Wade on Birmingham

The Future of Birmingham: DIY

By

Stacey Ferguson

Entrepreneur and blogger Stacey Ferguson gives the opening
keynote at the Y’all Connect conference in Birmingham.
Technology is a ripe area for startups in the city.

Get the full version of this essay in our free ebook.
Details at the end.

By Jen Barnett

The future of Birmingham could be pretty much like its past: decided by the good citizens of Mountain Brook and officials from the City of Birmingham with little-to-no input from residents.

The Future of BirminghamOccasionally, these two disparate groups produce fabulous offspring, like the Sidewalk Film Festival, Railroad Park or Regions Field. More often than not, they lock horns and produce nothing. So, when considering the future of Birmingham, my first thought was “Who cares?”

But … I do. God help me, I fucking do.

If we’re smart, we can build our own future through entrepreneurship.

These are the lessons I’ve learned from having businesses here, the ones I keep in mind as I think about next steps:

1. Plant the acorn with the knowledge that you may never see (or own) the oak. We wouldn’t have a Saturn or an Iron City if Bottletree hadn’t arrived.

2. Build a business in the tech sector. It’s the city’s blind spot for regulation, it’s a foreign language to the good ol’ boy network, and it won’t shackle you to local economic factors. Plus, you could bring in much-needed dollars from outside Alabama.

3. Don’t take private investment. Instead …

4. Build your own capital from a business you don’t necessarily love before launching your passion project. Shipt chief executive officer Bill Smith created his wealth with Easy Money and Insight Card Services. Avondale Brewery founder Coby Lake bought rental properties. If you’re a specialist, and a damned good one, you’ll have better odds than generalists like me when bootstrapping a business you love.

5. Spend more of your energy building people up, or working on your own idea, than bitching about someone else’s efforts. Bitch a little (you’re only human) to keep yourself competitive. Keep it off social media.

6. Do it more for the struggle than for the outcome. Like I said in No. 1, you may never see the outcome, but the struggle can be a lot of fun, with the right attitude.

7. If you’re going to tilt at windmills, choose ones that matter. Education, transportation, income inequality, science, arts and medicine are good ones. (#FireRayWatts is a personal fave.) Your neighbors’ lawn ornaments or sex lives aren’t.

8. Find strength in numbers. You don’t need money or power to get started if you’ve got friends. Entrepreneur Rebecca Davis and filmmaker Jen West both conducted successful crowdfunding campaigns for their projects. To make crowdsourcing work for you, make lots and lots of friends. (Loners are easier to exploit and marginalize.)

9. Develop a thick skin. The harder you try, the more haters you’ll have. This is absolutely inevitable. You don’t have to be a flippant dick about them (“haters gon’ hate”), just learn to deal.

10. If you make it in Birmingham, stay in Birmingham. That’s not a mandate, just my personal plea. Mentor someone. Buy Quinlan Castle and build a moat around it. Whatever it takes to keep you engaged with the city.

If you follow these lessons and your heart, your life will be so full of passion and purpose that you’ll hardly notice what’s lacking in Birmingham.

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Jen BarnettJen Barnett is a Birmingham-based entrepreneur and marketing strategy consultant.

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Read more essays in our special 10th anniversary series, The Future of Birmingham.

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