The new CEO of Tech 20/20 brings a combination of private sector and non-profit experience to the job along with a management philosophy that incorporates one of Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and the lyrics from a former Nashville band that was a favorite of his daughter.
John Morris moves into the position occupied for the last three years by Mike Cuddy whose retirement is effective January 31. In so doing, Morris brings a varied history with Tech 20/20 to his job as the non-profit’s top executive.
He has founded five companies including NetLearning that was the first client of Tech 20/20’s Center for Entrepreneurial Growth (CEG). Morris is also a former member of the Tech 20/20 board of directors, a former chair of Tech 20/20’s Technology Council and has served as Vice President leading the CEG for the past three years.
Morris is a strong believer in leading Tech 20/20 by being a trusted and valued partner. His philosophy is captured by Covey’s fifth habit which is to “seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Morris also espouses a line from the band ‘The Moffatts’ that goes like this – “You are what you do and, if you don’t, then you ain’t.”
“The definition of Tech 20/20’s role in the region is a little cloudy, and we need to clear it up,” he said. Morris believes that Tech 20/20’s involvement in the East Tennessee Regional Accelerator Coalition (ETRAC) is one way to clarify the non-profit’s role in the community. He proudly cites a new tenant in a Tech 20/20 incubator that came through one of the ETRAC partners as an example of how partnering can pay long-term dividends for Tech 20/20.
Based on his perspective, Morris has worked since Cuddy announced his retirement to sell his vision of Tech 20/20 under his leadership to the organization’s board of directors. His thinking is evolving as he gains input from board members, but he remains firm in believing that Tech 20/20 must approach its future along the “venture development organization” (VDO) model advocated by the State Science and Technology Institute (SSTI).
Morris said that Tech 20/20 is actually one of the pioneer VDOs in the nation although the organization might not be recognized as one locally. He cites Tech 20/20’s long-time focus on creating networking organizations like the Technology Council, sponsoring conferences like the new “Entrepreneurial Imperative,” championing access to risk capital through new vehicles like the Southern Appalachian Fund and Meritus Ventures, and operating incubators as examples to underscore his belief.
As far as board receptivity, he said that he garnered “a lot of enthusiasm” for the strategy. Morris said the board has bought-in to his belief that Tech 20/20 must be an “important part of the economic development community” if the organization is going to be successful.
“The flip side is that we have to educate and evangelize the message of venture development to the economic development community,” he said.
Over the next year, Morris wants to work with the Technology Council to help it focus more on venture development. He also wants to develop new strategies to focus the area’s incubators that Tech 20/20 manages on venture development, in part by focusing on the region’s unique clusters.
“We have to come-up with initiatives that fit the bill, all the way through the stages of small business development,” he said.
One program that he will expand is Tech 20/20’s “Throttle Up” business pitch competition, moving it from an annual event to a quarterly effort. A winner will be selected each quarter, and the winner will receive $15,000 as incentive funding to take the idea presented and start a company. The winner will have a defined period of time to meet a set of milestones “moving them toward becoming an investable company.” If the winner achieves the milestones, an additional $50,000 will be awarded to further advance the company.
“I also see this effort as a proof of concept for the community and the region to invest in,” Morris said. “If we prove this and accelerate the number of start-ups, we are proving to the community that there is a real value in supporting this model.”
He notes that Tech 20/20’s history “is laced with initiatives,” and he expects that the expansion of “Throttle Up” will be the first of many efforts to be launched during his tenure.
In response to a question about the reasons that he was willing to succeed Cuddy, Morris said, “I’m committed to seeing venture development become a key component to the growth of this region.”He also recognizes the importance of new venture development in rural communities as well as urban areas and thinks that CEG “front doors” could be created.
“Just because someone lives in a rural county does not mean they are not capable of starting and growing a business,” Morris said. He talked about growing-up in a rural community (Rhea County) as did Anderson Center and ETRAC Director Lynn Youngs (Fentress County).
“Today, the infrastructure needs for building a high-growth business don’t require a metropolitan area,” he said. “The Internet is the great equalizer.”