Call it magic. Call it hard work. Entrepreneurship has been in Birmingham’s blood since day one. Henry F. DeBardeleban, who pioneered pig iron production in Birmingham back in the 1800s, might have summed it up best when he said, “There’s nothing like taking a wild piece of land, all rock and woods, ground not fit to feed a goat on, and turning it into a settlement of men and women, making payrolls, bringing the railroads in and starting things going.”
Today, Birmingham has become fertile ground for more than iron and steel. With several noteworthy tech companies now calling downtown home, the city is once again becoming nationally known as a startup city. The proof is everywhere. From tech companies reclaiming once vacant spaces in the downtown sector, to the buzz coming out of Innovation Depot, a growing number of tech leaders are calling Birmingham home. These companies are both innovative and diverse. From grocery delivery services like Shipt to coding camps like Covalence (which was founded inside Innovation Depot but now enjoys space on Third Avenue North overlooking the Alabama Theatre), the innovators and tech savants coming out of Birmingham are turning more and more heads with each mobile-app launch and market expansion.
The Big Shipt Win
Ask any local entrepreneur about the city’s most notable tech “wins,” and they’ll likely mention Shipt, an internet-based grocery delivery service founded in Birmingham. Longtime entrepreneur Bill Smith started the company in 2014. Since then, Shipt has grown beyond Birmingham and now serves more than 80 markets from Arizona to South Carolina.
Some may scratch their heads as to why such a large-scale company is headquartered in Birmingham. According to Julie Coop, spokesperson for the brand, it’s really a no-brainer.
“Many tech companies focus first on big metropolitan cities,” Julie says. “Shipt is different. Birmingham as a city is growing rapidly, and the environment is one that supports and encourages innovation.”
Factors like lower cost of living, compared to other regional cities, and a thriving cultural scene are contributors to Birmingham’s appeal when attracting tech companies.
Deon Gordon, executive director of TechBirmingham, says that in many ways, a thriving downtown goes hand in hand with a thriving tech scene.
“If you are trying to recruit top talent, they want to know what their life is going to be like outside of work,” he says. “It all ties in together.”
Located on the corner of 20th Street North and Morris Avenue, Shipt claimed skyline real estate in 2016 when it took over several floors of the John Hand Building. And less than a year later, the homegrown brand garnered national attention when Target acquired the company. Now, the brand has already launched Target delivery in more than 30 markets.
“This is just the beginning of Shipt’s growth,” Julie notes.
By the end of this year, Shipt will offer same-day delivery from Target and its other partners in more than 170 markets, including all major cities in the United States.
Deon says if the city can continue to capture “big wins” like it did with Shipt, then the national perception of Birmingham will begin to shift even more. And as a result, he says, the city will inevitably become more attractive to tech companies looking to find a home. “It sparks patterns of growth,” he adds.
“I think our challenging opportunity now is to figure out how we craft all of this into a cohesive strategy,” Deon says. “We have to appreciate the importance of branding, consistent messaging and storytelling when it comes to Birmingham.”
Thankfully, there are plenty of companies looking to leave their stamp on Birmingham’s “look and feel” when it comes to brand messaging. One of them is BIG Communications.
BIG on B’ham
John Montgomery can remember a time when you could play Wiffle ball in the middle of Second Avenue without a problem. It was a time when parking spots were available by the dozen and come nightfall, you could hear a pin drop.
“We were a startup before startups were cool,” says John, who started BIG Communications in 1995.
Today, BIG, a creative communications company that specializes in marketing and advertising, occupies several floors off Second Avenue North. The company’s space is anything but traditional. It’s the quintessential picture of new “corporate America,” where young designers and developers clad in casual clothes and thick-rimmed glasses huddle in corners around laptops, working on the next big marketing campaign or branding pitch for any number of local or national companies.
From working on the local level with standout Birmingham names like Trim Tab Brewing Company, Sidewalk Film Festival and ZYP BikeShare to launching an aggressive branding campaign for the city’s future professional soccer team, BIG is doing its part to increase Birmingham’s “cool factor.”
Looking back on Birmingham’s past and its outstanding growth in just a short number of years, John says he’s not at all surprised that the Magic City has become a growing startup city.
“There have been a lot of things going right for us,” he says. “You see Fleetio doing their stuff. You see Planet Fundraiser doing their thing. We’re picking these companies up left and right, and I know there are more Shipts out there.”
Like most startups, Planet Fundraiser was born out of necessity. Kasey Birdsong, who founded the company, got the idea while trying to raise funds for his daughter’s t-ball team. Tasked with soliciting local businesses for funds, Birdsong soon stumbled upon what he calls “fundraising fatigue.” Merchants were burnt out on figuring out which organizations to donate to and locals were tired of trying to get businesses to give to their cause.
