By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA
More than four years after assuming the role of President of The Biz Foundry in Cookeville, Jeff Brown has some big plans ahead for the balance of 2017 and beyond as he continues to refine the entrepreneur center’s programming.
Those plans include relocation of the non-profit organization to new space in the heart of downtown and publication of what many might call a coffee table book that spotlights both successful and aspiring entrepreneurs in the Upper Cumberland region.
“We’re in the middle of getting the building ready,” Brown says. “We hope to have a grand opening in mid-November.”
As part of the celebration, he plans to unveil the coffee table book that hopefully will highlight about 15 companies, ranging from successful businesses that were launched in the past to some that are just getting off the ground.
“I’ve been working on the idea for two years,” Brown says. With support from Launch Tennessee as part of its annual agreement with The Biz Foundry, Brown is now securing other sponsors. One of his key challenges – finding a skilled person to write the articles – was solved when he contracted with the wife of a new Tennessee Tech University faculty member. She formerly served as Editor of an Innovation Magazine in Mississippi.
“We will use the book to help highlight entrepreneurship in our communities,” Brown said, explaining that rural areas do not necessarily champion starting businesses to the same degree as more metropolitan areas. In fact, he said recent research shows that metro areas in the U.S. have a net gain in business starts over the last few year, yet rural areas show as much as a 20 percent decline in new business starts.
Those who know The Biz Foundry’s President would no doubt describe him as an engaging, gregarious and optimistic businessman who has resided in the region for most of his life. Yet, Brown acknowledges that running a start-up program in a rural area is not the same as operating one in Nashville or Memphis.
“The crew that helped me start it thought entrepreneurs would come looking for us,” he said. That’s not exactly the way things have unfolded.
“The demand is there, but marketing our services to turn over those rocks is tougher,” Brown explained. “The communications is so strung-out over a huge area. We have 328,000 people in the Upper Cumberland. Memphis and Nashville have twice that number in one county alone.”
So, what works in a bigger city does not necessarily work in the non-urban region. Consider a viable start-up. “In a rural area, $2 to 5 million a year in revenue is a good business. It may not be high growth, but it is high impact in a lot of areas,” Brown says.
Biz Foundry’s President has nothing but praise for Launch Tennessee, a major sponsor, and its support.
“We live just like a start-up, and that’s a great thing about Launch,” he says. “They let us try things and iterate as we go.”
Brown describes entrepreneurs in the region as falling into one of three categories. There are the techies, best personified by the students at Tennessee Tech, well-known for its engineering program. A second group includes individuals who are in their 40s and 50s and are characterized by Brown as “product-focused.” The final group is the largest and includes those who fall into the lifestyle moniker.
“Only about 20 percent of our entrepreneurs are tech-based,” he says.
The Biz Foundry has evolved its programming over the years to address these different types of entrepreneurs and their diverse needs. Biz 101 is a six- to nine-week program offered once a week and focused on the basics of starting a business. Brown says these sessions allow him to “see where the entrepreneur is” in his or her thinking. Some are ready to move forward, others are not as serious as they need to be.
For the committed entrepreneurs, The Biz Foundry offers enhanced services. “We take the cream of the crop of those who go through Biz 101 and assign them a mentor to work more closely on growing the business,” Brown says.
What’s next? Brown is developing plans for a growth accelerator to help higher potential companies scale faster. One of The Biz Foundry’s early clients – SafeSurv – participated in this year’s “The Works” program offered by the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center. He’s closely watching this inaugural accelerator.
Finally, there are the all-important youth-focused programs where Brown sees some real potential. The Biz Foundry works with each of the area high schools over a three- to four-week period to recruit and prepare students for its periodic, multi-county “24-Hour Launch” competitions.
“They don’t know they can’t,” he says of the high school students. “The quality we saw in the pitch events this past year was unbelievable.”
More significant, however, might be the fact that two companies have already been started as a result of The Biz Foundry’s youth efforts.