If you were to take a quick survey of national headlines, you’d encounter gloom and doom-type discussions around commercial real estate. Much of this is thanks to the popularity of remote work, a trend accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic.  

As legions of workers abandoned cubicles for den couches, once bustling office buildings across the country stand vacant as we collectively ponder what we’re going to do with all this now-unused square footage.  

Yet Jon Dickerson, co-founder of Chattanooga startup Gumption, will tell you that our general awareness of the current commercial real estate landscape doesn’t leave room for one important caveat: that the retail subsector of commercial retail real estate is thriving, especially in growing mid-sized cities across the southeast, including Chattanooga.  

Consider Main Street here in Chattanooga with its abundance of restaurants, galleries, boutique shops, bakeries, taprooms and more. These are the kind of signature establishments that help give a town its sense of place — its distinctive feel — and that’s why Dickerson says commercial retail real estate is a “consequential thread in the fabric of our communities.” 

Not only do those businesses provide valued products and services to residents and tourists, but they also generate tax revenue and provide jobs for thousands of people. 

What’s good for retail real estate is good for a city. However, there’s one big problem. 

“It has become increasingly difficult to find financing for these commercial properties,” Dickerson said. “There is an unprecedented match-making problem between borrowers and lenders.” 

A pandemic-born problem still plagues 

Four years ago, as the world went into lockdown, Dickerson’s current business partner, Ward Neely, a commercial real estate professional, faced staggering financing headwinds in Birmingham’s retail market.  

“He couldn’t get financing anywhere,” Dickerson remembered. “He was cold-calling banks with almost no success. Most wouldn’t even return his calls.” 

At the same time, Dickerson was leading product strategy and development while beginning a master’s degree in business administration at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Two years later, with a hunch the pair could create a solution to financing troubles, a friend introduced Dickerson to Neely. 

Together, Dickerson, who originally moved to Chattanooga as a software engineer at Bellhop, and Neely hatched the idea for a new business – they named it Gumption — and brought in Tim Coy, another former  Bellhop, as their third co-founder and technology lead.  

The Tinder of commercial retail real estate 

Gumption is an online matchmaker that connects lenders with borrowers who need to finance their commercial properties. Knowing that borrowers face financing difficulty, Gumption offers a space to pair them with lenders. In the age of dating apps, Gumption uses a timely and appropriate model.  

“You could call it the Tinder of commercial real estate,” Dickerson said with a laugh.  

Gumption functions as a two-sided marketplace; its team must balance supply and demand on both sides of the deal-making.  

The business is already seeing an impressive amount of deal flow because “the pain is very acute,” and both sides are looking to find mutually beneficial partners, Dickerson said. On the lending side, Gumption has onboarded a long list of proactive smaller banks that are hungry to work with prospective counterparts. 

Building Gumption in Chattanooga 

Like Bellhop, Gumption originated as a Chattanooga startup with a venture capital check. Ironically, Bellhop co-founders Cam Doody and Matt Patterson invested in Gumption from their Chattanooga VC firm, Brickyard.  

“I started my career as a commercial loan officer and I would’ve signed up for Gumption in no time to access more deal flow,” Patterson said. “Having spent years working alongside the founders and knowing the caliber of people they are, we knew Brickyard needed to be involved.” 

Today, Gumption operates out of Brickyard’s workspaces, a beehive of entrepreneurial activity on Chattanooga’s Southside. Dickerson is focusing on hiring new talent, especially business development professionals, and growing his lender network. 

“We’re a young platform that is already becoming known for high-quality deal flow and our borrower and lender network are growing quickly,” he said. “As our deal volume continues to increase, our lender network grows, the software gets smarter and the platform becomes more efficient. Moving forward, we’re looking to continue to build relationships with developers and with aggressive lenders while also hiring salespeople with commercial real estate backgrounds in Birmingham and Chattanooga.”