The Art of the Startup
Want to be the latest local success story? These startup superstars share insight into what it takes.
In honor of the 12th annual New Orleans Entrepreneur Week, March 23-27, Biz New Orleans reached out to three successful products of our entrepreneurial ecosystem to learn more about their story. What was their biggest challenge? What is the best advice they’ve received? Is the support finally here to take startups in this region to the next level?
Just like you’d expect in an area known for its friendliness and hospitality, these pros were eager to share their thoughts — all with the goal of maybe helping someone else turn their dream into a profitable reality.
Co-Founder and CEO of Where Y’Art
She’s reimagined how local artists do business.
An artist from Alabama, Collin Ferguson arrived in New Orleans in 2000 to attend Tulane as an undergrad studying business marketing and management. After moving away during Hurricane Katrina, she returned in 2010 and started her own company called Birds of a Feather NOLA, creating costume pieces like feather headdresses. Securing wholesale accounts allowed Ferguson to grow her business quickly enough that other artists quickly took notice and began asking for business advice.
A few years later, searching for other ways to connect local creators, Ferguson teamed with fellow artist Catherine Todd and formed Where Y’Art in 2012. At the time, the company was solely an online platform where local artists could sell their art.
Where Y’Art has since grown to become an art solutions-based business that includes art consulting for hotels and hospitality clients. All of these “satellite galleries” created at local businesses are smart exhibitions, enabling visitors to can scan a QR code with a cell phone and learn more about the artist, the story behind that piece of art and where else the artist is selling, as well as direct message with the artist.
“At the heart of everything we’re doing is we’re trying to make artwork more accessible,” said Ferguson. Aided by five employees, a network of subcontractors and an art gallery on Royal Street in the Marigny, Ferguson is making that dream a reality.
“We never did a formal business plan, but I’d say we had one. [With] the incubator platforms that we worked with, you had to have a framework that was kind of like a business plan of what you wanted to do, and then they helped you refine what you were doing.”
“We got funding kind of two ways: One was we threw in personal savings, but we also entered pretty much every pitch competition that you could imagine, and we won a fair amount of them. Through pitching, we also gained a lot of brand awareness in the entrepreneurial chain. People knew who we were and what we were trying to do.”
Using Local Resources
“Idea Village and Propeller and all of these different incubator places had just recently started operating in the city and we applied for Propeller and got in as one of the fellows in 2013. Suddenly we had a sounding board. It wasn’t just two of us with our unique skillsets trying to figure everything out. Their pro bono network is really amazing because it allows you to have the support that an established business would have even if you’re at this early stage without paying the high professional fees. We were introduced to everything from web developers to marketing to accounting to legal advice.
We launched in Propeller, then we moved on to the Idea Village to the VILLAGEx program. That was a huge step… really redefining what we were doing, the possibility of scaling. At the same time that we were in the VILLAGEx program, we also were in the Catapult Fund Program, which is put on by the SBDC, Jazz and Heritage Foundation, and Capital One.”
“People have asked us why we think we were successful and I’ve always said, “Well, it’s kind of like we sailed to the island and burned all the ships.” We literally put all of our money into this. So it had to work. I wouldn’t necessarily suggest that that’s how someone starts a business, but that’s what we did. We went all in and had to figure out a way to make it work, which I think has made us nimble and made us more willing to pivot where we saw opportunities.”
When I Knew I Was on the Right Track
“I think one of the major realizations of knowing that it was going to work is when we started working with commercial clients to source artwork for large commercial spaces. It was just kind of an aha moment where yes, you can sell people artwork for their living room, but you can also sell artwork to people for buildings. Artists may know how to sell art at a market or how to get into a gallery, but how to get 200 pieces into a hospital or 50 pieces into a hotel is one of the things that is kind of unknown to them. Now the commercial side is almost 85% of our business.”
“Be very open that your business will change and pivot and that doesn’t necessarily mean that your original business plan wasn’t right. It just means that you might not have realized all of the opportunities that were there when you started. Don’t be afraid to pivot.”
Founder and CEO of Lucid
A startup veteran, his latest venture is a shining beacon of New Orleans’ budding tech industry.
Patrick Comer is no stranger to entrepreneurism. While just in his early 20s, Comer jumped into the dot com boom while living in New York City, serving as chief of staff for a company called GovWorks that raised $65 million in 1999. The party was short-lived, however, as the dot com bubble burst in late 2000. Comer decided at that point to go back to school, graduating with an MBA from Columbia Business School in 2003. He then headed out to Los Angeles and began work at another startup, OTX Research, the first online research company.
In 2008, Comer and his wife, a native New Orleanian, moved to New Orleans after learning they were expecting their first child. Two years later, when OTX was sold, Comer decided to create his own market research company called Federated Sample, which later became Lucid. Lucid has been at the center of this transformation in the market research industry for the past 10 years. With almost 500 employees in 11 offices around the world, In 2019, Lucid became the first New Orleans-based tech company to reach $100 million in revenue.
Using Local Resources
“When I realized that I was going to move to New Orleans, I sought out everyone who was doing entrepreneurship in the city. Then I started a company at 643 Magazine, where Launch Pad was originally, Idea Village was originally. TurboSquid moved there. I started Lucid at a desk at Launch Pad with Idea Village across the hall. I actually pitched in one of the very first idea pitches and lost.
“Often founders or entrepreneurs think they’re seeking out investors and what they need to realize is that it’s the opposite, investors are seeking them out. If your project, your startup is hitting its milestones and metrics, you will have no trouble raising money.”
