Nashville: Country Music, Cowboys Boots and… Tech Town?

Nashville is the capital of Tennessee, the home of country music, the financial heart of the Mid-South region. But it’s a long way from the dynamic startup hubs — Austin, Boston, San Francisco — that seem to have a monopoly on talent attraction these days.

To be less charitable about it: Nashville is not exactly hip, Dolly Parton notwithstanding.

Dolly Parton
photo credit: Timothy Wildey / Flickr

Keep Nashville Cool?

Or is it? “Old Nashville,” the land of honky-tonk bars and tinsel, isn’t totally gone. It’s actually doing better than ever, and visible to more people than ever, thanks to impressive campaigning by local tourism and convention boosters.

More impressive, though, is the legitimate “cool factor” that’s recently eclipsed the Music City’s country veneer. Millennials aren’t just moving to Nashville for its music scene, though that’s probably part of the equation. They’re also coming for jobs — lots and lots of great-paying tech jobs in a city not known for its high cost of living. And they’re spawning a wave of business formation in the urban core, which is looking more like Austin by the day.

“I’m a born and bred Nashvillian, but I moved away for about a decade as a young woman,” says Rosemary Plorin, president and CEO of Nashville-based Lovell Communications. “When I returned to take the next step in my career and raise my family, I was frankly shocked at how much my hometown had changed — mostly for the better.”

Plorin’s experience is typical. Today, young professionals and tech savants who grew up in the Music City and moved elsewhere to start careers are returning to the Mid-South in droves, lured by relatively cheap rents, an increasingly vibrant cultural scene (beyond country, of course), and a moderate climate with neither the Deep South’s abysmally muggy summers nor the North’s bitter, snowy winters.

Nashville cityscape at night

Built on a Solid Base

Nashville’s boom isn’t build on sand; the city didn’t spring into being overnight. For decades, Nashville has been a hugely important finance and logistics hub.

Perhaps more importantly, Nashville’s knowledge economy has always been strong. Vanderbilt University, the city’s flagship private university, is home to nearly 13,000 students. Belmont College, Tennessee State University, and Middle Tennessee State University — accounting for tens of thousands of additional students — are all in town or close by. And Nashville punches far above its weight as a major medical hub: depending on how you slice it, Nashville’s many hospital systems, care networks and insurers place it among the country’s top 10 or 15 cities for medicine.

This means, pound for pound, that Nashville’s workforce is better educated — and better equipped to deal with the challenges of a rapidly changing economy — than most of its peer cities’. No wonder hot startups and established tech companies are taking a closer look.


It’s Happening Here

Nashville’s high-tech transformation isn’t merely theoretical. It’s supported by real companies with the talent, ambition, and marketing prowess to grow, expand, and conquer. Some of Nashville’s most exciting startup names include:

  • InvisionHeart: a healthcare startup that makes a compact ECG machine for cardiac imaging. Has raised $3 million (and counting), and recently received critical FDA approval for its technology.
  • RecordGram: an innovative app that allows producers to sell beats directly to musicians and other users.
  • MyFansDemand: a direct merchandise sales app for pop culture artists.
  • Upnext: a music discovery tool that’s already being compared to Pandora and Spotify.
  • Lyft: Okay, Lyft is based in San Francisco, but the company recently announced plans to open a major operations center in Nashville. Can rideshare apps talk with a southern twang?

Are you following the Music City’s tech resurgence? What’s your favorite startup in town?