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February 23, 2021 | Tom Ballard

KEC adding programming, refining previous activities during 2021

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is another in our series reviewing 2021 plans for the Entrepreneur Centers in our region that are also partners in the Launch Tennessee network. Today’s spotlight is on the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center {KEC}. The format of today’s article is a Q&A with Jim Biggs, the organization’s Executive Director.)

QUESTION #1: COVID-19 upended lives, took out businesses, and called for new business plans and possibly models. How has it specifically impacted your Center and its operations – from greater use of virtual platforms to the other ways you stay abreast of your clients? Like nearly everyone else, KEC closed our physical doors to the outside world in March and has only recently begun to bring people back into the building. At the same time, we recognized an even greater need from entrepreneurs for advice, guidance, and direction as we all hurtled blindly into the COVID abyss. KEC was committed to continuing our role as a front door, and like so many, that meant converting our programming and events to virtual experiences. Fortunately, most of our programming is relatively well-suited to that environment. Classes can be taught online; mentoring sessions can be done online; and eventually, even networking became possible (and even enjoyable), especially with the emergence of services like Lunchpool. So KEC became “Virtual KEC,” and we were able to run programs like “The Works,” “CO.STARTERS,” “BrandCamp,” “Etsy Craft Entrepreneurship,” the “AgLaunch Bootcamp,” and our “Maker City Summit” successfully and with strong participation and engagement. Indeed, in some respects, the virtual environment proved an even better way to reach our audience, with participants coming from outside of our region, and even from outside of Tennessee – something we’ll likely continue going forward. In other respects, the virtual life has proved challenging, with stress, anxiety, and ‘Zoom fatigue’ eventually having a negative impact on the number of folks signing-up or attending events. Very recently, we’ve been able to host a few ‘hybrid’ events – combining virtual and in-person participation. It’s been a good way to explore continuing that model going forward, and also made it very clear how eager people are to get back together!

QUESTION #2: How would you characterize the overall health of the start-ups that are served by your Center as a group at the end of 2020 compared to the beginning of the year? What have been their biggest challenges and how have they been able to address them? It’s been a tale of two economies for start-ups. There have been some entrepreneurs whose businesses have thrived and quite a few who have struggled considerable or even shuttered altogether. In the case of businesses that have thrived, it’s been either because they were ideally positioned to provide services or products that became essential due to COVID and the associated changes in lifestyles and behavior (think Zoom), or they were able to pivot into a new business that responded directly to those changes. If, for example, you own a liquor store or manufacture and distribute cleaning supplies, this has been a great year for your business. Others have been able to adapt. Lunchpool’s conversion to an online event production service or restaurants converting to takeout are great examples of resilience and innovation in the face of this crisis. There have been some challenges that were unique to certain businesses – physical closures meant no customer traffic for many brick-and-mortar businesses; travel restrictions have obviously had a huge impact on the travel, tourism and hospitality industries. And there have been challenges that seemingly every business had to deal with on some level – managing remote workers, helping workers who lost access to childcare, and uncertainty around government responses to the pandemic have been difficult for all.

QUESTION #3: One hopes that 2021 will be a better year with what we hope will now be at least two vaccines available for COVID-19. From several perspectives, how are you planning for the first one-third to one-half of 2021 and the second half of the year? Will you be adding any new programs or initiatives? If so, please describe them. We’ll be adding (or restarting) a number of new programs in the coming year. Those include: “Made For Knoxville” campaign ( – a marketing and PR effort to spotlight both great entrepreneurs in our community and their role as members of the community; “Made For Knoxville Awards” – a (very likely virtual) event to celebrate the achievements of entrepreneurs/startups/ecosystem participants in our region; “Inflection Point” (a reboot of “GrowthCo” and LEAP programming that will launch in January); “PROOF Restaurant Recovery Program” (a program that is run by the PROOF group out of Chattanooga, and which is specifically designed to help restaurants navigate the current uncertainty and build for the future –; and “AgTech Mentor Network” – a new initiative in partnership with AgLaunch and Launch Tennessee to create a statewide network of mentors to support emerging ag-tech entrepreneurs in Tennessee.

QUESTION #4: Are you planning to stop offering any programs or services that you had been offering? If so, which ones? Not at this point; we’re still looking to continue with everything we’ve been doing and adding the programs mentioned above.

QUESTION #5: Paraphrasing that famous line from the movie Jaws, will you be “going back into the water” (i.e., planning to do more in-person events) in the first part of 2021 or will you continue to offer services virtually for now? As mentioned above, we’re tiptoeing in that direction, but reassessing our plans on a very regular basis based on current conditions. We have hosted a few hybrid events with very limited in-person attendance and may look to continue that if possible. But for the most part, we will continue to operate virtually for the for at least the first part of 2021.

QUESTION #6: Do you have any additional insights you want to share? Even through an incredibly trying 2020, we’ve seen resilience and optimism from our entrepreneurial community. They have helped keep doors open, helped keep people employed, helped keep students in school, and helped save lives in the process. We have been inspired and uplifted seeing entrepreneurs respond to this crisis, and seeing the community rally in their support in return, and I’m confident that we will as a community, at some point, be stronger and more prosperous as a consequence.

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