It didn’t take long for the wheels to turn in Birdsong’s creative mind. He soon began crafting the idea for Planet Fundraiser, an app-based product that allows businesses to choose a percentage of their profit to donate on purchases made in their store. So, when customers shop, they can also give back to a cause they care about.
What results, Kasey explains, is a win-win situation. Customers donate to local non-profits and schools, and merchants increase their sales through spenders looking to make their dollar mean something more.
“What we found is that when a customer realizes that a brand or merchant cares about what they care about, when they share the same heart, there’s this loyalty that happens, and that’s where they want to go spend their money,” Kasey says.
What began as somewhat of a harebrained idea quickly took off and became a full-fledged business. Thankfully, Kasey says, Birmingham was ready to support his venture and provided the perfect environment for Planet Fundraiser to grow.
The day the company launched its app, it moved into Innovation Depot, where Kasey and his growing team could be surrounded by other local startups looking to get their ideas off the ground.
“They’ve done a great job of laying the groundwork and being intentional that we have a startup scene,” Kasey says of the Depot, which is home to a long list of other startups. “We wouldn’t have the momentum we do now if they didn’t lay that early foundation.”
Now offering its services in several markets outside Birmingham, Planet Fundraiser is looking to grow and expand. The company’s biggest goal — penetrating 20 markets — Kasey says, will most likely be exceeded in 2018.
“The overarching goal for us is to continue adding value for everyone who is involved with fundraising,” he says. “In doing that, we’re working on new products that can solve and streamline fundraising in other areas.”
Building a Fleet
A short stroll away from Shipt, located near the Pizitz Food Hall and McWane Science Center, you’ll find Fleetio — a company that grew out of Innovation Depot and is now rubbing elbows with a growing list of successful Magic City startups.
Tony Summerville started Fleetio in 2011. The software company specializes in helping organizations track, analyze and improve their fleet operations. It officially launched in January 2012 and today helps thousands of companies manage their vehicles, equipment, parts, drivers and more.
Summerville, who grew up in Huntsville but later moved to Birmingham to work for Daxko and eventually develop Fleetio, says Birmingham has proven to be an ideal place to launch a startup.
“What’s really exciting is to see the number of companies that are staying downtown and growing and continuing to make an impact in the downtown region,” he says. “The best tech communities seem to be the most tightly knit.”
Because of Fleetio’s central location on Second Avenue North, Tony says it’s not uncommon to run into other entrepreneurs while grabbing a cup of coffee at Revelator (another Birmingham-based company with a growing national presence) or a bite to eat at any one of the Pizitz Food Hall restaurants. Having those 10-minute conversations and forming those relationships, Tony says, has been a critical component in strengthening the city’s startup community.
“Sharing ideas and having those conversations — all of those things — it’s hard to put a number on how important it is,” he says.
As Fleetio looks to continue growing and expanding its service, Tony says he’s hopeful that Birmingham’s trajectory as a tech city will continue to grow as well. He tells us that a part of that growth, however, will depend on how much the community supports the tech sector.
“I think we have a good brand, but I think we need to build on it a whole lot more to really put us in the top echelon of the cities across America, and really the whole world, who are doing great things in the tech startup community level,” he says. “You have to consistently beat the drum of what you’re doing and all of the sudden, one day it just starts to become a part of the brand.”
Keeping the Momentum Going
Innovation is the new hot commodity in Birmingham, and according to most local entrepreneurs and startup companies, it’s not going out of style anytime soon.
As tech hubs like Innovation Depot and coding camps like Covalence continue to nurture interest in technology, Birmingham will continue to rise to the top of burgeoning tech cities.
“We have challenges like any city might, but I think the advantages outweigh these challenges,” says local entrepreneur Jim Cavale, who founded Influencer (INFLCR), a platform that empowers sports organizations and individual athletes to partner on social media. “We have a city where you can operate a cost-effective business, recruit people to live in a place with high quality of life for a great price and are located near other great Southeastern markets.”
Another key component in Birmingham’s startup success, entrepreneurs say, will be gaining support from local officials and capturing grants that allow the tech scene to continue flourishing. With recently elected Mayor Randall Woodfin ushering in a new wave of young thinkers ready to make some magic in the city, John says he doesn’t see the momentum slowing down anytime soon.
What was once considered a ghost town is now an undeniably thriving downtown. With a few big wins under its belt, Birmingham is starting up another wave of entrepreneurship — just like it did more than a century ago.
“We have good bones, and we have an amazing story to tell,” Deon says. “It’s on us as a community to keep this going.”
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