Mike Benn shaped by love for music, inspiration from his mother, and tough love from a college professor

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first article in a five-part series spotlighting the start-ups that participated in the latest “What’s the Big Idea 48-Hour Pitch Competition” organized by the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center and held on March 1 at Knoxville’s Scruffy City Hall. Today’s spotlight is on Mike Benn, the winner with his idea called Songboarding.com. Other articles in the series will publish over the next several weeks.)

Mike Benn brings a combination of his love for music, inspiration from his mother, and some tough love from a college professor to a Knoxville-based start-up named Songboarding.com.

Now, having won the top prize in the 2020 edition of the “What’s the Big Idea 48-Hour Pitch Competition” organized by the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center, the engaging and energetic native of Knoxville is bringing a totally new dimension to an otherwise fairly staid area – employee safety training.

“My goal is to revolutionize the safety industry, and we will do that while also providing jobs for artists,” Benn says of the company that he launched along with Varnell, his brother. Up until the March 1 finale, they had self-funded the start-up. Now, they will use the up to $10,000 in reimbursable business expense prize money from The Development Corporation of Knox County to develop a more formal marketing strategy including a better website.

The area of safety training is something that Benn understands very well from previous work at several companies where he rose to managerial positions including supervising 250 employees in a warehouse.

“It was so boring,” Benn says of the training one of those employers provided. “If everyone is doing the same thing, you have to be different. You have to condition your employees to work safely.”

The big breakout for the Benn brothers occurred in 2018 when a training video they produced to music went viral.

“We knew we were onto something,” he says. Finally, in March 2019, they begin putting together the plan for the business with the tagline of “Revolutionizing Safety Training through Song.”

Songboarding.com has slightly more than a dozen musically-based safety videos on its website and is adding to the list every month. A company with fewer than 500 employees can subscribe to the entire playlist for $199 a month for use by all of its employees as many times as desired. The employees simply logon to the site, watch the assigned video, and answer a series of questions to validate they actually watched the training.

“OSHA (the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration) wants proof of training,” Benn reminded us. Areas like slips, trips and falls lend themselves to viewing “on the go” to a work site. The videos are mobile, laptop and desktop friendly.

Benn and his team can also develop a customized safety video set to music for $900. The client picks the topic and music genre and submits its specific training process.

The still youthful entrepreneur says that “I started playing around with music in the sixth grade. People would point to an object, and I would rap about it. I got better as I got older.”

Coming from humble beginnings, Benn also recalls a time when his mother drove him through Sequoyah Hills to make a point about success. “If you want it, you have to go get it.” He has not forgotten that trip.

There were also two other key people who provided inspiration earlier. One was a Guidance Counselor at Pellissippi State Community College; the other was a Professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville who told Benn: “If you don’t do well, it’s on you.”

Noting that those words were the Professor’s way of motivating a student who admits he embraced a free spirit approach while at Pellissippi State, he also acknowledges that “Those words set the tone for my professionalism.”

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