HUNTSVILLE, Ala. – Brandon Kruse is already a bigger success than most 24-year-olds, but that’s not why people in Huntsville are watching him so closely. They’re watching because of what Kruse plans to do next.
Kruse built and sold a technology company called DialMaxx for enough money to buy his own surplus Huntsville school building for $500,000. He’s putting another $100,000 into improvements.
The result in a few months will be what Kruse has jokingly called “a flophouse for entrepreneurs.” Mayor Tommy Battle loved the line so much he used it while praising Kruse’s idea in the mayor’s recent State of the City address.
The former West Huntsville Elementary School sits on 9th Avenue near Triana Boulevard. It’s an area in transition, as planners say, once known for rescue missions and faded mill-era housing, now home to the nearby Lowe Mill Arts & Entertainment center and a coming craft brewery complex and music venue at the former Stone Middle School.
Kruse recently showed visitors through the building he’s renamed Huntsville West. He joked with workers, talked in bursts, and dove into the back pocket of his jeans repeatedly to silence a cellphone with an alert like a warning klaxon. Like most things about Kruse, the phone demands attention.
Kruse will offer “wantrepreneurs” what he calls “co-working space with a low barrier to entry.” That means work surfaces and fast Internet 24/7 for $50 to $100 a month. “Extremely cheap space,” he said.
“We’re going to take out the drop ceilings, paint the roof black, get a little industrial look going,” Kruse gestured in the school’s former library.
New entrepreneurs at Huntsville West can get advice from Kruse if they want it. He’s done what they’re trying to do, and he has some answers now. One of them is access to what he calls Huntsville’s “Secret Society of Investors.” These angel investors – Kruse drops a few names – helped capitalize his start-up and can help others if the ideas are good enough.
Kruse might invest himself in new projects that come out of Huntsville West, but he has another idea to make money from the project. And he has another idea after that.
He wants to export to other cities the concept of turning surplus public space into cheap working space for entrepreneurs. He’s also letting local small businesses – food trucks and a popular barbecue restaurant – rent leftover school facilities such as walk-in freezers and refrigerators.
Before he can profit from it or export it, Kruse has to make Huntsville West work. He thinks he can do it. The space will be open in a few months, and he said it’s already one-third full.
Part of succeeding is breaking through a stereotype that Huntsville is a “company” town where the best and brightest work for one customer – the federal government – and where the ultimate prize isn’t a start-up but a government contract. “I think that’s a cop-out,” Kruse said. “There are a ton of entrepreneurs here.”
Kruse sees cities like Chattanooga and Nashville working hard to lure and stimulate young businesses. They make money available for good ideas, but more important to Kruse is they have mentors and the chance to work on ideas in close proximity to other young entrepreneurs. “It’s a new age of venture capitalism,” Kruse said, “and Huntsville can do this.” He said there should be no need to leave friends, family and home to start a business.
Kruse has seen this work in Huntsville already. The HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology brings biotechnology entrepreneurs together in shared working spaces. Kruse has a desk there and is a consultant.
Downtown Huntsville Inc. CEO Chad Emerson likes what he sees at Huntsville West. He was taking a small group on a tour the same day a reporter and photographer visited.
“The West Huntsville Elementary project is another excellent example of Huntsville embracing innovation and creativity in unique ways,” Emerson said later in an email. “This city is filled with incredibly interesting ideas and this project represents one of the best.”
November 25, 2014