A big part of Williamson County’s reputation is its stature as the region’s established home for corporate headquarters, an image forged in the farmland-turned-commercial area of Cool Springs.
In an 1890s mansion two blocks from the heart of Franklin’s historic downtown, Matt Largen wants to foster companies that may one day reach that level. Largen, CEO of Williamson Inc., described that as the motivation for using the building for something that is missing in the county: an entrepreneur center.
“We’re known for our headquarters. If you go down a level, you’ll see that 30 percent of the Inc. 5000 companies in Tennessee are based in Williamson County. That gets overshadowed by the corporate campuses we have,” Largen said. “We have a vibrant entrepreneurial community, different from Davidson County’s. This shows we are serious about nurturing those future potential large companies in Williamson County at a very early stage.”
Williamson Inc. is the county’s combined chamber of commerce and economic development agency. By the end of this year, the organization expects to open the mansion — located on the former campus of the O’More College of Design — as a space with nine dedicated offices for entrepreneurs, plus other resources.
Largen revealed details about the hub, tentatively named the Idea Center, during an interview and tour of the 4,100-square-foot building this month.
Largen said he spoke with 20 entrepreneurs in Williamson County to hear their thoughts about what makes for a successful entrepreneur center. The people he surveyed include Stuart McWhorter, who comes from a prominent business family and chairs its venture capital firm Clayton Associates (He is now incoming finance commissioner under Governor-elect Bill Lee, and previously led the Nashville Entrepreneur Center.); serial entrepreneur Mark Cleveland, whose companies include Swiftwick, Hobby Express and Hytch; and J. Tod Fetherling, CEO of Perception Health.
Three themes stood out: Don’t limit the center to one industry. Provide access to technology, other business leaders and services such as lawyers, accountants and branding experts. And, encourage tenants to use one another as resources.
“The most important thing is that we get tenants who have a desire to scale their business and collaborate. You are not here to keep your office door closed,” Largen said.
Success, he added, “is when these companies graduate, occupy office space in Williamson County and create jobs here.” Part of the motivation behind the Idea Center is the idea that it’s easier and wiser to aid homegrown companies than rely too much on corporate relocations and other recruiting to spur economic growth, Largen said.
Largen said the entrepreneur center isn’t meant to compete with the Nashville Entrepreneur Center, which is located on the edge of downtown Nashville, 22 miles north. Largen said that organization’s leader, Michael Brody-Waite, offered to help Williamson Inc. vet potential tenants and connect Williamson Inc. with Williamson County companies that went through the Nashville Entrepreneur Center.
“The beauty of the Nashville region is there’s plenty of growth to go around,” Largen said.
Largen said his organization has yet to determine exactly who will vet potential Idea Center tenants. He is also working to identify Columbia State Community College professors who might visit the Idea Center to offer their assistance — as well as other business professionals who would do the same.
Largen expects that tenants will sign one-year leases. Prices haven’t been set, though Largen said he wants to be cheaper than the going rates for office space in Davidson and Williamson counties.
Williamson Inc. will lease the mansion from the Heritage Foundation of Williamson County, which is poised to buy the O’More College of Design property from Belmont University. The foundation is working on plans for the other mansion on-site.
Williamson Inc. plans to initially invest $75,000 on turning its mansion into the Idea Center. In March, the organization could learn whether it will receive a state grant to help pay for that work.
“This isn’t a moneymaking venture for us. Any ‘profit’ will be rolled back into maintenance costs,” Largen said. As of now, Williamson Inc. does not expect to hire someone dedicated to running the Idea Center.
“We’re committed to this even without the grant. We want to keep our entrepreneurs growing in Williamson County … and send a message to that community that they’re important,” Largen said.