Startup Southerner has been desperate to connect with someone in Mississippi to talk about the state of startups and innovation in the Magnolia State. On our third attempt, we were directed to Tim Mask, a partner at the Jackson, Mississippi ad agency Maris, West and Baker, and the director of two innovation initiatives—FastForward and Mississippi Innovation Economy—designed to support the state’s efforts to boost its innovation economy. He’s a bona fide Mississippi mover and shaker, and, oh, he also has a lot to say about the state of startups and innovation in Mississippi. Bear with us (and him), it’s a long interview. But we think you’ll learn a thing or two or seven or twenty about Mississippi and the plight of the startup there.
SS: How long have you been an entrepreneur? Can you briefly describe your journey?
TM: My career path hasn’t been that of what one thinks of as a “traditional entrepreneur.” I didn’t start a company or bootstrap a new product (although I have a couple of side bets currently in development…stay tuned, America!). However, shortly after I began working in the advertising business, the entire industry was upended by seismic disruption in the media landscape, the likes of which we really hadn’t experienced since the onset of broadcast technology in the 1930s. This change hasn’t stopped; it’s accelerated, actually. We have been forced to run our 47-year-old shop less like an established firm and much more like a nimble startup. This meant that titles and tightly defined “departments” became little more than meaningless monikers. Rather than sticking to a strict set of proven business protocols we have had to make predictions, be proactive and really find new ways for building solutions.
SS: Why is supporting Mississippi innovation important to you? And what does that say about this kind of need in the state?
TM: One thing I learned that I believe is a fundamental and vital quality among entrepreneurs is that you can’t “wait around on somebody else.” As a young guy in business I was aggressive in taking ideas to those above me and waiting for a direction to implement. Sometimes that worked great. Other times, not so much. Nike built a colossus on the slogan “Just Do It.” I came to understand this wasn’t just a catch-phrase, it was a directive.
Taking a more aggressive role in building my business, I found that geography was a limitation. We’re a Mississippi company that sells creativity. This presented a two-fold problem. First, there wasn’t enough pie being baked in Mississippi for everyone in my industry to have a piece. Second, looking to go outside of Mississippi for clients, we were constantly fighting an uphill battle against negative “Mississippi stereotypes.” Some of these are justified, but many were not. I literally had the thought, “the hell with this…let’s create our own ecosystem here from which we can grow companies that can be our clients.” That’s when I really began looking into the issue of Mississippi’s brain drain: Losing more intellectual capital, in terms of knowledge economy workers, than we gain. As someone put it, we were “watering the grass” of other states. It’s not that we lack native talent to start great companies, it’s that we lose a lot of our talent.
I started something called the “Mississippi Brain Drain Commission” that eventually became Fast Forward. This initiative has come to focus on three main issues that are essential to bolstering Mississippi’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. First, advocating for policies that incentivize recent college graduates with certain degrees to take qualifying jobs within Mississippi. Second, advocating for universal coding/computer science education for Mississippi students. At the very least, we would like to see computer science in high schools count as a core math/science rather than just an elective. Another partner of mine at MWB, Randy Lynn, helped to co-found the Kids Code Mississippi project which has taken a lead on much of this aspect. And third, helping to develop a policy framework which will make Mississippi more attractive to Millennial-age freelancers and developers. Our hope would be that Mississippi be recognized as the first “telework friendly” state.
To circle back to the original question, the impetus for these initiatives never was purely altruistic. The better Mississippi does, the better my company does, and the better life I can provide for my family. But I also think that dynamic applies to most of our citizens, and thus our state.
That said, there are numerous entities in Mississippi—public, private and nonprofit—that are all working in the same direction and doing things that are absolutely essential to building this innovation/entrepreneurial ecosystem. Organizations like Innovate Mississippi are critical to helping connect would-be entrepreneurs with resources and providing incubation help. The Mississippi Development Authority’s entrepreneur center is working to create a policy framework more aligned to the needs to entrepreneurs and startup culture in general. Even private entities like Coalesce and Mantle co-working spaces in Jackson are important players in the overall scheme. The biggest issue I see is one of connectivity—being able to work outside of your own silo. And we’re getting better at this. Recently several entities have come together to initiate a knowledge economy education project that will be announced soon. The cooperation and participation in this has been very encouraging.
SS: As an outsider it’s easy to lump all startup activity together into a statewide thing. But this is probably incorrect, right? Where is startup activity most noticeable in the state? Where are there gaps?
TM: Mississippi isn’t really a big state. Our population hovers somewhere around 3 million people. I think this can actually be a blessing for us. A smaller population means that relatively small successes can result in disproportionately large movements of the needle.
For instance, take the Base Camp Coding Academy in Water Valley. Their one-year course will graduate 11 “keyboard-ready” developers. Some of these developers will not yet be old enough to have a drink with co-workers after hours. All 11 of these students came from economically challenging backgrounds. Now many if not most of these kids (and they are kids) will be highly compensated developers in a growing Mississippi knowledge economy. Can you imagine the impact that will have for their families and their communities? Next year Basecamp is expanding capacity to take 25 students. It is truly an amazing story.
Back to your original question about startup activity across the state. The Delta region has always been thought of as economically backward. And it certainly has challenges ranging from workforce development to public health issues. But again, where there are challenges there are opportunities. You don’t need acres of land and high-priced offices to have a high-paying career, anymore. A computer, coding instruction and high speed internet access makes you employable and desirable. There’s some great work going on via the Mississippi State University’s Tech Extension Service to help educate Mississippians on the benefits of rural broadband. When completed, C Spire’s Fiber To The Home initiative will prove to be a huge asset to Mississippi’s knowledge economy infrastructure. If you think about the real future of work, Mississippi is actually well positioned to be not just competitive, but a real leader. We just need a little investment in training and education of the opportunities.
