By Tom Ballard, Director of Innovation and Entrepreneurial Initiatives, Pershing Yoakley & Associates, P.C.
Local entrepreneur Jonathan Sexton has devoted his relatively short life, at least by my yardstick, to “making a difference.”
It started even before the Seymour native graduated from the University of Tennessee’s (UT) Knoxville campus with a degree in Early Childhood Education. Sexton worked his way through college as a pre-school teacher in a daycare while also serving as a bartender at Preservation Pub.
In his characteristic understated manner, Sexton noted that there were a number of similarities among the two constituencies that he served at the time. The two jobs also allowed him to mix his passion for education with his lifelong love of music.
When he graduated from UT, Sexton was single parent with a newborn son and a passion for teaching in elementary school.
“You can make a difference at the earliest entry point,” he observed, a factor that caused him to teach kindergarten in the Knox County School System for the next four years.
As a single father, Sexton realized that “there’s really no upside financially,” based on the pay scale for teachers. “This isn’t going to work long-term,” he concluded.
More important, however, was the fact that Sexton had an idea for a new company, tied to his long-standing passion for music.
He told us during our teknovation.biz interview that he “worked on my music during the summer” when he was not teaching. In fact, Sexton was so consumed with that part of his life that he decided to leave the teaching profession and devote his full attention to songwriting and performing.
During an 18-month period, he played in close to 300 shows, including the legendary Bonnaroo festival.
“While on the road and managing my own career, I thought there had to be a tool for artists to use to manage their schedules,” Sexton said.
He admits that he “had no idea what to do,” but he did have a partner – Matt Urmy, and they got connected to Harry Jacobson, the former Vice Chancellor for Health Affairs at Vanderbilt University who had co-founded TriStar Technology Ventures in Nashville.
“It was a game changing experience,” Sexton says of the introduction and follow-on experience. “He (Jacobson) invited us to privately incubate with him. He was our shepherd. When he felt we were ready, he introduced us to money.”
And raise money, they did – $2 million to be exact – for their Nashville-based start-up named Artist Growth. Sexton described their product as “a data management platform” for artists, allowing them to “pull in anything that is available into dashboards to make decisions.”
He added that the app “replaced a lot of things done on spreadsheets.”
The product was so successful that it won MTV’s “Best New Music App” in 2012 and counts artists like Kings of Leon, Ke$ha, and Bob Jovi among its users.
With his initial success as a technology entrepreneur, Sexton decided that he was going to start 2013 with some new priorities, including spending more time in Knoxville. We’ll pick-up that part of his story in the second article in the series.