Nashville, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down

The Nashville Business Journal has been parading their recently named top CIO’s of 2015 through a gauntlet of important questions lately. I’m generally able to ignore these types of articles, but the latest question really got my attention. Here’s the question posed to this year’s top CIO’s in Nashville:

How can Nashville compete with other big tech cities like Austin?

Full disclosure, I’m a big fan of Austin. I’ve made around 15 trips to Austin in the last 7 years between vacations, film festivals, music festivals and tech events. I love the city, the sights, the filth, the food and the culture. I was often reminded of Nashville while visiting there. Needless to say, I couldn’t wait to dig into what some of Nashville’s thought leaders had to say when comparing our tech scene to Austin’s.

There’s a ton of the twist, but we’re fresh out of shout

I was pretty shocked to read through the responses and see how many thought we were competing with Austin outright. It’s natural to defend the things that you love, but masking flaws with misdirection isn’t productive for anyone.

Dear Nashville CIO’s: you don’t get to tout Nashville as being a great place to raise a family over Austin when we’re soundly beaten in every category.

Dear Nashville CIO’s: being number 5 on CBRE’s Tech-Thirty Cities might seem close to Austin at number 3, but their growth rates are significantly higher over a much longer timeframe. To go further with CBRE Research, their Tech Talent report has Austin at #9 with Nashville coming in at #45.

Dear Nashville CIO’s: “Music City USA” isn’t a differentiator. Yes, we have entertainment options, lots of cities do. In the same vein of silly titles, Austin is known as the “Live Music Capital of the World”.

Dear Nashville CIO’s: Google Fiber isn’t a differentiator. Google Fiber was announced in Austin 20+ months before it was announced in Nashville and has been well into its rollout process there for quite awhile now. Nashville isn’t even winning the fiber race in its own state.

Nashville would be much better served by its top CIO’s if they would leverage their experience and platform to identify core issues and help push our city forward, instead of acting like we’re already there.

To be blunt: we don’t compete with Austin’s tech scene, period.

While Nashville has had some recent successes with companies like Emma and LeanKit landing funding rounds in the $5–16m range, Austin is flush with venture funding, billion dollar exits and a strong angel investment network. Want funding in the Southeast? You’re likely not getting a look without $5m in revenue.

Combining the tech sector with the idea that “new and young companies are the primary source of job creation in the American economy,” I explored job openings for companies at the startup level. Searches for jobs on AngelList in Nashville and Austin yielded the following:

181 unique startups with ~300 total job openings
13 unique startups with 13 total job openings

The difference is staggering. We can tout being 9th in top cities with open tech jobs all we want (Austin is #1 on that list, for what its worth), but I’m not convinced bragging about how many open cube farm gigs we have in corporate environments that move at a snails pace is the smart path forward.

Maybe I’m wrong and maybe you’re right

Luckily, we have a few voices of reason among our CIO elite. Gurtej Sodhi and Cody King both nailed it with their answers:

A sustained focus on developing a culture that supports and fosters innovation and consequently creates growth in high-tech opportunities is key to Nashville’s competitiveness — Gurtej Sodhi
We need easier access to capital, faster term sheets, and investors who understand how to grow tech companies specifically and can provide counsel during the hyper growth — Cody King

Nashville lacks in all of these elements in a big way. There are signs of hope, I’m especially anxious to see what the crew over at Meteor Ventures can pull off as they get going.

To be clear, this isn’t a talent problem. We have an incredible pool of developers and designers in this town and its getting stronger every day. What we’re missing is the infrastructure for supporting our talent in the entrepreneurial space. Initiatives like the Tech Village in Atlanta and Lamp Post Group in Chattanooga put us to shame. One would hope that the Entrepreneur Center in Nashville would be in a position to provide something similar, but we haven’t seen many inroads from there into the product and development communities in Nashville.

But you’re still the one pool where I’d happily drown

I love Nashville. By the end of my stay in even my favorite cities I’m always left thinking ‘I’d still rather live in Nashville’. I want the tech scene here to thrive and take the next step, but we can’t do that until we acknowledge our problems and find a path forward.

We have an incredible community here that is putting together events like Nodevember, PyTennessee and Music City Code at a grassroots level and bringing top technical speakers and talent from around the world right through our city. Yet, of these top 25 CIO’s of the year, I’d be shocked if even two or three of them are part of a company that sponsors or supports events like these in any way.

Fostering innovation, ideation and community is the way forward. The music and healthcare industries in Nashville are wonderful foundations for us to grow from, but the pace and bureaucracy of these corporations run the risk of us not just missing out on bringing new talent in, but keeping the talent we already have from going elsewhere. Until those with the necessary resources are willing to make an investment in the community, we’re not going anywhere.

Let’s stop fooling ourselves, let’s stop making excuses and let’s start supporting those who want to make a difference. Success breeds success and its time to give the talent in this town the tools necessary to succeed and put Nashville on the map for real. And if we’re not ready to do that, I guess we’ll just have to settle for suffering through articles punching up at the cities that are.

Shout out to James Murphy for the lyrics
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