Originally published in New Orleans CityBusiness.
New Orleans’ entrepreneurial base shares rebirth message at massive Austin media event
Neel Sus can’t hold on to anything but “the clothes on my back, my phone and my wallet,” he said. And if anything else stands a chance, it’s definitely not paper.
“If it’s paper, I’m going to lose it,” said Sus, president of Susco Solutions, a software development company.
So he was somewhat overwhelmed earlier this month when, at the outset of a chartered bus ride to South By Southwest Interactive, he received a hard copy of essential information: itineraries, directions, contact info for the 30-odd people on the bus heading to Austin, Texas. A staff member with Louisiana Economic Development, which purchased a booth at the five-day conference, passed out another sheet with talking points related to four tax incentive programs.
The information was to help the delegation pitch Louisiana to thousands of industry professionals descending upon SXSW, but one more sheet was just too much for Sus.
Adele Tiblier, lead marketing strategist for FSC Interactive and organizer of the bus trip, became annoyed with her friend.
“Neel, isn’t there a damn app for that?” Tiblier remembers asking.
Actually, Sus replied, there could be. Within an hour, everyone on the bus had all the necessary information on their smart phones.
Susco had just unveiled a new product that customizes smart phone applications, and it turned out to be useful for the busload of digital and new media professionals, technology-minded entrepreneurs and others loosely associated with a New Orleans industry that is, at once, flowering and difficult to define.
The state tax credits — which target digital media, the film industry, live performance production and sound recording — suggest a framework for thinking about the new industries. “Industries of the mind” is an umbrella term coined by the New Orleans Downtown Development District, which is focused on attracting bioscience, digital media and arts-based business.
But labels, if they imply exclusiveness, may not be appropriate for whatever is taking root in New Orleans. The bus trip, Tiblier said, was open to “anybody who has passion for the city.”
One of the riders was a dance instructor who uses social media for his business. Another was an AmeriCorps member who is retooling a St. Bernard Parish nonprofit’s Web site.
“We don’t limit who comes,” Tiblier said. “You could be a bartender.”
The amorphous industry is recognizable as much in mindsets as in goods produced. Collectivism, which might be counterintuitive among in-market competitors elsewhere, is an underlying trait.
The eagerness of local entrepreneurs to promote the tax credits, for example, reflects a rare synergy between state policymakers and the local business community, said Austin Marks, chief of staff of Greater New Orleans Inc., which is focused on regional economic development.
“Most states around the country are having a tough time getting their municipalities to buy into it,” Marks said, referring to incentives elsewhere. “One of the things we figured out after Katrina is your enemy is not next door.”
Louisiana’s booth at SXSW was packed and bustling in a way that other state booths were not, according to those who were in it. Marks said he returned with 20 to 30 leads on businesses considering expanding or relocating to southeastern Louisiana. Perhaps two or three will actually come, but serious conversations with dozens of executives could have exponential benefits, Marks said.
The bus excursion from New Orleans built upon last year’s trip, which Tiblier said was thrown together as an experiment. This year, she said, there was clarity of purpose, and her conversations with non-Louisianans suggest changing national perceptions of New Orleans.
“Probably 50 percent of the people we met last year asked about water,” Tiblier said, referring to Katrina flooding. “‘Is there still water?’”
This year, Tiblier said she talked a lot about the tax credits. The credits, which offer up to 35 percent breaks for in-state expenditures, are some of the most valuable of their kind in the country, said Kurt Weigle, CEO of the Downtown Development District, and they figure heavily into the efforts to promote Louisiana.
“We had a lot more serious conversations about doing business,” said Weigle, who also attended last year.
But what happens to a tight-knit community if it is overrun by cutthroat competitors flocking south for tax breaks?
Tiblier is unconcerned. Newcomers are “quickly exposed” if they aren’t passionate about collective well-being, she said.
“They don’t seem to glob on to what’s going on and they just fall away,” Tiblier said.
Still, increased focus on state deficit reduction could become politically troublesome for any of the more than 30 state tax credit programs, whose strengths tend to be in stimulating long-term growth as opposed to short-term gains.
Lawmakers last summer passed two maritime-focused tax credits with the requirement that they generate at least as much direct tax revenue as they expend. That requirement has caused long delays in implementation, to the industry’s frustration. And maritime professionals, along with some of their legislative champions, often point to the film tax credits as an example of excessive beneficence.
“It’s a loss leader at first, but at some point it evens out and you start making money,” Tiblier said. “Industries have been built around the credits.”
Those who market New Orleans like to say the city is undergoing a Silicon Valley-esque transformation. But it’s too early to know if the tech sector will become a regional economic pillar.
In any case, it’s a much different landscape than the late 1990s, when New Orleans techies hadn’t found each other, Tiblier said.
“Now we are really loud about the fact that we found each other,” she said.•