COMMENTARY: Reflecting on Chris Whittle’s latest effort in light of Techstars study, “Innov865 Week”

For long-time Knoxvillians, Whittle Communications was a fascinating story. For newer residents who may not know the story, the federal office complex across Main Street from the City-County Building and the old Knox County Courthouse was headquarters for one of Knoxville’s great entrepreneurial success stories until it was not.

Whittle Communications grew out of a University of Tennessee student start-up company named 13-30 Corporation founded in the 1960s. Over time, it grew into a national media enterprise with publications such as Esquire magazine and the then revolutionary idea in 1989 of broadcasting a newsfeed daily into K-12 schools, reaching eight million students in 12,000 schools.

Like many of those entrepreneurial history lessons that risk averse East Tennesseans remember, it was the failure of Chris Whittle and Phil Moffitt, not their early successes, that is always cited. Having been in college with both of them, I’ve always been attracted to any news articles related to Whittle’s follow-on efforts.

DC Inno is one of the sites from which I receive regular emails, just like the ones you receive as a subscriber to So, you can imagine that I was attracted to this recent article about Whittle School & Studios, the latest undertaking from the former college student who is continuing to start new ventures in his 70s and after a very visible national failure.

For this region, there are two important messages in this commentary. There’s the legacy of successful businesses here that trace the roots of their Founders to being recruited to Knoxville by Whittle Communications. Maybe the company failed, but those individuals found a way to survive and succeed because of their love for this community.

So, did the region benefit even after Whittle Communications failed? Absolutely.

In addition, there’s also an important point about entrepreneurship that we frequently forget. No one bats 1000 in baseball, and every start-up will not succeed. What happened to celebrating entrepreneurial effort for what it really is?

I think it is important to reflect on both these points as we await the recommendations from the study by Techstars of the regional innovation ecosystem (see article here) and as we also prepare to celebrate entrepreneurship during “Innov865 Week” that starts on Monday. You can find registration for all of the events at that link.

Entrepreneurs need an embracing, supportive community or ecosystem, if you prefer that word. You can do your part by attending events next week to learn more about what is happening here. Celebrate the six companies pitching during “Startup Day” and help them, if you can.

Finally, when the recommendations of the Techstars’ study are released later this year, commit yourself to being involved in helping make them successful, not simply sitting on the sidelines.

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