Lamp Post Group — a Chattanooga business incubator managed in part by members of PCA churches — received attention in The Atlantic last fall, and so did a few ventures in which it invests (“The Unusual Startup Incubator That Could Only Exist in Chattanooga,” Oct. 27). Among them was Fancy Rhino, a video production agency started in early 2010 by Drew Belz and Isaiah Smallman, also PCA members.
The article describes hip, young businesses unexpectedly thriving in a Southern culture where “religion tends to be central … and youth culture isn’t mutually exclusive from old tradition.” This feels like an “alternate reality” to the author, Sarah Rich, who’s accustomed to finding such quirky coolness only in “coastal cities.”
So if Lamp Post’s desire to cultivate hip, young businesses and the tech-savvy way they operate represents a paradigm shift from the old Southern Christian way of doing things, it might be reflective of a new way of thinking among Evangelicals as a whole. But it also might be, and probably is, more reflective of a couple of people’s interest in creating an organization that is not expressly Christian — which neither Lamp Post nor Fancy Rhino are — in order to brighten the community in which they’re planted.
“All of us are at different stages of our walk,” says Miller Welborn, one of Lamp Post’s founders and an elder at Lookout Mountain Presbyterian Church. “I think we all understand that we’ve been blessed in where we are, so it’s not as outward — because we don’t want to scare off a lot of potential entrepreneurs by conveying that this is a really pushy, powerful Christian enterprise. We make no bones about it: This is a for-profit entity. But we understand that to whom much is given, much is required, and we want to take some of the profits of what we do and reinvest in the Kingdom and in the community.”
Expecting More Growth
Miller Welborn might be regarded as the dad who actually listens to his kids. Though he’s only 52, his partners are in their early 30s, and the entrepreneurs with whom he works are mostly 20-somethings. “I certainly feel like the grandfather,” he says with a smile, his aristocratic Southern lilt warming Lamp Post’s loft in downtown Chattanooga. He’s sitting not in a leather executive chair but in a space-age Interstuhl Fit Chair, three of which are assembled in a common area for modular brainstorming. An enclosed high-tech conference room waits just down the corridor.
“I spend about two days a week here,” says Welborn. “And I spend two days a week at Cornerstone Community Bank across the street, so I kind of bounce back and forth. It’s one of the things I’ve had to get used to, being the age that I am. I’m used to going to a traditional office, having pictures on the wall of your degree or your children. Here it’s just plop yourself down in a different location daily.”
Welborn and his partners have divvied responsibility for mentoring the companies they’re incubating. One of their goals, of course, is to make a profit as venture capital investors (VCI). While VCIs that are more hands-off typically realize a success rate of about 10 percent, Lamp Post is more involved in its sponsored companies’ daily operations, so Welborn expects more growth in return: “We feel that if we bring them in-house, give them all the funding, stability, mentoring, day-to-day networking opportunities, and help them set up all their backbone functions — accounting and so forth — we can push that success rate from 10 percent up to 60 or 70 percent.”
“The model,” he explains, “is to help start, fund, and take an equity position in five to 10 companies a year. We take a roughly 10 to 20 percent equity position in 10 companies a year, and as they’re launched out, we bring new ones in. And at the end of five years we might have a 20 percent interest in 50 different entities.”
A complementary goal for Lamp Post’s partners is to learn, from the same young people they’re mentoring, how to apply new technology to existing business practices. Welborn has already been doing this at Access America, a transportation and logistics company he started nine years ago. In the past three years, Access America has doubled in size and now employs more than 200 people nationwide.
“In 2012 Access America will probably be around $300 million in revenue, and our president is only 29 years old,” Welborn says with a glow of satisfaction. “We believe in empowering young people, giving them the right tools. Not in creating technology, but in using technology to our benefit. For example, we believe we can drive Access America’s admin costs down from six percent to three or three and a half percent, just by better use of technology.”
