By Tom Ballard, Director of Innovation and Entrepreneurial Initiatives, Pershing Yoakley & Associates, P.C.
“They brought me in to be me,” Jonathan Sexton told us recently in describing his new role as the full-time Entrepreneur-in-Residence (EIR) at the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center (KEC).
Jim Biggs, the organization’s new Executive Director, totally agrees.
“Jonathan has amazing energy and really good ideas,” he says. “I’m the deliberative attorney; he will slap the table and say we have to do this.”
The new team is working to drive entrepreneurial growth in the Knoxville community – from creating ideas and opportunities to executing on plans. We profiled Biggs on teknovation.biz a few weeks ago and Sexton, the serial entrepreneur, late last year.
The new EIR, who started at KEC on February 1, sees his role as a way to share what he has learned while also learning from the entrepreneurs.
“I have a lot to offer from my experience the last five years,” Sexton says of the several companies that he has started. “I also get to learn side-by-side with these entrepreneurs.”
Biggs says an important role for Sexton will be coordinating KEC mentors in their work with entrepreneurs. As a Master mentor in Launch Tennessee’s recent “The TENN” process and a previous recipient of solid mentoring, Sexton is a natural.
The new EIR describes KEC as focused on a number of priorities, including its role as the ‘front porch’ for the entrepreneurial community of Knoxville and the region. “There is a strong public purpose to KEC – we aspire to be a resource to help anyone who walks through the door,” he says.
Sexton emphasizes that KEC is there to nurture and support anyone with an idea and the passion and determination to transform that idea into a business. To that end, KEC has in place processes and programs that help these entrepreneurs map a path to success and execute on those plans.
KEC’s second priority is to energize the regional economy by focusing on “high-growth, high-potential start-ups, a goal that is consistent with other successful accelerators around the state and nation,” Sexton notes.
“I’m actively seeking digital media start-ups,” the EIR says, adding that his goal is to launch a multi-week digital media boot camp by the end of March. The focus area is a natural, considering Sexton’s entrepreneurial experience and Knoxville’s rich corporate community with companies like Scripps Interactive Networks, Rivr Media and Jupiter Entertainment.
“Digital media has many arms,” Sexton says, drawing a comparison between an on-going initiative in Nashville, where he started and nurtured his first company, and Knoxville. The focus in Music City is on building a digital music cluster.
“Knoxville’s play should draw on its video content production base,” Sexton believes, adding that local efforts should eventually leverage the intersection of the two areas.
“YouTube is the example of the perfect synergy between music and video,” he explains. “We want to provide unprecedented support to capitalize on the talent we have in this region.”
Sexton uses a variety of words to paint a picture of how he sees KEC functioning.
“We must champion the entrepreneurial spirit,” he says in describing one key role. At the same time, Sexton says, “We hope to be honest brokers – not all startups succeed the way they are initially conceived, and so we try to help entrepreneurs look for ways to be successful that may not be immediately obvious to them.”
Another important function is to “use KEC to remove barriers.” Sexton says the organization should be a hub, “creating connections . . . and stirring it all up.”
The former teacher also talks about KEC’s responsibility to help educate new entrepreneurs on what is most important.
“So many people think they only need investors, but what they really need initially is customers,” Sexton says from his own experiences. “If they have customers and are working toward making those customers successful, the investors will come.”