Tag Archives: Andrea Goto
What does it take to launch a startup in Savannah? Andrea Goto gets the lowdown from the leading lady of entrepreneurial education. » Photography by Izzy Hudgins
Meet Our GuestBea Wray brings more than 20 years of experience as a consultant and entrepreneur to her position as executive director of The Creative Coast, a local nonprofit organization that provides counsel and support to help creative and innovative Savannahians in their entrepreneurial endeavors.
I grew up believing that I had to go to school to get a job—to fill a position created by someone more innovative than myself, like a Thomas Edison or Henry Ford. Clearly, I lacked an entrepreneurial spirit. In fact, the closest I ever came to an original idea was when I sat near Bill Gates at a Mariner baseball game (and by near, I mean in the same stadium). It just never occurred to me that my ideas—with the right support—could be monetized, and that this could happen somewhere outside of China.
Luckily for the economy—and a little thing called progress—forward thinkers like Bea Wray see potential where others see limitations. Think Savannah doesn’t have enough resources to launch and sustain a company or innovative product? Bea says, “Think again.”
I try, but I still need some convincing.
To take the pulse of Savannah’s startup scene, it’s fitting that I meet Bea at BT Byrd’s, the latest hatchling from a thriving local business founded 90 years ago. There, we gluttonously sample cocktails and cookie sandwiches, chasing them down with a signature “Savannah Dog” topped with pimento cheese, saffron slaw, truffle mustard and lardons—the kind of culinary innovation that can launch a business and make it last. Between sips and bites, Bea shares what she believes makes Savannah fertile ground on which to grow an entrepreneurial spirit.
Savannah Magazine: As the executive director of The Creative Coast, how do you support startups?Bea: (Laughing) When I took this job last June, no fewer than 100 people said, “I love what you do! What do you do?” SM: So I’m not alone in my ignorance? Bea: No. We have anchor events: the FastPitch business competition, TedX Creative Coast, the Start-up Lounge, which brings investors together with entrepreneurs in a casual environment. We do GeekEnd—a 700-person innovation pilgrimage, really. In addition, we have about 25 smaller programs. We have 10,000 people we connect with weekly through LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter. They share ideas with one another—and sometimes I think that’s the most important thing we do. Over the 10 years that The Creative Coast has existed, it’s become like a highway—we keep it clean and people just drive on it. They share information about product launches, art gallery openings, job openings. And then we do one-on-one consulting. We don’t turn anyone away. SM: Because you’re a nonprofit, are these services free? Bea: Right. I used to consult and people would pay several hundred dollars for an hour. Now I do it for free. (Laughter) SM: So they’re getting a very valuable service. Bea: I try to remind them of that, but I only say it because if they’re not getting that value, one of us is doing something wrong. SM: Where does your support come from? Bea: The Savannah Economic Development Authority is our biggest funder. I love their money but, honestly, I love their people more. The City of Savannah is another big funder, and we also have support from Armstrong Atlantic State University. As we see it, if the community doesn’t care to write a $5,000 check or individuals don’t care to pay $100, then maybe we really aren’t providing a service. And so far the support has been good.
SM: Who are the innovators you talk with on a day-to-day basis?Bea: We talk to people who, for instance, are designing different kinds of socks at a high level, or food, or more what I would call “widgets.” We also talk to people who are setting up accounting firms. Not everyone is a major innovator—it’s entrepreneurship. SM: So most people aren’t developing technology-based business? Bea: Of the people I talk to, only about 15 percent are technology companies. I would like to see more, but we don’t have the workforce ready for that. Armstrong has a great computer science program. Their graduates are highly desirable, but they only graduate 11 people (each year). They just received a large grant for computation science, so in the long term we can build up that base. And Gulfstream attracts just as many (programmers) as a major university does, so we’re just five or 10 years out from where we want to be. SM: What areas are waiting to be tapped when we get there? Bea: We don’t do a great job of intersecting tourism with innovation. We have built-in user bases. People from all over the world come here, so we should have a tourist engine to let us know if certain things would work, or if certain things would sell. We keep these two things totally separate and I intend to change that. Tourism is going to die if there isn’t some vibrant other kind of economy, (which) works great when fueled by tourism.
SM: How does Savannah compare to other cities when it comes to innovation?Bea: The funny thing is, it’s not different and people don’t realize that—and I mean that in the best way possible. Savannah has amazing, creative people. Savannah has cutting-edge people. Somehow we haven’t brought this to the surface yet. But things like Share Savannah—a car-sharing company—we have it. Airbnb—we have it and it’s thriving. We have ThincSavannah—shared office space. We have some angel investment communities—not as much as I would like, but we had a full house for StartupLounge last week. We had 50 companies apply, we chose 29, and the rest (of the participants) were all investors—someone who is paying $20,000 a year for a golf membership and they think, “Maybe I could invest $10,000 in a company.” SM: They exist? Bea: Savannah is in the top 2 percent of charitable giving per capita in the nation. We’re very generous people. I have nothing against golf memberships, but I’m trying to get those people to realize that the only future is startups, and that Savannah has everything it needs for startups—schools, universities, thinkers, innovators—and it’s an attractive place to live. I want to bring in the person who has some disposable cash and a charitable spirit. And they’d probably have more fun learning about their investment than sinking that one putt.
Savannah has everything it needs for startups—schools, universities, thinkers, innovators—and it’s an attractive place to live. I want to bring in the person who has some disposable cash and a charitable spirit. And they’d probably have more fun learning about their investment than sinking that one putt.
SM: What can Savannah do differently?Bea: One of the problems with Savannah is that we meet to meet. There are no phones in this town; nobody calls—we just meet. Like many things in life, what is great about us is also our downfall. Savannah is full of hospitality—but sometimes you just want to call and ask a question. SM: What’s the X factor when launching a startup? Bea: You have to be crazy. And that’s an advantage Savannah has because you don’t have to be that crazy here. SM: To stand out? (Laughter) Bea: No. In the start-up world, it’s crazy to leave a really high-paying job to start your own thing, but Savannah doesn’t have a lot of those really high-paying jobs. So you might as well go create your own. It’s how the American economy was built. There’s opportunity but it’s still about working hard, being in the right place at the right time, throwing yourself into traffic and keeping moving—and it’s a lot of luck. SM: That seems daunting. Can’t you just wave your magic wand over a less-than-perfect business plan? Bea: That’s not how it works. I don’t tell people their baby is ugly, but I do tell them if their baby needs diapers, food or a safe environment. You don’t have to be a genius to do that for people; you just have to help them listen to themselves.
It’s a good thing I birthed a beautiful daughter because every “idea baby” I’ve ever had has resembled Quasimodo. Still, after a few cocktails, I begin to wonder about that bottomless wine glass concept I’ve been kicking around. Or is that just called another round?
I’ll have to make an appointment with Bea to find out.