Off the Charts

The Cat is Out of the Bag

Lafayette’s wildcatter spirit has diversified.

The dictionary defines wildcatter as someone who takes foolish risks. Here in the heart of Acadiana we define a wildcatter as someone with a ceaseless spirit of entrepreneurship who gets the job done. In a LEDA staff meeting late last July, I joked that we should work toward changing the entry of wildcatter in the dictionary to the local definition. We added it to our list of long-term goals, and even though the folks at Merriam-Webster haven’t returned my calls, our new definition of wildcatter is catching on.

Fast forward to the Chamber’s Business Over Breakfast earlier this summer. Imagine my pleasure when the invitation came in the mail — Lafayette: A Community of Innovators, Wildcatting in the 21st Century. In an event-related column, Acadiana Business Co-Publisher Cherry Fisher May mentioned the wildcatter attitude of early oil explorers in the region and compared that to the mind-set of today’s broadband pioneers and innovators. Southern Business and Development magazine even mentioned Lafayette’s wildcatter frame of mind when its editors named Lafayette a top 10 city for the Creative Class saying, “Locals still exhibit proudly a ‘wildcatter mentality’ founded on risk taking and entrepreneurial spirit.”

It’s Lafayette’s wildcatter mentality, our entrepreneurial spirit, that makes the area unique. Entrepreneurs have created a progressive business community in Lafayette. In fact, named Lafayette one of the 50 best cities in the nation for start-ups and entrepreneurs (March 2009). Cities were selected based on small businesses and start-ups per capita, workers in “creative” professions, number of white collar workers and patents issued, among other measures. Though not mentioned in the article, Lafayette’s number of small businesses per 1,000 residents (63) was 13th highest of the 50 cities and the number of startups per 1,000 (3.24) was 21st best. What do these numbers mean? They mean the entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well in Lafayette.

Small business is the life blood of Lafayette’s economy. Big projects like the AT&T Call Center (then Cingular Wireless) and Stirling Properties’ north Lafayette shopping center come along once every few years. But it’s the smaller projects — existing businesses growing with the parish and new businesses relocating or starting up in the area — that keep Lafayette’s economy fresh, vibrant and diversified.

According to ReferenceUSAGov, an online business database, as of mid-July there were 12,943 businesses in Lafayette Parish. Of those, 12,330 (95.3 percent) have fewer than 50 employees and more than half (61.9 percent) have fewer than five. With nearly half of Lafayette’s small businesses classified as Service (ranging from salons to ad agencies to business consultants and just about everything in between), Lafayette entrepreneurs seem to have honed in on filling niche markets here. In a recent meeting with a local business, I stressed the importance of finding your niche, especially when times are tough. You may not be able to compete with the big boxes, but if you find a way to coexist — to offer a service they don’t or to add value to their service or product or find an untapped specialty — you have a better chance of success.

Marianne Bourgeois, president of Apex Innovations, found her niche by fulfilling a need.

While working as a registered nurse, Bourgeois saw first-hand that a computer-generated, 12-lead ECG interpretation is only as good as the human who programmed it. A patient, who was in no apparent distress, was given a clean bill of health according to the machine; however, she was actually having a heart attack and thankfully the physician caught it. Since a missed diagnosis can mean life or death, Bourgeois created a tool to make understanding 12-lead ECGs simple, accurate and consistent for nurses and medics. This is how her first product, 3D MI Rule Visions, was born. Five years later, she and her full-time staff of six, from their new Lafayette office in Dover Park, manage and build online education programs, handle a network of distributors across the country and ship MI Rule Visions around the world.

The real niche for Apex lies in its proprietary imPULSE and Hemispheres programs. imPULSE is the only ECG and chest pain competency series in the world that meets all educational requirements for Chest Pain Center Accreditation. And, Apex is one of only two organizations that can provide NIH Stroke Scale training and certification through Hemispheres.

What started as a quick-reference template has grown into a company, recognized as an international leader in visually interactive and engaging online education. Apex gives administrators and staff what they want and need — unparalleled courseware, post testing, continuing education, administrative reporting, benchmarking and community sharing. With a mission to present content — whether for individuals, universities, organizations or corporations — in an exciting and interactive manner, Apex Innovations is a true example of an Acadiana entrepreneurial success story.

It’s no secret that I’m proud of Lafayette’s wildcatter mentality. So much so that I’ve mentioned it eight times in my column since I began writing it in August 2007. As a community, Lafayette has embraced the spirit of entrepreneurship, not just in business but in all areas of the community from arts to education to government; andentrepreneurs are making Lafayette a better place for all of its residents.

Gregg Gothreaux is president and chief executive officer of the Lafayette Economic Development Authority.