How Tennessee's Southland Summit could topple SXSW

By Sarah Lacy , written on June 17, 2013

From The News Desk

God damnit.

I hate to do this.

I really, really hate to do this.

But I have to hand it to Nashville. The city is suddenly doing a great job of being nationally relevant.

Evidence of this seems to be popping up all around me. Whether it's the Forbes magazine I was reading on the plane this past weekend saying that Nashville is the second hottest job city after San Francisco. Whether it's CondeNast Traveler saying Nashville is one of the top five cities to visit in the world this year. Whether it's Country Star Trace Adkins somehow beating out Penn Jillette on the All Star Celebrity Apprentice-- a finale that was billed as Nashville vs. Vegas and everyone assumed Vegas would win. Whether it's Blake Shelton's whole damn team racking up the votes on the Voice every week. Or whether it's more meaningful statistics to my world: Like the fact that Nashville is surging when it comes to investment and startup growth, relative to the rest of the state and a lot of the South.

I simply can no longer deny that Nashville is doing something well. And last week, I got a glimpse of it up close at the inaugural Southland Summit, held at Nashville's historic Cannery Row just before Bonnaroo.

I am a native Memphian and the two cities are intensely competitive. I've always argued that Memphis is very authentic, while Nashville tends to constantly claim to be new things. There are places that even claim to be the home of Elvis in the city. ELVIS! At the Nashville Airport there's a deli that says: "Authentic Nashville New York Deli." I don't even know what that means, but it sort of says it all. When Paul Carr visited Nashville a few years ago he picked up on this calling it sort of a sanitized theme park of the south: Here we have New Orleans land, and here we have Elvis town, here we have fried chicken, and here we have country music…

At the opening night dinner for the conference, the Mayor of Nashville Karl Dean talked about how Nashville has pivoted from one industry to the next--from publishing to finance to for-profit healthcare. I've observed the exact same thing. In fact, the Mayor's praise is the exact knock I've long had on the city. Economically such nimbleness is good.  But, to me at least, it's always left Nashville feeling like it didn't in and of itself stand for much. Cities have to give me a reason to love them.

Memphis on the other hand is a place haunted by its past. There are ghosts around every corner, whether it's Elvis, the assassination of Martin Luther King, or our just-barely-making-it roots that came from being a transient port city on the Mississippi. The blues are more than Memphis' musical heritage. It's a familiar blanket that settles over the city and never seems to leave. That's part of what I adore about Memphis. As downtowns across America become identical rows of chain stores, Memphis stays utterly unique. They say you can never go home, but I absolutely can. And yet, economically, there's no denying Mayor Dean's point: It doesn't grow at the same rate as Nashville, because it's less nimble and opportunistic.

As the Southland Summit neared, James Dowd of the Memphis Commercial Appeal put this in stark, tough love relief for our mutual home town: In 2001, Memphis and Nashville were roughly tied when it came to income from local business owners. Ten years later, Nashville's entrepreneurs reported some $11.6 billion in income, double that of Memphis, which had barely moved at all, according to the US Bureau of Economic Analysis.

I'll admit it: I felt like a traitor going to speak at a Nashville conference. And I was mostly doing it as a favor to a friend, truth be told.

But two things surprised me at the Southland conference that both-- grudgingly-- made me feel a warmth towards Nashville for possibly the first time in my life.

The first is that Nashville is doing a better job of embracing its own historical uniqueness of late, rather than chasing Atlanta or other whitewashed cities of the South. Now, there's some of that opportunism the Mayor described at play here. Country music has become decidedly mainstream of late and being the home of it suddenly has big-time international currency.

I'm not a fan of new country-- at all-- but old country is another matter. My kids' middle names are "Cash" and "June." Every time I've been to Nashville before I've felt all the new. Southland was wise to put the old stuff front and center. Sitting on the stage of the historic Ryman Auditorium on the opening night of the conference and listening to Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell sing Pancho & Lefty to a private room was the first time Nashville has given me chills. Sorry, Memphis. But it happened.

