(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the final article in a series spotlighting participants in Cohort 4 of “100Knoxville,” an initiative from the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center. The program aims to help Black-owned businesses grow by $10,000,000 in five years. Look for more stories in upcoming issues of teknovation.biz and find our previous coverage here.)
By Kailyn Lamb, Former Marketing Content Writer and Editor, PYA
For Willie “Pee Jay” Alexander, the COVID-19 pandemic became an opportunity to start his own business. As someone working in technology, he was able to step in during a time of crisis and help people adapt to working from homes by enhancing their wi-fi.
Although some work from home opportunities were around before COVID, the global push for everyone to stay home changed the way at-home internet was used, Alexander said. Internet providers struggled to keep up.
“With everybody having to go home, what they were asking their homes to do was a little stressful from what it was used to doing,” he said. “COVID just pushed the remote work and learning movement right over the edge.”
His company Purple Mouse Smart House was launched after Alexander started working from home for his job helping a company build its technology division. Friends and colleagues who had seen his at-home smart technology set up began asking for help in their own homes. Because Alexander was already working a full-time job, he worked these opportunities on nights and weekends, charging a premium for time he could be spending with his family. When people still asked him to come, he knew he had the foundations of a new business. He added, “My first early jobs afforded me the opportunity to invest that money back into starting a business.”
When setting people up with smart home technology, the first step Alexander takes with Purple Mouse Smart House is to standardize their security. In the office, using a VPN or firewall is commonplace, but many people are not set up for that at home. Alexander can also put in small server rooms and communications closets and set up networks to prioritize certain activities over others. Other smart technology features such as keyless entry and voice control can also be set up. Alexander said the idea is to set up a house to make it more in tune with the resident’s lifestyle.
Before starting in information technology (IT), Alexander traveled with a band. He was fascinated with audio equipment and how the input and output related to sound. He would tinker with equipment at home to learn how things worked. When that career came to an end, Alexander said he wanted a more regular job. He started at CompUSA where he cut his teeth “on the ins and outs of computer parts hardware base.”
When CompUSA closed, he learned more about business in relationship building and business-to-business consulting. He also supported networks though managing IT services. All this work led to a desire to start his own business, Alexander said. His most recent employer, which was in print services, gave him the freedom to explore setting up a technology department.
“It’s kind of a risk free way to do that, without the worry of having to make a paycheck,” he said of using the experience to later build Purple Mouse Smart House. “I was able to assemble vendors and partnerships and design how we kind of look.”
That company now works in technology full-time, Alexander said. That became his opportunity to move on to the next venture. His former employer acted as a mentor when Purple Mouse Smart House first started and is a customer of the business today.
Although the pandemic is over, people are still looking for opportunities to work from home. Alexander said this will help his business continue to grow. His prior experience in tech allowed him to turn the negatives of the pandemic into a business. “I just took that experience and tailored it toward high-end residential set up,” Alexander said.
Purple Mouse Smart House first started in November 2020. One of the first people to notice the business was serial entrepreneur Brandon Bruce. Alexander and Purple Mouse Smart House were featured on the “Startup Knox Podcast,” and Bruce encouraged him to apply for the “100Knoxville” program.
Alexander said he later learned several of his clients had also gone through the program. Douglas Mapp, who runs ThinkUp was also in Cohort 4 of the program and has been friends with Alexander for several years. Alexander said it was encouraging to have people tell him about the program and to go through it with someone he knew. Because the program is collaborative, Cohort 4 members would try and talk through the week’s lesson together to see if they could help each other even more.
For Alexander, time management was one of the key takeaways he got from the “100Knoxville” program.
Being an entrepreneur is risky, Alexander said, but for minority groups it can be even harder because “many of us have access to fewer resources.” By connecting businesses to mentors, “100Knoxville” is helping to promote a more diverse business community.
“We need to have varying types of business,” Alexander said. “Being a minority, different communities have different lines of thinking, make different business concepts, or ways to do existing business.”