By Tom Ballard, Director of Innovation and Entrepreneurial Initiatives, Pershing Yoakley & Associates, P.C.
The past seven days have been special for the Knoxville region’s entrepreneurial ecosystem with nine different start-ups literally in the spotlight on one local stage or another. And, it has helped that they had enthusiastic support at each venue.
Late last Friday afternoon, the city hosted its first ever 48-hour launch event when seven entrepreneurial teams began a fast track journey leading up to Sunday evening’s pitch that concluded the revamped “What’s the Big Idea” competition.
The next afternoon, Launch Tennessee’s “The TENN” rolled into town with two of the nine companies claiming Knoxville as their hometown. At a public session and two private events, Closeup.fm’s Austin Church and Fiveworx’s Patrick Hunt joined the other seven “The TENN” companies in a non-traditional “pitch and ask.” They really wanted help in getting connected to customers, not money. The latter ask will certainly come later, particularly when they travel to California and New York City.
We have followed Closeup.fm and Fiveworx for a good period of time, so it was great to see the progress each company is making and the passion that Church and Hunt still have for their ideas.
The same level of energy and enthusiasm was on display at Sunday night’s “What’s the Big Idea” finale, both from the sleep deprived entrepreneurial teams and an overflow crowd that packed Scruffy City Hall.
One aspect of the event that caught my eye was the level of collaboration that occurred. Hosting and holding an event that literally goes almost around the clock for two days is no easy task. It requires a great deal of teamwork from the sponsoring organizations – Development Corporation of Knox County, Knoxville Entrepreneur Center (KEC), Knoxville Chamber and Tech 2020 – and others.
For example, seven lead mentors volunteered to help each team. They included KEC volunteers like Eric Dunn, Tech 2020’s Shawn Carson, and former Tech 2020 Chief Executive Officer John Morris. Specialty mentors are also required for areas like finance and intellectual property management, and nearly two dozen of those helped throughout the event.
Dunn, an individual we met just before the holidays, told us that the team he mentored pivoted at 10 p.m. Saturday night, and he worked with them until 5 a.m. on Sunday morning to revise the business plan. After a couple of hours of sleep, Dunn was back at KEC to help the team finalize its pitch for Sunday night.
Kudos to KEC’s Emily Skaar, herself a veteran of pitch competitions, who served as the emcee or “entrepreneurial ringmaster.” She kept the pitches on time and the audience revved-up.
By design, only one team could win, and it was “Sing and Spell” as we noted in a post on teknovation.biz earlier this week. In reality, all seven teams were winners, taking nascent ideas in many cases to a defined concept closer to launch than ever before.
Equally important, however, was the win for the region. Knoxville needs many more entrepreneurs who take their ideas and combine them with their passion and energy to grow new enterprises locally. In the overall entrepreneurial ecosystem, there are many support players that can help. “What’s the Big Idea” is a launching pad for ideas. Organizations like KEC and Tech 2020 help entrepreneurs grow those ideas, some of which will be part of a 12- to 14-week accelerator such as those that propelled Closeup.fm and Fiveworx. Finally, “The TENN” program offers advanced acceleration on a much broader scale.
It was clearly a good week to celebrate what is and, more important, what can be. Let’s not let the momentum wane. In each of our ways, let’s focus on embracing these start-ups and helping them continue to grow.
In that vein, we found this article from Entrepreneur so on the mark, starting with the headline – “Entrepreneurship: It Takes a Village.” Knoxville’s village turned out in the last seven days, but that level of support must continue.