Lamp Post Group experiments with housing and creating community
Lamp Post Group may be the most intriguing player in Chattanooga’s growing tech/entrepreneurial ecosystem. As a venture incubator, it combines the functions of two essential ecosystem pieces—venture capital and startup mentoring—like an ecosystem with an ecosystem. Now it’s working at both scales, helping both Chattanooga’s and its own needs by taking on some of the ecosystem’s biggest challenges—talent recruitment and retention and downtown housing.
Lamp Post was created in 2010 by the founders of logistics company Access America to house its back office infrastructure—legal, accounting, HR, etc.—and to nurture more startups through both investment and by leveraging those back-office services. In March, Lamp Post sold Access America for an undisclosed amount. Lamp Post is using that cash to invest in its current family of 15 portfolio companies, helping them hire and retain the kind of highly qualified technology talent that can choose to live anywhere in the country.
Finding the right people is critical for any startup company, and Lamp Post has to do that for 15 small and growing companies. Getting young tech talent to come to Chattanooga takes some creativity, but the hard part is keeping talent here. In January, Lamp Post hired Tiffanie Robinson to create WayPaver, an in-house talent innovation lab whose mission is to find and retain employees for Lamp Post’s companies.
“It’s got to be a lot more than going out and finding people, it’s got to be about curating them, too,” says Robinson, who is creating a series of experiments Lamp Post will launch in the next few weeks. One is a hack school for women.
“We have a huge tech talent deficit and we have a major issue with not having enough females in those roles,” says Robinson. WayPaver will address that problem “by creating a school that takes women, pulls them in, teaches them those skills, and then WayPaver places them into the Lamp Post portfolio companies.”
A second experiment will be an artist-in-residency program that connects an artist with each of Lamp Post’s tech teams to help solve business problems.
“Chattanooga takes a really awesome approach to art, but I wouldn’t say we’ve figured how to take the artist talent that’s here and help them flesh out the business community,” says Robinson. “We have the ability to do that. We have 15 portfolio companies that are basically a test bed for...what work is going to look like over the next 20 years.”
Another element crucial to talent retention is housing.
“We have already started test running a housing initiative,” says Robinson. “We have blocked off 10 apartments at The 300 on 6th Street for the talent that we pull into our companies. We place them there with a stipend that makes the rent about $400 a month. We’re also putting them all into the same space, where they can have collision points of meeting each other, building community with each other.”
As the experimental results come in, Lamp Post is interested in taking that idea to a larger scale, but is not yet considering a building purchase. River City’s company’s purchase of the Ross Hotel a block away from Lamp Post’s headquarters at 8th and Market Street has gotten their attention, though. They might also place employees there with a corporate subsidy.
Subsidizing downtown housing for their employees goes beyond just checking off an item on a list of things a new hire needs. Lamp Post needs a vibrant downtown for its employees just as surely as downtown needs residents.
“By having more housing here, we can bring in more teams and help justify why they should relocate their companies here or start their companies here in Chattanooga,” says Robinson. “It’s a give-take. It’s about what Lamp Post needs as a company to thrive but it also directly affects what Chattanooga needs as well to thrive.”
“We have to have a cool city to recruit the coolest developers,” adds Shelly Prevost, a partner in Lamp Post whose professional skills as a clinical psychologist are integral to creating high-functioning teams that deliver on the promise of their entrepreneurial ideas. “If you get the right infrastructure, which Tiffanie is working on, and you get the right people, then you get this magic happening. You need great restaurants, great bars, coffee shops. You need coworking space where people can work and collaborate together. We don’t have the numbers that, say, San Francisco does, but we can create that density in city center. And then from that the developments tend to take care of themselves.”
WayPaver has already landed seven new employees and is working on 10 more positions. And this private talent program looks a lot like the kind of initiative community agencies have been talking about doing on a broader scale for all of Chattanooga.
“We want to partner and work with these entities, but we also want to be the mover,” says Prevost. “We have the luxury of going fast and doing what we believe needs to be done. I’d like to think that might spawn some activity.”