Local Graduates Charge Into New Business Ventures
They’ve got their diplomas, they’ve crossed the stage, now the question for colleges graduates is: “What’s next?” For many, the answer is found in new business ventures. Launched directly from area schools, the following young entrepreneurs have said “goodbye” to the classroom and “hello” to putting what they learned there into practice. They’re not wasting any time getting their feet wet in the business world—and most of them are right here in our city!
By Rebecca Rochat
Courtney and Bob Poore
UTC Graduate Programs, Class of ’09 and ‘12
Courtney Poore says she originally wanted to be a veterinarian and spent a good deal of time volunteering in animal shelters and veterinary clinics. However, after a traumatic experience at an animal hospital, she decided to reassess her career path. That’s when her father suggested a career in business. His rationale? She could still work with animals by starting an animal-focused business. And that’s just what she did.
Courtney received her bachelor’s degree in business administration from UTK in 2005 and her MBA from UTC in 2009. Her husband, Bob, recieved his master’s degree in engineering and construction management in 2012. Now, they will soon be celebrating the one-year anniversary of Nooga Paws, their natural pet market that offers accessories and high-quality natural food for cats and dogs.
Located at 2 NorthShore, Nooga Paws’ mission is to offer a “healthy, wholesome and natural lifestyle to furry family members.” When asked who her target market is, Courtney replies, “Pet parents! We have customers from all walks of life, but they’re similar in that they cherish their pets and want to provide the best diet they can afford.”
After pitching their business plan to several banks, Courtney and Bob received the financial backing they needed in April of last year. Bob quit his job as the environmental director with an engineering firm to work full-time with Nooga Paws, while Courtney continues her day job at a CPA firm, spending her nights and weekends at Nooga Paws.
Courtney says one of the best things about living in Chattanooga as a small business owner is that Chattanooga has an amazing small business development center, The Incubator, as well as a supportive business community that encourages entrepreneurs to take advantage of everything it has
When asked about future goals, Courtney says, “We are really excited about the feedback and the presence we have made in the community. Going forth from here, we are constantly evaluating our next step and planning for our future.”
Betsy Dougherty Henson
University of Tennessee of Chattanooga, Class of ‘09
Betsy Dougherty Henson first thought of opening a lingerie boutique in Chattanooga while attending a retail class at UTC. Long frustrated by the two-hour drive necessary for purchasing quality undergarments, she finally thought: “Why not open my own store?”
It didn’t take her long. Betsy graduated from UTC in 2009 with a bachelor’s degree in marketing and entrepreneurship, and opened Ellie’s Fine Lingerie in 2011. Today, the upscale lingerie boutique specializes in offering quality lingerie at all price points. “We specialize in bra fit. We also offer sleepwear, fashion accessories and solutions, and bra-sized swimwear,” Betsy explains.
Betsy says her goal for Ellie’s Fine Lingerie is to combine the best selection of undergarments around with the best possible customer experience. She also likes how her job gives her the opportunity to support other women, and she frequently offers the store for after-hours parties for ladies groups, bridal showers, or girls’ nights out.
“We’re always hoping to have a positive impact on women’s lives,” she says. “I would love to see Ellie’s continue to be a place where women feel comfortable, appreciated, and welcomed.”
When asked about challenges, Betsy says one of her biggest is getting the store’s name out in the community. Still, she’s encouraged by the positive response she’s already received. “Luckily, Chattanooga is proud of its local business owners, and there have been many opportunities to promote our business,” Betsy says. “I always feel like Chattanoogans are working to make our city a better place to live, work, grow friendships, raise families, and enjoy life.”
Betsy says she’s also grateful for her training at UTC. “I learned a lot there. The business school offers a great program that covers all aspects of business. As a business owner now, those lessons are greatly appreciated.”
Scott Gammenthaler and Brandon Mihai
Southern Adventist University, Class of ’12 and ‘13
Spottlife CEO Scott Gammenthaler is confident about one thing: you can’t learn what it takes to be a successful businessperson from a book. Scott was a Southern Scholar at Southern Adventist University and graduated in 2012 with a degree in international business. Yet even with this excellent training, he knows that when it comes down to it, “real-world experience is the key.”
The Houston native is now getting his hands dirty heading up Chattanooga-based Spottlife along with Brandon Mihai, another SAU grad with an international business degree.
Spottlife is a social media simplification and aggregation app, which in human terms, means it can combine all of your social media platforms (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) into one place and categorizes their content by topics of interest. The website’s target market? College students, 19 to 25.
“I wanted to change the way people viewed social media,” says Scott, of his inspiration for the company. Guided by that revolutionary vision, Scott and Brandon worked to raise over $100K to launch their company.
Now Spottlife has been up and running for a year, and the team’s current goal is to make it into a recognizable brand name. Looking ahead to the next five to 10 years, Scott and Brandon hope to make Spottlife the industry leader in third-party social media companies.
