Ten days after Hurricane Katrina, Kenneth Purcell relocated the bare bones staff of his technology firm from New Orleans to New York City. Just over two years later, Purcell and his tech start-up, iSeatz, were back in town for good.
The move home was partly sentimental for the Louisiana-born Purcell, but the result has been years of surging growth in clients, revenue and staffing. The online restaurant-reservation firm that Purcell started in 1999 in a small French Quarter office now provides customized booking engines for travel and financial clients such as Delta Air Lines, KLM/Air France, MasterCard and Amtrak. It landed on Inc. magazine's list of the 500 fastest-growing companies in 2008 and 2009, and iSeatz is looking for more growth, with plans in motion for expansion into Asia.
Years of travel across the U.S. and internationally have given Purcell a unique perspective on Louisiana as a place to nurture a high-tech business. Since 2007, when iSeatz returned to New Orleans, Purcell says he's seen a sea change in the skills and experience of the city's tech-focused entrepreneurs. He compares the region to earlier days in tech hubs like Austin, Texas, where the steady influx of talent benefits existing firms and sows the seeds for new ones. Several former iSeatz staffers, for instance, are now key players in other digital ventures in the area. Those companies in turn are laying the groundwork for more local digital start-ups in years ahead, Purcell says.
Louisiana offers strategic advantages that make it the best place for iSeatz headquarters, in Purcell's view. He estimates that its cost of operations are 20 to 50 percent less than its competitors-savings that its passes on to clients.
"You combine that with the quality of life and the state's business incentives and you have an unbeatable combination for a company like mine," he says.
Those factors have helped to fuel a recent hiring streak at iSeatz. Since 2010 its payroll has expanded from 20 to about 50 employees by fall 2011. LED FastStart®, which provides free recruiting and training tools to new and expanding Louisiana firms, developed customized resources to assist with the expansion. Most of iSeatz's new employees are technologists, from programmers to quality-assurance experts, and run the gamut from West Coast transplants to former Louisianans in search of high-tech opportunities to bring them home.
"There is an energy that radiates from this place and that draws in people like me," Purcell says. "This isn't just people coming back to Louisiana, but people with no connection to the state who recognize it as a great place to start a company. The region is at a tipping point in the acceleration of its technology sector, and we see ourselves playing a role in that process."