“Convincing myself to be a founder again because the stress and emotional toll of starting a company is big. I knew how much it would take. We were starting a company in 2010 when my daughter was 18 months old and I had a son that was going to be born in eight months. I had to ask myself, ‘Are you willing to take on that burden?’ With that burden comes a high risk of failure. I know the odds of success.”
When I Knew It Was On the Right Track
“I was really lucky as a startup founder that the timing was right. We did over $1 million in revenue in our first nine months of existence and we did more than $6 million in our second year. That’s super rare. The business model thesis I had was correct, and not only was it correct that market research was going to go through this transformation, but the timing was right. You don’t always know if your timing is right for your startup, even if your idea is good. We knew we had something really good in the first two years, and we knew we were going to be special within the first four or five.”
“There’s an experience and skills gap as a new entrepreneur, that’s why it’s so challenging. You also don’t know how important it is to do one activity or the other, so prioritizing your time and your day is really challenging because you will get advice from tons of different people. It’s like having a baby. But, like having a baby, you can’t know how to be a parent until you actually are one.
In that way I’d offer the same advice I’d give to parents and founders — just keep it alive. As long as you’re growing, you’ve done a good job. Also, I think people misunderstand the emotional roller coaster of entrepreneurship. My advice is don’t take the highs too high and don’t take the lows too low because it’s going to be a marathon, not a sprint.”
Final Thoughts on the Entrepreneur Ecosystem in Southeast Louisiana
“The ecosystem in the community is so much more mature than it ever has been before. Not that it’s ‘easier’ — easier is the wrong word. It’s not easier to do a startup, but the likelihood of success is far greater than it’s ever been.
We’re now creating experience and talent in entrepreneurship at all levels of a company, so the next founder who says, ‘Yes, I’m going to start a company,’ they likely have startup experience and they can hire people with startup experience. What that means is that the next wave of companies, the probability of success and the speed of success [are] dramatically improving.
Founder and CEO of SampleChain
He left a great job just over a year ago and found fast success.
A native of India, Vignesh Krishnan came to New Orleans in 2010 to get his MBA and ended up joining a startup called Federated Sample, now known as Lucid. For eight and a half years, Krishnan helped researchers at the company procure survey data for brands like Adidas and Nike before he saw the need for what he calls a “complimentary business model,” a data management platform that would help companies like Lucid filter out fraudulent data.
Krishnan left Lucid and started SampleChain in September 2018. While he works at an office at LaunchPad, in just over a year Krishnan has grown enough to take on five employees — all work from home locally or remotely, some from as far away as Asia.
Preparing to Go It Alone
“You need money to start a business. That’s just a given. So certainly that’s the first step. But I also think that preparing the path and the journey is also part of the step, thinking about what the product is going to be … and what is the requisite effort you’re willing to make both professionally and personally to be successful. Because it’s a risk. Maybe you’ve given up a pretty decent salary to do this. So, I think there’s a mental preparation for sure that needs to come with it.”
“I did have a business plan, but it wasn’t a full 20- or 30-page plan. It was more of a business summary. There are some tools out there that people can use, like the Business Model Canvas, which help you think about what you’re going to do basically and convey that to the outside world.”
“It’s important to look at how much can you do or how far can you go with the least amount of resources. That being said, you want to start those conversations [with potential funders] as early as you can. Be as proactive as possible. I left Lucid in September and October was [SampleChain’s] first check. Another thing is I definitely wanted to put skin in the game as well. I invested some of our own money as well, my wife’s and mine. I think that also shows commitment.”
Using Local Resources
“I went through the Idea Village’s VILLAGEx program in the spring of 2019, and I would say that it helped in a few big ways. One is the network. Just from a human perspective, you’re seeing other people going through the process that you’re going through. The thing that surprised me the most probably is the loneliness of the job. There’s a thousand details, a thousand situations, a thousand aspects that you simply do not have the capacity or time to share with somebody else. It’s lonely in that sense. So, it’s good to know that, ‘Hey, someone else is sitting right next to you doing the same thing.’
“The startup ecosystem here is very supportive. You know that when you get a ‘no’ from a client or you get a ‘no’ from an investor, you have that support to handle it and people who will help you think through other options and opportunities and share their stories.
“The second thing is the help they provide on all the logistics, like creating a business plan and providing opportunities to meet investors. That’s important because you never know what you don’t know. It’s cliché to say, but it’s true.”
“I think it’s walking into the unknown for sure. There’s so many firsts— first time talking to an investor, talking to a client, etc.”
When I Knew I Was On the Right Track
“I would say probably the fourth or fifth client because you can sort of convince your way into one or two or three, but when we got the fifth or sixth, it was like, “Well, they believe in it, it’s working now.”
“It’s all about people. Leverage the people you know, whether it’s friends in the industry, friends who are investors, friends who are supporters of some kind. Whatever your tech or product, if you don’t have people who want to support it and support you personally, then you have nothing.
“I have such an incredible group around me. To get to this point, it takes a village, and it takes a village staying up all night.”
Views on the Startup Scene
“I see support here now for companies moving from the startup to multimillion-dollar level. If you asked me that question 10 years ago, I would have probably said no. I actually do think it’s there. I would agree that it’s not to the level of some of the other big cities for example. But I certainly think it’s there and even though it’s smaller, it’s more concentrated and sometimes a concentrated ecosystem is better than the larger, more dispersed ecosystems.