“Standing out is key in this industry,” Scott says. “Our greatest opportunity lies in the fact that our company is different and looks at information in a refreshing way. We create an extremely relevant viewing experience for the user.”
Covenant College, Class of ‘13
Jacob Hutcherson has been creating websites from the time he was in the fifth grade. He’s also a passionate football fan. So in some sense, it’s no surprise that these two passions came together in his recent launch of Pro Football Spot, a social media platform that allows NFL fans to discuss relevant topics and news with other NFL fans.
Jacob says the idea for Pro Football Spot started when he realized there was no real forum for fans of different teams. He describes his experience reading and posting on his favorite team’s message boards: “After a while, I got tired of reading about how the Titans were going to be the best team in the NFL. I was tired of the ‘homers.’ I was curious as to what the rest of the league’s fans thought about my favorite team. There wasn’t an option for me, so I started my business to fill my own personal need.”
Jacob wasn’t the only one with that “need.” Pro Football Spot is already averaging over 40,000 hits per day. One key to this success, Jacob explains, is the app’s accessibility across a variety of platforms. “You can use Pro Football Spot on the computer or on the go. We are the only NFL forum app for both iPhone and Android,” he says.
Jacob graduated from Covenant College, which he says gave him a solid framework of support and helped him with marketing strategy and networking. He’s also thankful for the many Chattanoogans who are willing to help young entrepreneurs. “The amount of energy and resources available in this city is incredibly encouraging.”
Looking to the future, Jacob says his greatest challenge will be maintaining high-quality content and building a credible brand. “We plan to be the most popular NFL message board online and to become a must-have resource for every football fan,” he says.
Taylor Jones and Eric Brown
Lee University, Class of ‘09 and ‘10
Taylor Jones and Eric Brown discovered their “creative synergy” while collaborating on a web project as students at Lee University, and kept it alive post-graduation by starting their own creative agency, Whiteboard. At the time the company was founded, Eric and Taylor were both working fulltime jobs, but as the company took off, they both left to focus on it full time.
“We make internet.” This is how Taylor describes Whiteboard’s creative work, which aims to empower visionaries to lead meaningful brands. “We specialize in helping organizations of all sizes create digital experiences that communicate their mission. We’re a full-service web firm with emphasis on UX/UI, design, back- and front-end development, and social strategy. We really do believe websites can change the world.”
“Every individual and organization has a unique story to tell. Sometimes they just need help expressing it,” Eric explains.
Whiteboard’s primary target is “for-purpose” organizations, meaning, organizations that have a sense of purpose or calling regardless of whether they are for-profit or nonprofit. “We love organizations who balance fiscal growth with the common good,” says Taylor.
“I have always been infatuated with the effects of inspiration and what happens when it’s experienced,” Eric adds. “I majored in ministry to offer faith, hope, and love in this pursuit. Whiteboard was our response to this pursuit. What greater legacy than to help others realize their own?”
Eric and Taylor both live with their families in downtown Chattanooga and describe Chattanooga as “a big city with a small-town heart.” They both plan to stick with Southside-based Whiteboard long term. “We believe the possibilities are endless,” says Taylor. “Check back with us in five or 10 years and we’ll let you know how it’s going.”
Tennessee Wesleyan College, Class of ‘08
“I feel that it’s very important to be proud of all the images I put out there. Because of that, I spend a lot of time making sure they reflect my point of view and artistry.”
This is professional photographer Brittany Toomey, reflecting on her photo shoot and editing process. Passionate about encouraging clients to try new poses and styles, Brittany has a contemporary, expressive style. Yet her finished products also have a warm, antique feel. “When I am not behind the camera I am in front of the computer selecting shots and editing,” she says.
After graduating from Tennessee Wesleyan in 2008, Brittany worked as a second shooter for Mary Jane Murphy of Mary Jane Murphy Photography. “I learned then that I loved the details,” she reflects. “The rings, flowers, the little looks and smiles that sometimes get overlooked… that’s what I found I’m best at.”
Under Mary Jane’s guidance, she started Knoxville-based Brittany Toomey Photography in 2009. Since then, her business has grown more than she “could ever imagine.” She shoots several sessions (families, newborns, high school seniors, pets, birthdays) throughout the week, but her primary focus is weddings, so she’s working weekends too.
What drives her to put in the time? “I just love people,” she says. “I always feel like I have a new friend by the end of each project. I’ve had brides turn into friends because I get to be involved in all the planning. Even after the wedding, I get to see them grow throughout their lives, celebrating anniversaries, new babies, birthdays… That bonding experience makes my long hours and booked-up weekends worthwhile.”
Brittany recently hired a part-time employee to help her with the editing process, and she plans to continue to build her business. “For me, the hardest thing about photography is simply time. I have a hundred ideas in my head at all times and just not enough hours to accomplish them. I am hoping to one day build a team of photographers to help with this and grow from there,” she says.