The second surprise was even smarter and even more surprising: This wasn't a Nashville conference. It was a conference for all of Tennessee. (It claimed to represent all of the Southeast, but I didn't see much about Mississippi, Alabama or Arkansas on display.) I was expecting more of a tech conference's version of the Tennessee Titans-- a team that other cities in Tennessee desperately wanted but Nashville got. Although they gave it the state's name, as a nod towards inclusiveness, the team has always been regarded as a gloating Nashville victory lap.

But aside from the Mayor's boasting remarks about Nashville, Southland felt different. The conference as a whole displayed that Nashvillian ability to be a chameleon, adapting to whatever is hot at the moment, but at the same time, it unapologetically played up unique Southern culture and heritage. It was a combination of what has made Nashville economically ascendant and that quagmire of heritage that I love about Memphis at the same time.

Part of that is because of the efforts of LaunchTennessee-- the organization behind the event. Bill Hagerty, the Commissioner of Tennessee's Department of Economic and Community Development and the chairman of LaunchTN, is serious about making this a statewide push. When his budget was recently cut by more than 40%, he cut costs centrally and invested more in areas outside of Nashville, bankrolling a network of accelerators throughout the state. The state matches venture capital contributions to companies in these incubators, but it doesn't pretend it can do the heavy lifting of a venture firm all on its own. "We'll never lead a deal, at least not on my watch," he said. That's the same approach Israel took, to legendary success.

LaunchTennessee did something else important too: It made Charlie Brock-- a Chattanooga native-- CEO. I spent a good deal of time with Brock last week. I wasn't aware that the resentment towards Nashville plays out on the other end of the state as well. It sent a strong signal that Hagerty didn't name a Nashville guy as CEO. In organizing Southland, Brock brought in people from around the state too-- including those with Tennessee roots who've left like Mike Tatum, who roped in other Tennessee natives like me.

Brock, Tatum and crew did an excellent job of highlighting Tennessee's unique culture at the event. In addition to the opening night at the Ryman, speakers got super VIP passes to the nearby Bonnaroo music festival. (Or those who didn't have to be at an event the next day in New York did…) There were relevant panels on music and the business of whisky in addition to the regular startup demos and VC panels. Biscuits and fried chicken replaced the regular bagels and muffins for breakfast. It was an event I could easily talk people into attending.

That said, there were some things that could have gone better. Having multiple tracks was a mistake for an event this small, and the speaker curation could have been tighter. There should have been more BBQ. And they could have done a better job of highlighting huge success stories from the state alongside the flown in speakers. There are huge entrepreneurial success stories: Memphis has FedEx, Nashville has a lot of medical device wins, and Chattanooga has labs doing hardcore research. Rather than just listening to success stories from the Valley, organizers should show off the billion dollar companies Nashville has created.

That was the model I took with putting together Disrupt Beijing years ago, and both groups of speakers learned a lot from one another. Similarly our PandoMonthlys are about highlighting local heroes, not dragging Valley VCs and entrepreneurs around the US. They could take another page from the TechCrunch Disrupt playbook and get some country music moguls on stage. People may roll their eyes at celebrities, but they pack the rooms.

But those suggestions aside, I came away from Southland bullish that this could be much more than just a regional conference if the organizers are willing to listen to advice, court the whole state to participate, and continue to invest in the franchise. Commissioner Hagerty described how medical devices had become Tennessee's greatest export: It's as much about the technical talent in the East of the state and the powerful logistics and distribution chops of Memphis as it is about Nashville's track record at for-profit healthcare.

Neither of these cities on its own will be the next Silicon Valley-- or even the next New York-level tech scene. Working together is best model for how Tennessee becomes a hub for fast growing companies. It may come at the expense of geographic density, but cities have been trying to copy the Valley model for decades now and failing. It's time for a new model that leverages the unique strengths of the whole state.

Whether I like it or not, that needs to be centered in Nashville. I wish it were Memphis, but Nashville is hot right now. It's the perfect time for the state to get over petty municipal differences and get together to pull in cash, investors and attention like a tractor beam.

The state has something other people would die for: Important people want to visit. They love our music; they love our food. By playing on that and hooking it to the front end of a music festival, Southland is mimicking what SXSW Interactive did well. By focusing on the strengths of a region, it's doing what Big Omaha did well. If it combines the two, it could be the hot new emerging tech conference in a sea of ones getting stale.

[Image courtesy mikerhicks]