(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first article in a series posting over the next month that spotlights 2020 plans for some of the entrepreneur centers in Tennessee that receive funding from Launch Tennessee. Today’s focus is on The Biz Foundry in Cookeville.)
You might describe Jeff Brown of The Biz Foundry as the Upper Cumberland’s entrepreneurial equivalent of Johnny Appleseed.
Since taking the President’s position at the Cookeville-based non-profit in early 2013, he has strewn a lot of seeds. Now, as he looks to 2020, the always energized Brown is focused on further cultivating and, in some cases, harvesting those seeds.
“Next year’s goal is to recover from this year,” he says with that characteristic Brown laugh that many of our readers have encountered. He’s clearly excited about how far the organization has come but acknowledges that it’s also a constant sprint for what Brown notes is a three-member team including one person (Tiffany Anton) who just became full-time in 2019. As such fundraising is always a priority.
When we sat down with Brown in late 2019 to discuss 2020 plans, it was clear why he talked about recovery. He and his colleagues were working feverishly to open new satellite co-working facilities in McMinnville and Sparta, something for which he advocated and now has the opportunity to make happen thanks to support in those two communities. Unfortunately, construction plans and schedules don’t often align with deadlines, so Brown was planning to spend the next day doing whatever it took to get the work completed in one of the locations.
The two satellite facilities are important to him for what they can do to help would-be entrepreneurs in rural communities which is clearly the focus of The Biz Foundry. They will provide co-working space as well as regular programming that has been offered only in Cookeville up to now.
One of those key programs is a recently redesigned nine-week, two-component series. One might describe it as Entrepreneurship 101, but in two bites.
- “Test It Before You Invest It” is a three-week series of three-hour workshops focused on the all-important customer discovery process that leads to developing a business model.
- “Start-up Your Start-up” is a six-week, three-hour at a time series focused on launching a new business.
“You have to take the two in succession unless you’ve been in business at least a year,” Brown explains. “The two are working really well for us.”
He adds that many of those who enroll in the first three sessions realize that they are focused on an idea, not a real business. As a result, only about one-half of those taking the first series enroll for the longer one.
“We made it more nuts and bolts,” he says in describing the customized the two-part curriculum. “We experimented with it for a year and are very satisfied with the results.”
Students, both at the collegiate and middle and high school levels, are also a top priority for The Biz Foundry.
“We involved 240 kids this fall in our ‘My Big Idea” youth programming,” Brown said. His organization offered 22 sessions on entrepreneurship at 15 different schools in the region, and the winning team at each school received a $1,000 prize. The program is only offered in fall semester due to class schedules.
The Biz Foundry will also again support the “Eagle Works Idea Challenge” at Tennessee Tech University this spring. There’s a formal class the participating students take as an elective, but they also earn a “Certificate of Entrepreneurship.”
Other “seeds” that require attention include a shared responsibility with the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center (KEC) for a project in a portion of the area served by Volunteer Energy Cooperative (VEC) and identifying ways that the Upper Cumberland region can capitalize more on the federal “Opportunity Zone” program.
Regarding the former, The Biz Foundry will continue its work with VEC in year two of an Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) grant to bring entrepreneurially-focused programming to a part of the VEC territory where smart meters are being deployed under a larger effort that we described in this November 2018 article in teknovation.biz.
One goal of the project is to make the area a testbed for new technologies – both hardware and software – that can take advantage of smart meters and smart grids, providing potential opportunities for aspiring entrepreneurs in the area. The Biz Foundry and KEC are offering workshops at The LITE House in Athens. It’s a regional co-working facility designed to serve the type of entrepreneurs that could benefit from the ARC investment.
Brown also continues to look for ways that the region can benefit from the OZ program. “Our job is to be a matchmaker,” he says. “We just closed a real estate deal in Sparta.”