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October 26, 2023 | Tom Ballard

John Phillips shares Primeaux’s story at “Startup Mountain Summit”

First-ever event of its type in the community draws 210 attendees.

What better way to kick off the inaugural “Startup Mountain Summit” on October 26 in Johnson City than with the inspiring story of John Phillips and Primeaux.

Twenty-four years after moving to Knoxville to attend college, the winner of the “Crowd Favorite” award at the 2022 “Startup Day” said he is now making custom-designed knives that cost as much as $10,000 to $30,000. One customer even ordered a set of knives to match his $1 million Porsche.

That’s a long way from the first knives that Phillips made for as little as $20 each in the early days and reflects what he described as akin to The Hero’s Journey. It was a concept that Joseph Campbell popularized in his 1949 book titled The Hero with a Thousand Faces and might be considered the equivalent of today’s product lifecycle where there is always evolution and inprovement. In the book, it involved a hero who goes on an adventure, is victorious in a decisive crisis, and comes home changed or transformed.

“As an artist, I was always called to adventure,” he told the attendees at East Tennessee State University’s Martin Center for the Arts. “If you have a passion, a curiosity, you should go for it.”

Phillips explained that he “did a little bit of everything” in his early days before settling on knives which were the first tools of humankind. He founded Phillips Forge in 2017 after a bout with viral meningitis.

As a solopreneur, he explained that making three customized knives a month provided enough money for living expenses.

Phillips’ breakout occurred soon after he met legendary chef Sean Brock who, unbeknownst to the Knoxville resident, featured his cutlery in Brock’s book named South. That landed Phillips on the History Channel’s “Forged in Fire” show in 2019 and later with an opportunity to sell his knives on the Blackberry Farms website.

“I was taking small steps along the way,” Phillips said.

In 2021 he moved out of his garage into a larger space near downtown Knoxville and added his first two employees. Then came to win and a $7,000 check in the 2022 “Startup Day.”

As far as what the future holds, the modest Knoxvillian says he will be launching a website that will allow customers to build their own knives while also hoping to move back to more affordable knives.

About 210 people registered for the event which continues through Friday.


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