quality coffee produced locally. Nearly everything that goes into their menu is roasted, produced, or baked locally.

Wood feels that Chattanooga was a natural choice for a place to start and grow Be Caffeinated. “It’s one of the best places to run a small business, and the community makes it my favorite place to live,” he says. All of the resources available for aspiring entrepreneurs were a big draw for Wood and Lee, and their choice of relocation has certainly paid off. Thanks to the success of their first location, they’ve received an Idea Leap Loan from TVFCU to help them get off the ground for their next venture – expanding to the Northshore.

The Northshore location for Be Caffeinated will have two patios that flank the building, as well as a small stage for live music so that customers can sit outside and enjoy local entertainment whenever weather permits. Wood and Lee also plan on installing a coffee roaster in the shop so that they can start roasting their own beans for both of their locations.

“We’re so excited to be expanding,” Wood says. “We can’t wait to serve even more of the Chattanooga community.”

Mitch Lewandowski, Branch Technology


Over the last few years, the presence of 3D printing has grown astronomically not only in STEM fields, but in the wider public arena.

In this little corner of the world, Branch Technology played a part in that, and still does today. Their CEO and founder brought the tech startup to a GigTank event in 2015, and after seeing all the pros of settling the company in the Scenic City, Branch put down roots and built their first location on the Northshore. The rest, as they say, is history.

“Branch Technology is known for being the first company in the world to commercialize large-format 3D printing,” Mitch Lewandowski, the company’s chief commercial officer, says. They’ve developed a patented process called F-Cab®, where they can 3D-print in open space using 1/20th of the material of traditional FDM (fused deposition modeling) 3D printing. This capability allows them to make very light and strong products for their clients. With this technology, they can print anything from parking garage wall panels to large indoor and outdoor structures designed for exhibits.

In a relatively new and evolving industry, Branch Technology stays at the top. In the past month, they spoke at three virtual construction technology events to highlight the ways F-Cab® can change the world of construction. “Imagine not having to obey the rules of traditional materials like wood, steel, and concrete – nothing existed even seven years ago that would have allowed this to happen,” Lewandowski explains. Branch Technology’s 3D printing allows for freeform structures to be built with much lower costs and much higher sustainability than the industry previously thought possible.

Lewandowski and everyone else at Branch are thrilled that they get to experience their success in the industry while enjoying the perks of their Chattanooga location. “Where else can you get a slice of Silicon Valley and a slice of Southern pie charm at the same time?” he says.

Lewandowski believes that growing and succeeding here in Chattanooga “serves to benefit the local community in that we attract top talent that wants to move here,” which in turn creates new jobs and boosts the local economy – and they’re happy to be doing it.

Wills Young & Lisa Rands, Synergy Climbing and Ninja


Wills Young and Lisa Rands, founders and owners of Synergy Climbing and Ninja, have both had lifelong love affairs with rock climbing. Rands, who has won numerous international competitions and national titles in climbing, dreamed of starting a climbing school after years of climbing professionally. Her husband, Young, has had a passion for climbing since before climbing gyms were popular. For this duo, moving to Chattanooga to start their business was an ideal next step in their lives.

“We traveled to Chattanooga from California in the early 2000s to explore all the incredible climbing areas in the city,” they share. After seeing not only what the climbing scene, but the city in general, had to offer, Young and Rands decided to buy a house here. They eventually began their climbing school, which included classes and guided climbing trips for both youth and adults.

However, the pair dreamed of reaching for even more, and in 2019, they partnered with the Tennessee Bouldering Authority as well as American Ninja Warrior champion Isaac Caldiero to establish Synergy Climbing and Ninja.

A community lifestyle gym in Chattanooga’s Southside, Synergy features a large bouldering area, climber training equipment, ninja obstacle zone, strength and aerobic fitness area, yoga room, and café with plenty of community space. “Our goal was to establish a welcoming place for people to get fit, meet friends, and bring their families,” Young and Rands explain.

To meet demand, the couple is constantly adding new equipment and classes, and they hope to continue growing their world-class coaching program for youth competitors looking for the best direction and training possible.

This power couple loves the area that they’ve chosen to start and grow their business. “Chattanooga, as we expected, turned out to be a perfect location for us,” Young and Rands say. “With a rich tradition of climbing and easy access to all kinds of adventure sports, Chattanooga is fast becoming the outdoor capital of the Eastern United States.” The community that they’ve found and fallen in love with since moving here has been a blessing, and it keeps them going each day, no matter the challenges they face.

Corey Ranslem & Frank Fenner, IMSA


International Maritime Security Associates, Inc. (IMSA) started up business with the intent to provide vessels and marine facilities with security plans that comply with U.S. Coast Guard or International Maritime Organization regulations. However, as the company grew, it evolved into a maritime technology company.

“We provide location-specific, critical information to vessels in real time worldwide through our state-of-the-art, award-winning ARMS software platform,” Corey Ranslem, IMSA’s CEO, explains. With this platform, IMSA operates a Global Intelligence, Information, and Communications Center, which works to gather and distribute vital intelligence to vessels across the globe in order to keep those at sea safe and informed.

Ranslem and IMSA’s COO, Frank Fenner, were originally based in Florida, but slowly realized that it wasn’t the best place for them to continue their operations. The two began looking to relocate to a city with five factors in mind: internet infrastructure, power infrastructure, a major urban area, low cost of living, and location desirability. “When we considered all five factors, Chattanooga was the only city in the world that satisfied everything on the list,” Ranslem says.

IMSA officially moved to the Scenic City in April of 2016. “We’re probably one of the first maritime-related companies in Chattanooga,” Ranslem shares. “The whole city and entrepreneurial ecosystem have been extremely helpful and supportive of IMSA and building our company.” Ranslem feels that Chattanooga could be a great worldwide center of excellence for this industry, and he loves having resources available to the company around town, such as CO.LAB and UTC – not to mention all the outdoor activities for everyone at IMSA to enjoy.

This year has been a busy one for IMSA. “Our ARMS software is currently the only shipboard-based platform providing real-time information on the COVID-related outbreaks, along with the delays, closures, restrictions, and quarantines in ports, facilities, and waterways around the world,” Ranslem explains. From their base in Chattanooga, the company is doing all they can to help keep those at sea safe and healthy during the pandemic.

Fenner has had experience as an entrepreneur prior to this, “but nothing on the scale or global impact of IMSA,” he says. “It’s my hope that we’ll continue to grow and make a difference in the maritime industry.” CS

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