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Entrepreneur: Small cities can pack big punch

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The CEO of a new Rome start-up touted the benefits of small cities during a presentation to the House Rural Development Council.

The council met in Warm Springs last week for its final two-day session before preparing recommendations on what the state legislature can do to help revitalize sections of Georgia left behind in the economic rebound.

Bill Shinn is president and CEO of Candor, a private health insurance exchange aimed at millennials. The company, which develops online tools including a smartphone app and chatbot, launched in October with 40 employees and plans to add 600 more over a 5-year period.

Infrastructure is important in attracting new business, he said. But not all infrastructure is the same.

“My ‘road’ is the fiber connection between Rome and Atlanta,” Shinn told the council, which counts among its members Rep. Eddie Lumsden, R-Armuchee.

“We’re a Silicon Valley start-up in Rome, Georgia,” he said.

A high-speed internet connection is key, Shinn said, but he went on to list a number of reasons counties outside urban areas can be competitive.

The labor cost is half of what he’d pay in San Francisco or New York, he noted, yet he pays almost double the going rate for Floyd County. Rent is cheap, the cost of living is 11 percent lower than the national average and housing is 20 percent below the average.

That helped him start Candor with a much lower investment, Shinn said, and he was able to recruit 11 top young software programmers from around the country.

“How did I do it? I got them out here and we went mudding,” he said. “We went hiking, hunting, fishing. I showed them they could walk to restaurants from their loft apartment downtown, live the lifestyle they want to lead.”

Rome’s colleges, hospitals and cultural activities helped make it a draw, Shinn said — although it’s unclear if members of the council were encouraged.

“How do we go about replicating that in other parts of the state,” asked co-chair Rep. Jay Powell, R-Camilla. “Not all of them have vibrant downtowns or access to universities or quality of life.”

Shinn said the creation of low-cost incubators, places where companies can come in and work out designs with a relatively small investment could be a start. The office space doesn’t have to be fancy to lure young entrepreneurs, he noted.

He said his temporary space — he’s looking at a building on Broad Street now — was designed like a coffee shop after he walked into Swift & Finch and found a number of his employees doing their work there.

“WiFi access, decent, comfortable furniture. … other companies will follow,” he said.

Once a few are established, he explained, there could be a tipping point.

For example, the social media marketing firm Wayfair FX is moving to Rome, “because we’re their No. 1 customer.” Also, Candor has acquired software developer tenex and Shinn said he’s due to show the CEO around Rome on Monday in an effort to get them to move.