I singled out the Delta in answer to that question, but I believe that much of what I said applies to the rest of the state, as well. One thing I would say is that we should take a look at how tech transfer is treated by our major research universities. Silicon Valley is Silicon Valley because Stanford enacted a very liberal tech transfer policy. I think if our universities looked to this model, we would see a wave of startups sooner rather than later.
SS: What would you say is Mississippi’s biggest strength when it comes to startups?
I’ve actually partially outsourced this question to my good friend and self-styled “Serial Civic Volunteer,” Jackson-area attorney David Pharr. David is a former board member of the Greater Jackson Chamber Partnership and is the license holder of the TEDxJackson event. In addition to being an entrepreneur himself, a significant portion of David’s law practice has focused on helping Mississippi startups get off the ground.
David sent me a simple message when I just texted him your question. It said, “…untapped university resources and low costs…I think those 2 are equal….”
I had mentioned previously the issue with tech transfer in some instances, and the fact that Silicon Valley is in large part an outgrowth of pet projects began by Stanford University faculty. Mississippi universities maintain world class projects and programs in biotech, aerospace, polymer science, and advanced/additive manufacturing just to name a few. WORLD CLASS. The University of Mississippi Medical Center has a working agreement with the Mayo Clinic for clinical research. One of only a handful of such arrangements in the world. And this is just one example at one university. Mississippi’s universities really are economic development giants waiting to explode, given we create the right circumstances.
To David’s second point—costs. Yep. From a startup standpoint, this really is a great deal about cost of living. You can simply make less and live comfortably here. And the more dollars you make, the further they will go. Factor into that a low overall cost of doing business, and there’s a very low barrier to entry for a startup business. It should be our goal to see Mississippi’s cost of living steadily rise, an indicator that economic activity is robust. In the meantime, there’s no reason not to take advantage of the low cost of doing business here.
SS: What are Mississippi’s biggest challenge or weakness?
TM: This is the easiest question you’ve asked today. Investment Capital. There simply isn’t enough of it here in the state. Many times when entrepreneurs do find VC from another location there are strings tied to it that require the business to relocate. And this is one challenge that is difficult to overcome as it relies on other people 1) making A LOT of money and 2) having a mindset to reinvest it in startups here. The irony lies in the fact that the cost of doing business is lower in Mississippi, so theoretically an entrepreneur would need less startup cash here. Frustrating.
Some of the group I run with have talked about the idea of setting up a “Mississippi-Expats” VC fund. Successful entrepreneurs who have “made it,” and don’t reside in Mississippi but maintain emotional ties to their home state could create a fund specifically for Mississippi entrepreneurs. It’s an idea, anyway.
SS: When we think about Mississippi, race and disparity come to mind, particularly in startups where white men tend to have a leg up, at least when it comes to funding. We have nothing to base that on beyond perception. It’s an issue everywhere, but is it amplified in Mississippi?
TM: It’s an issue, but I don’t think it’s necessarily amplified in Mississippi. As a white man, I always run the risk of speaking out of turn on a question like this. I’m in no way qualified to opine on the topic of race and disparity first hand. I just want to offer that caveat. I will say that, as I noted before, just being from Mississippi can hold a stigma vis a vis VC funding, so I’m certain that a double stigma doesn’t make a positive.
That being said, I think that there is a unique opportunity for the deep South in general and Mississippi in specific. I believe we have the highest percentage of African-Americans in the country, at around 40% of our overall population. You alluded to the fact that Silicon Valley has a diversity problem. I think the stat is something like 2% or less of SV workers are African-American…and even lower for African-American women. SV also knows diversity is an issue and practically every company has some sort of internal initiative trying to increase their percentages of non-white, non-male employees.
With a large African-American population and, as I said, understanding that relatively small investments can really move the needle, I think there’s another huge opportunity here. Why can’t Mississippi be a preferred pathway for Silicon Valley to increase their diversity numbers?
But let me digress because I can see by the look on your face what the follow-up question will be: Wouldn’t that pathway, essentially, cause brain drain and further depress Mississippi’s entrepreneurial potential?
Yes. Yes it would. Which is why I’m really torn on this. What could be a great opportunity for an individual to help change the trajectory of their entire family is not the best for the state as a whole. But you don’t want to deny anyone opportunity, right?
So what if we looked at this opportunity from another angle? What if resources were put into place to help women and populations of color 1) gain the skill sets they need to become SV employees but 2) also help them to start their own firms here in Mississippi, while 3) establishing the pathways with Techlandia for these companies to become contract firms and preferred vendors. Talent stays in Mississippi, a new wave of startups blossom, we gain knowledge economy workers, and Silicon Valley has a sustainable avenue to help with their diversity issues.
It could work. And this idea didn’t spring from just my cranium, either. I’ve had conversations with individuals and groups who are interested in working toward creating this “Mississippi to the Valley” pathway. It’s exciting.
SS: Do you think MS is undervalued as a place for startups?
TM: I love Mississippi. I hope everyone knows that. Elon Musk wants to die on Mars. I’d like to visit Mars, but I’d rather die in Mississippi. That being said, I can’t say that Mississippi is “undervalued” for startups. I think that, in some instances, Mississippi can be considered as undervalued and in other instances, not. From the standpoint of growing a startup ecosystem, I think it’s more important that we focus on producing regular and frequent success stories than talk so much about our “potential,” if that makes sense.