Fancy Rhino Gets a Boost from Covenant College
Enter Fancy Rhino — two years ago a mere twinkle in the eyes of Covenant College students Isaiah Smallman and Drew Belz, but now a profitable agency that The Atlantic describes as “producing short videos that are at least as slick, poignant, and artistically sharp as anything coming out of the big Manhattan agencies.” High praise indeed for guys who, less than a year ago, were using their rental house’s dining room as a makeshift office.
“We had been running the film club at Covenant College and making our own videos for fun,” explains Belz. “We hosted an annual event called the Broad Street Film Festival, which we had started with two other people. For that we were creating videos regularly, just to keep the engines running while we finished English majors and I finished a philosophy major. We both knew that film was what we wanted to do all through college, and we worked summers at different editing houses in Asheville and Baltimore, and developed the basic skills, the technique of it.”
Belz, a slight, puckish fellow with tousled blond hair, and Smallman, taller and mustachioed with perpetual grizzle, might seem unlikely corporate players. In fact they seem like what they are, recent college graduates with irrepressible vision. Their passion for Christ and for the city has led them through projects that haven’t paid much but have earned them high marks in the local community. It’s also led to a couple of grants and a small roster of loyal clients.
A $10,000 grant last March from the Covenant College Seed Project got Fancy Rhino off the ground. “It was the first year Covenant had hosted the Seed Project, and they composed a panel of five or six Chattanooga businessmen who’ve successfully run strong companies for many years now,” says Belz. “It was a whole room full of people. It forced us to legitimize Fancy Rhino by creating a business plan and presenting it formally to businesspeople.”
The grant, in turn, introduced them to Lamp Post Group, then also a new enterprise. Belz continues, “One of the people who was on the panel was Miller Welborn. He asked us to lunch that very week and told us about Lamp Post. They had a couple of businesses they were investing in already. He was interested in us as people and in the business as he’d seen it presented to the Seed Project. By May we were moved in here. We didn’t have a formal contract with them, but we’ve been here ever since. They’ve taken care of us by giving us space and some capital, but especially through mentorship and leads. They’ve been our closest mentors. Working with Lamp Post has made us take everything more seriously.”
And Lamp Post’s sponsorship is allowing Fancy Rhino to grow faster. Smallman describes an entrepreneur’s typical challenges: “How do we afford rent? What if we’re a little short of cash this month? With the stability Lamp Post Group gives us, we can hire the people we need to hire and find the clients we want to find rather than taking work that is not what we want just to pay the bills. Because there’s plenty of video work out there, it’s just that a lot of it is not at the caliber we’re hoping to work at. Whereas now we have a little bit more freedom and we have the contacts to pursue clients who are actually going to be long-term clients — who actually have a reason to keep giving us work.”
A year ago, Smallman and Belz were making videos for a handful of clients — Internet-based companies Delegator and LifeKraze, a greenspace-promoting nonprofit called Trust for Public Land, and Chattanooga Christian School. Now they’ve added four employees and have more than a dozen active clients, including Volkswagen, Kenco Group, Turnkey Transportation, and Lamp Post itself. But the project they’re most excited about doesn’t pay much at all, at least not in dollars. It’s a documentary about hardscrabble Howard High School in Chattanooga, Tenn. The project has been sponsored with $10,000 from an urban redevelopment foundation called MakeWork. But that kind of money doesn’t go very far when you have real-world overhead.
“$10,000 runs out in like two weeks,” says Belz, obviously excited about the challenge. “The documentary at Howard was supposed to last four months. As we got into that project it grew very quickly. We realized there’s a big story at Howard, and it’s representative of a national issue. We had some great interviews with the kids there. So we looked to MakeWork again and said this is bigger than we originally thought. We’d like to turn this into a longer piece, potentially even a feature-length piece.”
