The third generation Knoxvillian returned to his hometown about six years ago after nearly a decade of studying business and working with start-ups in Iowa and California. His passion was focused on bringing the best of what he learned in those previous 10 years to Knoxville to help the city become a hotbed for entrepreneurship.
One of Lavidge’s early initiatives was Knoxville Overground (KO), a vehicle to connect self-employed professionals and start-up entrepreneurs, so they could share ideas and work together. Within months of the first meeting at a Panera restaurant, the group grew to a point where its volunteers founded Knoxville’s first co-working space and entrepreneur community center.
“Since 2008, KO has helped spur hundreds of events – from TEDx Knoxville to 48-Hour Launch,” Lavidge says. “These types of events have brought people together to share ideas, create and connect.”
He adds that “innovation flourishes when there’s an increase in the exchange of ideas. You need both. Innovation drives economic growth.”
So, it was a bittersweet event this past Saturday night when Knoxvillians gathered for a birthday celebration – Lavidge’s 34th – and to say at least a temporary “good bye and good luck” to Lavidge and his fiancée (Rachel Bodenbender) who are relocating to Chattanooga. She is a co-founder of the Knoxville 24-Hour Film Festival
It’s not because he wants to leave Knoxville. In fact, Lavidge says, “I’m not cutting my ties. My blood will always bleed orange.” He’ll still be involved in the new Knoxville Entrepreneur Center (KEC) and maintain his membership on the Ijams Nature Center Board of Directors.
Rather, it’s all about business.
“I’ve been involved in Variable, Inc. since last year,” he said of the Chattanooga start-up where he serves as Business Development Manager. Variable, founded by Dr. George Yu, makes the NODE wireless sensor platform for smart devices.
“It just made sense to move down there,” Lavidge said. “I was making too many trips to Chattanooga, and things are really picking-up (at Variable).” He notes that it’s now less than a one-minute walk from his new apartment to his office as well as a grocery store, his bank, a gym, and the post office.
We talked with Lavidge the day after this year’s “Gig Tank Demo Day” in Chattanooga where Bob Metcalfe, a featured speaker and the inventor of Ethernet, was given a NODE after his session.
“The energy and talent in that room . . . just WOW,” Lavidge said. It was that sort of enthusiasm that he wanted to help create when he returned to Knoxville in 2008.
“It’s amazing what you can accomplish if you don’t worry who gets the credit,” he said in describing the success of Chattanooga’s recent entrepreneurial initiatives, including the nationally-recognized “Gig Tank.”
“Chattanooga is much closer to being like Silicon Valley,” Lavidge said. “Its work ethic, culture, openness to new ideas, and collaborative atmosphere (that), when combined, create a significant competitive advantage globally.”
It was only natural to ask Lavidge what he had learned in the last five years about entrepreneurship in general and initiatives in his hometown.
“It’s not healthy to compare yourself to others, either as a person or a community,” he advised, noting that “Knoxville has a long and distinguished entrepreneurial tradition, but it is more in established industries – not the type of successful high-tech startups you see around the SF (San Francisco) Bay Area.”
Nevertheless, Lavidge praised several exceptions to this norm, voiced his excitement about the Cherokee Farm Innovation Campus, and noted that Knoxville is regarded as one of the top video production hubs in the country.
Lavidge points out that KO, with a budget that never exceeded four figures, was not funded anywhere near the seven-figure level like kindred efforts such as “Create Here” in Chattanooga. Founded just one year before KO, “Create Here” later spun off a number of different community initiatives that have helped foster a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship, including CO.LAB and the “Gig Tank.”
“Knoxville had the opportunity in 2008 to create the same entrepreneurial and high-tech culture now omnipresent in Chattanooga,” Lavidge said. “However, for KO, the biggest challenge was in convincing established foundations, economic development agencies, and private donors of the value in funding a vision similar to what is self-evident in Chattanooga today since it was unlike anything with which they were familiar.”
He adds that “we could only do so much as a grassroots community. But that’s also been changing.” He urges people to “stay tuned for some exciting news in the months ahead. I’ve never been more hopeful about the possibilities for the Knoxville region.”
Lavidge was quick to cite a number of reasons why he loves his hometown.
“Knoxville has an amazing Mayor,” Lavidge said, referring to Madeline Rogero and her commitment to start-up initiatives like the KEC.
Other assets he included were the low unemployment rate, low student debt rate, outdoor recreational opportunities, and the “40 Under 40” program for which Lavidge gave plaudits to Amy Nolan and the Greater Knoxville Business Journal.
“Prior to 2007, a lot of young professionals felt like there were undervalued,” he said. “But that attitude has shifted significantly over the past seven years.”
Perhaps Lavidge’s most insightful comment was drawing a comparison between the Knoxville-Chattanooga corridor and the one that connects San Jose and San Francisco. “We’re all on the same team,” he said, urging leaders in the two communities to see the interconnection and seek “strategic and symbiotic opportunities for growth.”
Lavidge’s voice and energy will be missed in Knoxville, but we suspect he will return one of these days. In the meantime, we know he’ll be looking for ways to connect the entrepreneurial communities that are only 100 miles apart.