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July 25, 2013 | Tom Ballard

KEC Thursday sessions mix of structure, active give and take, philosophy, and inspiration

Knoxville Entrrepreneur CenterOver the past few months, we have talked a number of times with Mike Carroll about the plans that he and his team formulated for the new “business boot camp” that was launched in late June at the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center KEC).

Carroll, who serves as KEC’s Executive Director, told us he planned to run the twice weekly sessions in both traditional and non-traditional ways.

“The Monday night sessions are more academic and will move very fast,” he explained. Shawn Carson of Tech 20/20 has been the primary instructor.

Carroll said he would lead the Thursday events, where the boot camp members “will behave as a sounding board for each other’s company. We will stay focused on a few topics and how they apply to each entrepreneur’s business in real world situations.”

So, on a recent Thursday evening, we headed down to Market Square to observe the more informal sessions. What we found was a mix of structure, active give and take, a good dose of philosophy coupled with experience, and, most of all, a great deal of inspiration.

There are a dozen entrepreneurs in the inaugural boot camp, and about two-thirds of them attended the Thursday night session we observed. The attendees also included John Morris and Carson from Tech 20/20 and two of Carroll’s KEC colleagues – Mitch Brooks and Katie Connell.

The evening started session with each entrepreneur identifying his or her favorite leadership book and explaining the choice. After the class had revealed theirs, it was Carroll’s turn. His was a classic – Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People.

“It’s my favorite leadership book,” Carroll said, adding that “it has an unfortunate title. It’s really about the Golden Rule. I reach for it when I’m struggling.”

The book’s selection and theme offer significant insights into the approach that Carroll is taking and the philosophies that he is championing. It also helps explain why he accepted the challenge of giving back to this community when he still has a business to run.

The discussion transitioned to the second topic of the night – insights gained from Monday’s instructional session that focused on legal issues. Much of Thursday night’s discussion was centered on intellectual property management, Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs), and business structure.

“You have to get over the fear of talking about your idea,” Carson, who was not that Monday’s instructor, advised the class in response to questions about the dos and don’ts. “You need to be able to talk about your vision and business ideas, not the algorithm you wrote or your secret sauce.”

Morris advised them to “determine your secret sauce that you can’t share with anyone, then share everything else with the world.”

Carroll added, “You’ll know when you have a conversation whether you need an NDA.” And, on the topic of the right organizational model, he emphasized the importance of having a tax identification number that was not the entrepreneur’s social security number.

“Then, debate the form,” Carroll said of the likely options – limited liability corporation, S corporation, or C corporation.

Next on the agenda was a discussion of the Kauffman Foundation’s myths about entrepreneurs. The class discussed everything from entrepreneurs are born, not made, to entrepreneurs get rich quick, and entrepreneurs are unethical.

The evening concluded with the entrepreneurs visualizing the upcoming celebration or graduation, tentatively scheduled for mid-August, and practicing the pitches they will make that night.

“Imagine an audience full of 800 people, an internationally-known keynote speaker like Steve Jobs, and an acclaimed entertainer,” Carroll said with his eyes closed. “It’s an elevator pitch designed for a mass audience. You need the hook, message and three points.”