Since applying for grants and soliciting donations is not exactly Fancy Rhino’s revenue model, it has begun to create a board for the Howard documentary project, partnering with others to raise money and oversee the work. It plans to add a Kickstarter online fund-raising mechanism and would also like to set up a foundation. “That way, even when we’re finished at Howard School,” says Smallman, “maybe we can keep going and do other community projects — to tell stories that wouldn’t otherwise have the means to be told. We don’t know the name of the foundation yet. It’s just an idea at this point.”
“We’re sort of running a nonprofit and a for-profit at the same time,” adds Belz. “We got into this trouble because we wanted to do two things at once. And now that we’re learning how to balance them, we definitely want to continue in the documentary direction. It makes business sense, too. We want people to see us as passionate about our own thing and to know that our passion will translate to their business when we’re involved. It’s going to become part of our brand.”
Like Lamp Post, Fancy Rhino is not an expressly Christian outfit, but it’s informed by its founders’ worldviews, and by their Covenant College education.
“We’re in the storytelling business, and we couldn’t have learned to care about the things we care about at a better place than Covenant,” says Belz. “The beauty of the liberal arts and the breadth of our education there was that we were compelled to see the pre-eminence of Christ in everything — it’s in the school motto — which makes everything really exciting and makes you care about good things. So the passion of your heart goes after things that hopefully are at the heart of God. And I think what’s exciting to people as they look at Fancy Rhino is that we have a reason for the hope that is in us, and that we’re extremely excited about our work. We’re extremely hopeful about situations that seem impossible, like Howard High School right now — and that it’s founded in something real, and it’s not just phony optimism, which happens a lot. We can just get excited about anything, so we get to learn about these different groups and help them incarnate their messages as stories.”
A Ripple Effect, for the Sake of the Kingdom
This kind of youth culture is not beneath the dignified Miller Welborn. On the contrary, it seems to vitalize him as he wanders from workspace to workspace, checking in with each incubated venture. He’s an extremely successful businessman and community leader, and a Southern gentleman to boot, but he has less desire to corral profits into his personal portfolio and family trust than he does to invest in young entrepreneurs like Smallman and Belz. He repeats the phrases “pay it forward” and “ripple effect.”
“What is the definition of community? Your community might be local, but it also might be global. If you can create value by paying some of those profits forward … I think it’s good for the kingdom as a whole. I have to believe that the more we do and the more people we touch, maybe we’re not saving souls, but the ripple effect, not just here in Chattanooga, but in the state of Tennessee and in the Southeast — these young people know no boundaries now. It’s not like they’re going to worry about going back to Asheville, N. C., going back to Birmingham, Ala., to their homes. I think they know no boundaries and could literally, with the technology we have, go to Tanzania and do what they do, to Johannesburg, to the Ukraine.
“Here’s an example of the ripple effect of what Fancy Rhino has done in getting into Howard School and trying to make a difference. I went and sat in on a class — and these kids are such a forgotten group — we have since come out of that and started a Personal Finance 101 class, getting the banking industry involved, saying ‘Let’s teach a personal finance class down there.’ Every high school student in Hamilton County (Tenn.) and in the country needs it. It’s not a mandated class, but why not start it at Howard? Let’s take the gloves off. And I think you’ll see four or five other things start because of what they’re doing. Fancy Rhino wants no recognition, no ego, and no ownership. They just want to be a conduit. Lamp Post doesn’t want any recognition either. We don’t have big signs on the door; we just believe it’s our responsibility as believers. We want to pass this along.”
It’s an inspiring vision and one maybe not so common for an American businessman approaching retirement. But it might just be Welborn’s affability that brought him success in his own ventures in the first place. It’s certainly a characteristic that’s informing the work of the younger entrepreneurs he shepherds.
Aaron Belz is a poet and essayist in Hillsborough, North Carolina. His books include Lovely, Raspberry (Persea, 2010), and The Bird Hoverer (BlazeVOX, 2007). A third is forthcoming soon from Persea Books. More information about this author is available at belz.net (He is also a cousin to Drew Belz, upon whom this article partly focuses.)