Listen to the full interview:
UpTalk: Magic City Marketing with Devon Laney
From its creation in 1871, Birmingham has been all about growing business. Some of the nation’s strongest companies – the steelmakers that helped build modern-day America – owe their success to the hard work and ingenuity that was borne of the city’s iron and steel background. Like the skyscrapers they would help raise, these businesses started small but grew to the point where you could find Birmingham steel all over the globe – from the red hills of central Alabama to the towering edifices at home and abroad.
That rich history of innovation and incubation has continued to the present day through the appropriately-named Innovation Depot, the state’s foremost business incubator and a prominent contributor to Birmingham’s business community.
No one better embodies the spirit of Innovation Depot than its president and CEO, Devon Laney, who has built a career on entrepreneurship, development, and growth.
From a Small Town to a Small Big City
Growing up in a small town on Weiss Lake in Cherokee County, Devon was the scion of a family that knew the combination of business and hard work.
Devon’s grandfather started working for Coca-Cola when he was 15 years old. At the beginning, he was just a driver. Over the next 56 years, Devon’s grandfather would work his way from those humble origins to senior leadership as a regional vice-president, teaching Devon the value of hard work, an entrepreneurial spirit, and the importance of people when it comes to success.
Devon knows these lessons first-hand because he would spend every moment he could with his grandfather. One thing he remembers best about his grandfather is the impact he had on those around him. Devon’s grandfather could walk into anywhere and people knew who he was.
“He had an incredible ability to make people feel comfortable and important, no matter who they were,” Devon says. His grandfather showed how he was on their level – not above them – regardless of their position. This lesson in particular would help Devon later in his career.
Devon was sitting in a classroom at the University of Alabama, where he was earning his MBA, when his grandfather passed away. Upon reflecting, Devon realized that everything he was learning at that time in business school had been taught to him by his grandfather, who never went to college.
The lesson was simple: the best way to make it in business is to be out there, making connections, influencing people, building up others, being in the community, and doing the things that no book can teach and no degree can bestow.
From a College Business to The Depot
Devon didn’t waste a lot of time putting into practice the lessons his grandfather had taught him.
During college, he started a business called Southeast Concerts, a vendor portal for musicians, venues, merchandise owners, and everything else in the music event industry. This experience gave him the excitement of running a business and seeing the fruits of your labor as revenue from advertisements and subscriptions started rolling in.
After graduating with his MBA, Devon would go on to work as an analyst doing work for multiple Fortune 500 companies. At some point – perhaps while crunching numbers late at night, or after checking the latest results of a growth initiative – he became intrigued by the notion of using his gifts to no longer help big businesses grow even bigger.
Instead, he could help small businesses and startups make their own way and fulfill the dreams their founders had always had.
Thus, in 2005, Devon moved to Birmingham and created what is now known as Innovation Depot, The Depot is the largest technology incubator in the southeastern United States and one of the largest in the country. The mission of the Depot – now over 100 companies strong – is to “help early stage companies that are built around technology scale, grow, and hopefully graduate out of Innovation Depot” and become a fixture of the communities they were designed to serve.
Currently, over 850 people work out of Innovation Depot each day. Many more have graduated Innovation Depot and left its halls to venture out into the community and make their mark by changing lives. This journey – from birth to maturity – is the goal Devon has for every company that comes through the Depot, and a long track record of success is proof that the journey works.
“At the heart of what we do is economic development,” says Devon. “Economic development is a three-legged stool: business retention; business recruitment; and business growth.”
Adds Devon, “Innovation Depot is not just a building – we work hard on the culture, education, and community aspect. We try to serve as a good role model for companies.”
The Depot does a great job of serving as a model for its resident businesses because the center is self-sufficient, unlike many incubators across the nation. Many incubators don’t succeed long term because they are either operated by entities led by people who have never led a business, or have to constantly focus on raising money – something the Depot doesn’t have to do.
Instead, the Depot can focus on doing what they do best: creating programs to help the community.
“When you’re an entrepreneur or startup, it’s very important to have a community around you, or it can be very isolating,” says Devon. That sense of community – that when businesses succeed, everyone in the community succeeds – is at the heart of what Innovation Depot is all about.
Guided by the lessons his grandfather taught him and the experiences he has amassed as a businessman and entrepreneur, Devon continues to drive the Depot forward: onward, upward, one homegrown business at a time. The result is a community that believes in the spirit of innovation and a commitment to growing together – just like Birmingham grew from a small mining town to a city that can be anything it wants to be.
5 in 5: Five Questions in Five Minutes
1.) What’s the best marketing campaign you’ve created?
Working on a campaign for Accenture. “We rolled out a big thing about ‘high performance delivered.’ Tiger Woods would be on the golf course and the campaign would be like, ‘high performance delivered, Accenture.’ I thought it was a brilliant marketing campaign.”
2.) What’s the worst marketing campaign you’ve created?
“There was a local campaign here about our community that I think was terrible. It was so vague and ambiguous that it didn’t mean anything.”
3.) What do you think is the future of marketing?
Individualized/personalized marketing due to all the data we have about individuals – even more personalized than they are right now.
4.) What’s your favorite thing about being located in Birmingham?
Birmingham is in a renaissance era – there’s so much youth and quality of life and energy behind building the community.
“I love that I live in the city with an acre of land and a beautiful house – and i can be home from my office in 6 minutes. I can get home, see my dogs, and be at an incredible restaurant by 5:45pm. That quality of life is incredible.”
5.) What childhood dream did you give up to be the President and CEO of Innovation Depot? ?
“I was going to be a rock star and singer. I am a music guy and I love music.”
A Huge Thanks to Devon from the Uptick Team
Devon, thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to chat with us. We absolutely loved learning about the man who has be instrumental in helping Birmingham grow and develop. Thank you for all you do!
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